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Gesturing during mental problem solving reduces eye movements, especially for individuals with lower visual working memory capacity

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Abstract

Non-communicative hand gestures have been found to benefit problem-solving performance. These gestures seem to compensate for limited internal cognitive capacities, such as visual working memory capacity. Yet, it is not clear how gestures might perform this cognitive function. One hypothesis is that gesturing is a means to spatially index mental simulations, thereby reducing the need for visually projecting the mental simulation onto the visual presentation of the task. If that hypothesis is correct, less eye movements should be made when participants gesture during problem solving than when they do not gesture. We therefore used mobile eye tracking to investigate the effect of co-thought gesturing and visual working memory capacity on eye movements during mental solving of the Tower of Hanoi problem. Results revealed that gesturing indeed reduced the number of eye movements (lower saccade counts), especially for participants with a relatively lower visual working memory capacity. Subsequent problem-solving performance was not affected by having (not) gestured during the mental solving phase. The current findings suggest that our understanding of gestures in problem solving could be improved by taking into account eye movements during gesturing.

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Fig. 1
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Notes

  1. Note that since saccade and fixation frequency closely covary, very similar results are obtained when taking into account fixation frequency. A similar repeated-measures analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) was performed with fixation count as the dependent variable. There were no significant between-subject effects of gesture counterbalance order, F(1, 12) = .05, p = .831, or TOH counterbalance order, F(1, 12) = .21, p = .653, nor did the interaction of counterbalancing conditions have an effect, F(1, 12) = 2.48, p = .141. Results revealed significantly lower fixation counts when participants gestured (estimated means = 143.70, SE = 5.38, 95 % CI 131.97 – 155.44) compared to when they did not gesture (estimated means = 153.298, SE = 6.30, 95 % CI 139.56 – 167.02), F(1, 12) = 8.29, p = .014, η 2p  = .41. Also, there was a significant interaction between the number of fixations and gesture and the VPT, F(1, 12) = 7.22, p = .020, η 2p  = .38.

  2. 2. As was to be expected given the fixed time available for mental problem solving and the lower fixation count, average fixation duration when gesturing was somewhat higher than when not gesturing, but a similar repeated-measure analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) on average fixation duration showed that this difference was not significant. No between-subject effects of gesture counterbalance order were found, F(1, 12) = 0.831, p = .380, TOH type, F(1, 12) = .09, p = .776, and its interaction, F(1, 12) = 0.66, p = .433. Furthermore, average fixation duration was not significantly affected by gesture (estimated means in ms = 300.25, SE = 15.16, 95 % CI 267.20– 333.25) versus no gesture (estimated means in ms = 284.80, SE = 14.96, 95 % CI 252.23 – 317.42), F(1, 12) = 0.25, p = .625, nor was there an interaction effect of gesture and VPT, F(1, 12) = 0.14, p = .716.

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Acknowledgments

This research was funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO-PROO, project number: 411-10-908) and supported by Vereniging Trustfonds Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam (97010.11/14.0798). The authors would like to express their gratitude to Charly Eielts for programming the working memory task and Rolf Zwaan for his comments on earlier versions of the manuscript. We would also like to thank two anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments on the original manuscript.

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Correspondence to Wim T. J. L. Pouw.

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Handling editor: Katsumi Watanabe, Tokyo University

Reviewers: Mingyuan Chu, University of Aberdeen, Massimiliano Cappuccio, United Arab Emirates University

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Pouw, W.T.J.L., Mavilidi, MF., van Gog, T. et al. Gesturing during mental problem solving reduces eye movements, especially for individuals with lower visual working memory capacity. Cogn Process 17, 269–277 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10339-016-0757-6

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