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People tailor their hand gestures to the needs of their addressee

Do people shape their actions as a function of their intentions? In our new paper, published in Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, we describe the results of two experiments in which we had participants make pointing gestures for an addressee in an interactive set-up. During the experiments we recorded the exact kinematic properties of their gestures by a sensor that was placed on their index finger. We also analyzed their brain activity while they were planning the gestures, by means of EEG.
People tailor their hand gestures to the needs of their addressee

In a complex experimental paradigm, participants were asked to point at circles that were shown on a computer screen. They were instructed to point at a circle every time a circle would light up. They did this for an addressee, whose task was to write down which of the circles would light up. In one condition, participants pointed at circles that the addressee could see at the same time. Therefore the pointing gesture was not very informative. In another condition, they pointed at circles that the addressee could not see, making the gesture more informative for this other person in this latter case. The pointing participant was aware of whether the pointing gesture was more or less informative for the other person. Therefore, participants had different intentions depending on the state of knowledge of their addressee.

We found that when participants wanted to be more informative, so when their addressee could not see the circle light up, they slowed down their gesture and kept their finger in the endpoint location for a longer period of time than when they had to be less informative. At the same time, a P300 effect was found in their brain activity when comparing the two conditions, suggesting that participants paid more attention to their task when they needed to be more informative. Together, these findings show that everyday actions such as pointing at something for someone are shaped by the intentions that we have when performing the action.


Peeters, D., Chu, M., Holler, J., Hagoort, P., & Özyürek, A. (2015). Electrophysiological and kinematic correlates of communicative intent in the planning and production of pointing gestures and speech. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 27(12), 2352-2368. doi:10.1162/jocn_a_00865.

Neurobiology of Language

What is the neurobiological infrastructure for the uniquely human capacity for language? The focus of the Neurobiology of Language Department is on the study of language production, language comprehension, and language acquisition from a cognitive neuroscience perspective. Read more...

Director: Peter Hagoort

Secretary: Carolin Lorenz


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