Many hands make light work: The facilitative role of gesture in verbal improvisation

Carine Lewis, Peter Lovatt, Elizabeth Kirk

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)
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Verbal improvisation is cognitively demanding, placing great burden on working memory as the speaker is tasked to generate a novel, spontaneous narrative. It is at this point of cognitive overload when individuals pursuing other creative tasks would typically shift the burden and externalise some of their thinking. How do successful verbal improvisers manage without shifting some of their workload into an external space? We argue in this paper that the improviser makes use of what is, quite literally, to hand. Ninety participants were asked to take part in a one-to-one improvisation task and a control task, order counterbalanced, in which they were engaged in a brief conversation to elicit every day speech. Participants' gestures were analysed in both conditions and improvisations rated for quality. As predicted, participants gestured significantly more in the improvisation condition. An analysis of gesture type revealed that improvising elicited greater iconic and deictic gestures, whereas everyday speech was more likely to be accompanied by self-adaptor gestures. Gesture rate was related to the quality of the improvisation, with both the strongest and weakest improvisers producing the most gestures. These gestures revealed the extent to which participants used gestures to facilitate the improvisation task. The strongest improvisers elicited a higher gesture rate for iconic and beat gestures, while weakest improvisers produced more gestures in reference to the abstract, improvisation object. Findings are discussed in relation to the idea that gesture can facilitate performance in verbal improvisation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)149-157
JournalThinking Skills and Creativity
Early online date25 Jun 2015
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2015


  • Creativity
  • Cognitive load
  • Nonverbal behaviour
  • Gesture
  • Improvisation


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