Emory Report
May 1, 2006
Volume 58, Number 29


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May 1 , 2006
Talk to the hand: Cienki observes thought in gesture

by rachel robertson

Can metaphor, used by artists innumerable for creative expression, also reflect deep thought processes? First posed by cognitive linguists in the 1980s, this question has spurred researchers to examine the use of conceptual metaphor in several domains: speech, advertising, film, music and dance.

But what’s fascinating to Alan Cienki, associate professor jointly appointed in the Institute of Liberal Arts and the linguistics program, is the communication of metaphor through gestures.

For example, a simple hand movement everyone does, using their hands to demarcate two points on a timeline, transforms space into time. Understanding one domain in terms of another in this way reflects the same patterning that cognitive linguists have identified in conceptual metaphors.

“A lot of people aren’t even aware that they are doing these things while they are talking,” said Cienki, suggesting to him that gestures mirror thought.

In a study of Emory undergraduates who were asked to talk about honesty in test taking, Cienki observed many individual differences in gesturing, but also found evidence for culturally shared metaphoric gestures that parallel conventional verbal metaphors. The notion of truth as being straightforward, for example, was expressed as a flat-handed, vertical, chopping gesture.

Why do people do it?

“Some people strongly claim that the speaker is doing it for himself or herself; others argue that it is mostly for the audience,” Cienki said. “I think the answer is somewhere in the middle: that it seems to be mostly for the speaker but also sometimes for the audience, depending on the context.”

He said gesturing can help a speaker with the process of “thinking for speaking,” defined by cognitive psychologists as the process of transforming dynamic and abstract thought into a linear speech stream. He noted that speakers, searching for a way to express themselves through speech, sometimes look at their own hands as they are performing a gesture—or even as if waiting for their hands to “tell” them what to say.

“They are trying to get a sense of what that [image] is,” Cienki said. “So it clearly seems to have a role for the speaker in terms of how they are formulating their thoughts in order to speak.”

In 1996, George Lakoff, perhaps the leading theorist of conceptual metaphors, published the book Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, which brought cognitive linguistics into the realm of political science. He proposed that the difference between conservatives and liberals stems from the fact that they subscribe to two very different metaphors, both of which depict the state as a family. In his view, conservatives are defined by the “strict father model,” whereas liberals adhere to the “nurturant parent model.”

“When I read the book,” Cienki said, “it rang true in a certain sense—I could agree with the main point—but there were very few examples. And when I looked at actual political language or heard politicians on TV, it didn’t seem to appear.”

In a study published last year in Cognitive Linguistics, Cienki examined videotapes of three debates between George W. Bush and Al Gore from the 2000 presidential campaign. After finding little evidence in their language for the types of metaphors Lakoff proposed, Cienki then turned to their gestures.

“Looking at the gestures seemed to provide another way of analyzing the material,” Cienki said. “With Bush, we saw these consistent patterns of gesturing that were somewhat like the models that Lakoff proposed.”

Bush’s gestures often depicted “strict father” ideals, Cienki said, such as strength and solidity. “Gore was doing lots of different things that had more to do with dividing up the logic of his argument rather than trying to express any particular kind of metaphor, so it was a different kind of gesturing,” he said.

Examining politicians’ hand-language also raises the question of how such gestures influence an audience. This could have practical applications in communication theory and for media coaches who work with people in the public eye, Cienki said.

Illustrating both concrete and abstract concepts, the dynamic and three-dimensional nature of gesturing provides a unique opportunity to observe thought.

“In the field of cognitive linguistics, our basic physical experience is very important to our understanding of how things work in the world,” Cienki said. “The domain of space is a primary one in our embodied experience and so can be used as a way to help us understand more complicated or abstract things that don’t have a physical basis.”