Gesture as representational action: A paper about function

Miriam A. Novack*, Susan Goldin-Meadow

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


A great deal of attention has recently been paid to gesture and its effects on thinking and learning. It is well established that the hand movements that accompany speech are an integral part of communication, ubiquitous across cultures, and a unique feature of human behavior. In an attempt to understand this intriguing phenomenon, researchers have focused on pinpointing the mechanisms that underlie gesture production. One proposal––that gesture arises from simulated action (Hostetter & Alibali Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 15, 495–514, 2008)––has opened up discussions about action, gesture, and the relation between the two. However, there is another side to understanding a phenomenon and that is to understand its function. A phenomenon’s function is its purpose rather than its precipitating cause––the why rather than the how. This paper sets forth a theoretical framework for exploring why gesture serves the functions that it does, and reviews where the current literature fits, and fails to fit, this proposal. Our framework proposes that whether or not gesture is simulated action in terms of its mechanism––it is clearly not reducible to action in terms of its function. Most notably, because gestures are abstracted representations and are not actions tied to particular events and objects, they can play a powerful role in thinking and learning beyond the particular, specifically, in supporting generalization and transfer of knowledge.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)652-665
Number of pages14
JournalPsychonomic Bulletin and Review
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 1 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Action
  • Gesture
  • Learning
  • Representations

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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