6 thoughts on “The universality of gestures

  1. I had been joking that the phrase “threw up his hands” could be interpreted in a perverse and gruesome way involving self-cannibalization and vomiting. That got me thinking about the actual gesture. Why do we throw up our hands when we are frustrated?

    And that led me to the Aeon article.

  2. Some gestures transcend species boundaries. My sister describes visiting the Indianapolis Zoo with her daughter. An orangutan was sitting on the other side of the glass. He would point to various parts of his body as a way of asking to see the corresponding parts of theirs. He was especially interested in my sister’s hands, which are deformed due to a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis.

    Dogs understand pointing, and studies have shown that some cats do, too, though none of the cats I’ve owned ever showed that ability. They would look at my finger and not at the thing I was pointing to.

  3. This isn’t exactly a gesture, since it isn’t designed to communicate, but have you noticed how we often look up when we’re pondering something? If I read something and want to mull it over, or if I’m trying to solve a difficult problem in my head, I’ll often find myself looking up toward the ceiling. I see people do the same thing in interviews when they are asked a question and are carefully considering their response.

    My hypothesis is that we do this to reduce distractions. It’s easier to focus if you aren’t being distracted by the face of the person in front of you or the contents of a computer screen. Ceilings are relatively featureless and pose less of a distraction risk, so my guess is that we instinctively look at them for that reason.

    When I have time, I’ll look around online and see if anyone has done research on this question.

  4. Not gestures, exactly, but still interesting. An article from The Atlantic:

    Study: Humans Can Make More Than 20 Distinct Facial Expressions

    “To prove that humans could make, and perceive, a wider range of feelings with their faces, the study authors asked 230 subjects to make a face depicting each of the following 20 sentiments: happy, sad, fearful, angry, surprised, disgusted, happily surprised, happily disgusted, sadly fearful, sadly angry, sadly surprised, sadly disgusted, fearfully angry, fearfully surprised, fearfully disgusted, angrily surprised, angrily disgusted, disgustedly surprised, hatred, and awed.”

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