Talking with your hands can help solve complex problems relating to spatial visualization, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association.

The researchers say that gesturing enhances spatial visualization – the ability to mentally rotate or move an object to a different position or view. Spatial visualization is an important skill for a variety of professions, from air traffic controllers who must mentally tracking planes based on images on a two-dimensional radar screen to interior decorators who must visualize furniture placement in a room before moving the furniture.

“Hand gestures are spontaneous and don’t need to be taught, but they can improve spatial visualization,” said psychologist Mingyuan Chu, PhD, who conducted the research with psychologist Sotaro Kita, PhD, at the University of Birmingham in England. “From Galileo and Einstein to da Vinci and Picasso, influential scientific discoveries and artistic masterpieces might never have been achieved without extraordinary spatial visualization skills.”

Their findings appear in the February issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. One study found that the number of spontaneous gestures increased as the problems given to subjects to solve became more difficult. In two other studies, participants who were encouraged to use gestures did better on tests and problem-solving than those who were prevented from using any gestures.

Hand gestures may improve spatial visualization by helping a person keep track of an object in the mind as it is rotated to a new position. Since our hands are used so much in daily life to manipulate objects, gestures also may provide additional feedback and visual cues by simulating how an object would move if the hand were holding it, said Chu, who now works as a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands.

“The Nature of Gestures’ Beneficial Role in Spatial Problem Solving,” by Mingyuan Chu, PhD, and Sotaro Kita, PhD, University of Birmingham appeared in Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Vol. 140, No. 1.