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The evolution of gestural blends around learning a new technical system

David J. DeLiema & Francis F. Steen (UCLA)

Saturday, May 19th
Buchanan B215 

In partial response to empirical and theoretical progress in articulating an
embodied framework of cognition (Barsalou, 1999; Gallese & Lakoff, 2005; Glenberg and
Kaschak, 2002), educational research on the role of gestures in science and math learning
environments has remained steady over recent decades (Goldin‐Meadow, S., Alibali, M. W.,
Church, R. B., 1993; Clement & Steinberg, 2002). Nonetheless, most gesture studies that
address an education audience have not fully integrated their empirical discoveries with
any specific cognitive model, a shortcoming that has held researchers back from discussing
the true complexity of gestures around concept learning. In an attempt to begin to close
this gap, the present project will recruit the mental spaces cognitive framework as a lens to
describe and understand one student’s gestures around learning a complex, abstract
engineering concept.

From a theoretical perspective, the cognitive linguistics framework known as
mental spaces (Fauconnier, 1985; Parrill & Sweetser, 2004), extended in detail through the
theory of conceptual integration networks (Fauconnier & Turner, 1998), offers a lucid way
to relate mental constructs to sign language and other gestural simulations (Dudis, 2004).
In the mental spaces framework, selective inputs from the mental narrative space (i.e.
frames, elements, and relations between elements) combine with selective inputs from the
real space of the body to produce a blend simulating the referent process (Parrill &
Sweetser, 2004). For example, a person who gestures the action of riding a motorcycle
uphill from a character viewpoint, with hands pretending to grasp handle bars, blends her
narrative representation of riding motorcycles with a partial representation of the physical
action involved in riding to create one unified simulation of motorcycle riding (Dudis,

The mental spaces framework will be applied in the present study to analyze a
situation in which one undergraduate student was asked to learn the system of packet
switching – the underlying design of the Internet – by listening to a verbal description of
the concept and simultaneously modeling the concept with her body. In other words, the
student silently gestured her interpretation of packet switching during her first encounter
with the concept at the same time that an interlocutor described the concept in words.
Later, the student was asked to discuss her understanding of packet switching in a more
natural discourse setting and performed co‐speech gestures with which we can compare
the interpretive gestures. The study aims to understand how prior character viewpoint
motor schemas (i.e. throwing, pulling, chopping) and observer viewpoint motor schemas
(i.e. pointing at an airplane overhead) interact with assumptions about computers and
networks to instantiate as abstracted versions of those actions in the gesture blend. How
do representations in the blend change in terms of scale, viewpoint, and form over time as
the student refines her understanding of packet switching and what implications does this
have for the evolution of conceptual blends over short time scales? The presentation will
include video clips of the student’s gestures.


Barsalou, Lawrence W. (1999). Perceptual symbol systems. Behavioral and Brain Sciences,
22, 577‐660

Clement, J. J. and Steinberg, M. S., (2002). Step‐Wise Evolution of Mental Models of Electric
Circuits: A “Learning‐Aloud” Case Study. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 11(4), 389‐

Dudis, P. G. (2004). Body partitioning and real‐space blends. Cognitive Linguistics, 15(2),

Faucconier, G. (1985). Mental spaces. Aspects of meaning construction in natural language.
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Fauconnier, G. & Turner, M. (1998). Conceptual integration networks. Cognitive Science, 22,

Gallese, V., Lakoff, G. (2005). The brain’s concepts: The role of the sensory‐motor system in
conceptual knowledge. Cognitive neuropsychology, 22(3/4), 455‐479.

Glenberg, A. M., Kaschak, M. P. (2002). Grounding language in action. Psychological Bulletins
& Review, 9(3), 558‐565.

Goldin‐Meadow, S., Alibali, M. W., Church, R. B. (1993). Transitions in concept acquisition:
Using the hand to read the mind. Psychological Review, 100(2), 279‐297.

Parill, F. & Sweetser, E. (2004). What we mean by meaning Conceptual integration in
gesture analysis and transcription. Gesture, 4(2), 197‐219.

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