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December 8, 2001

In the study, published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers put 26 children and 32 adults who were observed to use gestures through a five- step exercise. First, they solved age-appropriate math problems. Second, they were given a list of items to memorize. Third, they were asked to explain how they had solved the math problems. Fourth, they were tested on their recall of the memorized items. Finally, they were asked to give the explanation again, this time keeping their hands still on a tabletop, and were tested again.

The researchers, led by Dr Susan Goldin-Meadow, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, found that people who were allowed to gesture recalled on average 20 percent more items than people who were not.

Another author, Dr Howard Nussbaum, explained that the purpose of making the participants explain their math reasoning was to increase their cognitive load, the amount of work their brain had to do in addition to remembering the list of items. "These findings suggest that gesture reduces the cognitive load of explanation, freeing capacity that can be used on a memory task at the same time," he said.

Dr Goldin-Meadow said the findings could help explain why even blind people gesture and why people gesture when talking on the phone.

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