Speaker: Susan Goldin-Meadow, University of Chicago
Chair: Nina Dronkers, VA Northern California Health Care System and University of California, Davis

Thursday, October 15, 9:00 – 10:00 am, Grand Ballroom


Susan Goldin-Meadow is the Beardsley Ruml Distinguished Service Professor of Psychology and Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago. She received her Ph.D. in 1975 from the University of Pennsylvania, where she worked with Rochel Gelman and Lila Gleitman. Her focus is on the ways that the body can affect learning––how the body provides insight into a learner’s skills and how the body contributes to changing those skills. More specifically, she studies movements of the body that are representational––the gestures that we produce when we talk––and contrasts them with movements that have a direct effect on the world––actions on objects. Her recent work shows that gesture is more effective than action on objects at getting learners to generalize the knowledge they gained during a lesson, particularly in the mathematics. She is currently Principal Investigator of an NICHD funded Program Project that is now in its 11th year, a co-PI of the NSF-funded Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center (SILC), and co-Director of the Center for Gesture, Sign, and Language at the University of Chicago. She is a Fellow of AAAS, APS, APA (Divisions 3 and 7), and LSA, and will be president of the Psychology Section of AAAS in 2015. In 2001, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a James McKeen Cattell Fellowship, which led to her two published books, Resilience of Language and Hearing Gesture: How Our Hands Help Us Learn. In 2005, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 2015, she received the William James Award for Lifetime Achievement in Basic Research from APS.

Gesture as a Mechanism of Change

The spontaneous gestures that people produce when they talk have been shown to reflect a speaker’s thoughts––they can index moments of cognitive instability and reflect thoughts not yet found in speech.  Gesture can go beyond reflecting thought to play a role in changing that thought––the gestures we see others produce can change our thoughts, and the gestures we ourselves produce can change our thoughts.  In this talk, I consider whether gesture effects these changes because it itself is an action and can thus bring action into our mental representations.  But gesture is a special kind of action––it spatializes ideas, even ideas that are inherently non-spatial, and it is representational and thus more abstract than direct action on objects. Gesture’s representational properties may thus allow it to play a role in learning by facilitating the transition from action to abstraction.