The Role of Gesture in Supporting Mental Representations: The Case of Mental Abacus Arithmetic

Cogn Sci. 2018 Mar;42(2):554-575. doi: 10.1111/cogs.12527. Epub 2017 Sep 11.


People frequently gesture when problem-solving, particularly on tasks that require spatial transformation. Gesture often facilitates task performance by interacting with internal mental representations, but how this process works is not well understood. We investigated this question by exploring the case of mental abacus (MA), a technique in which users not only imagine moving beads on an abacus to compute sums, but also produce movements in gestures that accompany the calculations. Because the content of MA is transparent and readily manipulated, the task offers a unique window onto how gestures interface with mental representations. We find that the size and number of MA gestures reflect the length and difficulty of math problems. Also, by selectively interfering with aspects of gesture, we find that participants perform significantly worse on MA under motor interference, but that perceptual feedback is not critical for success on the task. We conclude that premotor processes involved in the planning of gestures are critical to mental representation in MA.

Keywords: Gesture; Mental abacus; Mental representation; Motor interference; Spatial transformation; Visual imagery.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Comprehension / physiology*
  • Female
  • Gestures*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mathematics / methods*
  • Problem Solving / physiology*
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Thinking / physiology