Hand Matters: Left-Hand Gestures Enhance Metaphor Explanation

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Abstract

Research suggests that speech-accompanying gestures influence cognitive processes, but it is not clear whether the gestural benefit is specific to the gesturing hand. Two experiments tested the “(right/left) hand-specificity” hypothesis for self-oriented functions of gestures: gestures with a particular hand enhance cognitive processes involving the hemisphere contralateral to the gesturing hand. Specifically, we tested whether left-hand gestures enhance metaphor explanation, which involves right-hemispheric processing. In Experiment 1, right-handers explained metaphorical phrases (e.g., “to spill the beans,” beans represent pieces of information). Participants kept the one hand (right, left) still while they were allowed to spontaneously gesture (or not) with their other free hand (left, right). Metaphor explanations were better when participants chose to gesture when their left hand was free than when they did not. An analogous effect of gesturing was not found when their right hand was free. In Experiment 2, different right-handers performed the same metaphor explanation task but, unlike Experiment 1, they were encouraged to gesture with their left or right hand or to not gesture at all. Metaphor explanations were better when participants gestured with their left hand than when they did not gesture, but the right hand gesture condition did not significantly differ from the no-gesture condition. Furthermore, we measured participants’ mouth asymmetry during additional verbal tasks to determine individual differences in the degree of right-hemispheric involvement in speech production. The left-over-right-side mouth dominance, indicating stronger right-hemispheric involvement, positively correlated with the left-over-right-hand gestural benefit on metaphor explanation. These converging findings supported the “hand-specificity” hypothesis.

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