Fishing for ideas through the peripatoi of hand gestures

David Lynch describes creativity as fishing for ideas, a notion that aligns with the concept of the "embodied mind" where physical gestures significantly influence creative thinking. Research shows gestures enhance storytelling and brainstorming, with their effectiveness varying based on an individual's mental imagery skills. The role of gestures in creativity is complex, aiding some while hindering others, and varies in different linguistic contexts. Gestures are thus central to the creative process, affecting idea formation and expression.

Gyulten Hyusein

17 Sep, 2023
Fishing for ideas through the peripatoi of hand gestures

In a recent interview (1), the renowned filmmaker David Lynch uses the metaphor of fishing to describe the creative process. He says that in the ocean of ideas, where most ideas are not so thrilling, once in a while you catch an exciting idea, but you don’t know when you are going to come across it, so you must be on the lookout every day. He also reveals in his book entitled “Catching the big fish” (2) that his creative process is initiated by movements and gestures. Such an insight into the development of creative ideas makes it impossible to not notice the way creativity is an embodied experience distributed among materials, people, and actions (3). In this article, we delve into the fascinating relationship between movement, in particular gestures, and creativity, exploring how our physical movements can inspire and nurture the imaginative depths of our minds.

The Embodied Creative Mind or the Hands as Windows to the Human Mind

To understand the connection between gestures and creativity, we must first familiarize ourselves with the concept of the "embodied mind" but also take a closer look at the functions of gestures. On the one hand, the embodied cognition paradigm states that the way we think is influenced, shaped, and modified by the way we explore and interact with our physical environment. Moreover, our mental representations are not solely confined to the limits of our brain, but they are distributed throughout the body and intertwined with our bodily movements and physical experiences (4, 5). Therefore, our mind works in synchrony with our bodies in the space defined by our immediate environment to shape and create our thoughts, perceptions, and creative ideas.

On the other hand, we have the mystical realm of hand gestures. Why do we “aimlessly” move our hands in the air when talking to someone? We might do that to “show” and emphasize with our hands some of the content of our speech, e.g., how big the ball that broke our window was. But sometimes we also gesture when no one can see us or even when we elicit inner speech. Here comes the possibility that we do that because gestures have the so-called speaker-oriented function. In other words, gestures serve as a powerful tool for conceptualization (6). Most of us instinctively resort to hand gestures to help us visualize, comprehend, and retrieve concepts or ideas. In the simplest terms, think about the tip-of-the-tongue experience, when we are trying to remember that specific word with all our mental and physical being, often using our hands to externalize the word or just to create a simple rhythmic movement that will eventually pull the concept out of the depths of our mind.

By employing gestures, we give a tangible shape to our internal thoughts and images, adding extra information to our speech that then feeds back to our thinking and we ultimately create a collaboration between our gestures and our thinking, between our body and mind. This physical embodiment of concepts fosters enhanced understanding, sparks new connections, and might even unlock innovative approaches to problem-solving.

Empirical Research on the Gestures-Creativity Interplay

No matter how difficult it is to measure creativity in the lab in a way that is relatable to real-life creative processes, studies have tried to capture the link between hand movements and creative problem-solving tasks. For example, children who naturally gestured more told stories more creatively and children who were encouraged to use their hands while thinking of ways to use every-day objects, came up with more ideas compared to children who were not encouraged (7, 8). Spontaneous gesture use was also related to enhanced verbal improvisation in adults (9) and benefited both self’s and partner’s idea generation in a group brain-storming session (10).

However, the way gestures are related to creative thinking might also depend on one’s mental imagery skills (11). Mental imagery is when we generate picture-like representations (mental images) in our minds in the absence of external percepts. It is also our ability to maintain those images and perform manipulations with them, such as mental rotations. In a recent study with young university students, we found that if one has good imagery skills, the more they use their hand gestures while solving a creative problem, the more successful they are at connecting remote associates, which is also called convergent thinking in the creativity literature. And this is mostly true when we make meaningful gestures with our hands, i.e., iconic gestures. Nevertheless, being a poor mental imager can have a negative outcome when using gestures for convergent thinking. Interestingly, we also found that in some cases “meaningless” gestures, i.e., beat gestures, also benefit creative convergent thinking. This is when one has good mental imagery and some practice with the convergent thinking task. These results show how intricate the gesture-creativity interaction is and how as in most things in life, whether gestures are good for creativity cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”.

Our follow-up study testing another type of creative thinking – divergent thinking, also yielded mixed findings. Divergent thinking is about producing a lot of ideas, that should be novel, flexible, and elaborate. Here, we found an effect only of the “meaningful” gestures, i.e., iconic gestures. These types of gestures were advantageous for generating a greater number of ideas and embellishing those ideas with details but did not have an effect on how original the ideas were. Intriguingly, iconic gestures also negatively predicted how flexible those ideas were. People making a lot of iconic gestures were not very successful at coming up with ideas from diverse categories. It was as if gesturing kept them stuck in one category of ideas. Again, gestures can be a double-edged sword when it comes to creative thinking.

Gestures and Imagery for Bilingual Creativity

Our next venue of research is about how people solve divergent and convergent thinking problems in two different languages and whether the vividness of their imagery is different in their two languages. We expect that through their gestures people might find different affordances of objects, which should benefit their divergent thinking. For example, drinking/having tea might evoke different images in English and Turkish. While for an English person, the action of having tea would most probably evoke the image of a porcelain cup filled with tea, for a Turkish person the elicited image would be of a little tulip-shaped glass. Then the concepts would also differ in their affordances, e.g., holding the cup of tea from its handle with your thumb and index finger and holding the glass of tea with your whole hand. Thus, an English-Turkish bilingual might be able to discover and invent more different and complex uses of objects. Whether this depends on the language of testing and whether such an effect could also be observed in convergent thinking are exciting questions we soon hope to have answers for.

Utilizing Gestures for Creative Exploration

There is still a lot to be discovered on the nature of the gesture-creativity interaction. Meanwhile, we should not withhold from using our hands when thinking, speaking, improvising, and creating. Especially because gestures are an integral part of a novel brainstorming technique named “bodystorming”, which is shown to foster a deeper connection between movement and the generation of innovative ideas.


1. Meditación Trascendental Córdoba. (2021, February 28). MASTER CLASS de DAVID LYNCH Subtitulada en ESPAÑOL [Video]. YouTube.

2. Lynch D. (2006) Catching the big fish: Meditation, consciousness, and creativity. Penguin, London.

3. Videla, R., Veloz, T., & Pino, M. C. (2023). Authors’ Response: Becoming Makers Through Continuous Practice: Learning to Deal With the Uncertain. Constructivist Foundations, 18(2), 320-324.

4. Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

5. Stanciu, M. M. (2015). Embodied creativity: A critical analysis of an underdeveloped subject. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 187, 312-317.

6. Kita, S., Alibali, M. W., & Chu, M. (2017). How do gestures influence thinking and speaking? The gesture-for-conceptualization hypothesis. Psychological Review, 124(3), 245–266.

7. Laurent, A., Smithson, L., & Nicoladis, E. (2020). Gesturers Tell a Story Creatively; Non-Gesturers Tell it like it Happened. Language Learning and Development, 16(3), 292–308.

8. Kirk, E., & Lewis, C. (2016). Gesture Facilitates Children’s Creative Thinking. Psychological Science, 28(2), 225–232.

9. Lewis, C., Lovatt, P., & Kirk, E. (2015). Many hands make light work: The facilitative role of gesture in verbal improvisation. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 17, 149–157.

10. Liao, J., & Wang, H. C. (2019). Gestures as Intrinsic Creativity Support. Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, 3(GROUP), 1–16.

11. Hyusein, G., & Göksun, T. (2023). The creative interplay between hand gestures, convergent thinking, and mental imagery. PLOS ONE, 18(4), e0283859.

Gyulten Hyusein

Gyulten Hyusein is a PhD researcher in the Language and Cognition Laboratory at Department of Psychology, Koç University. Her current work focuses on the relationships between language modalities (gestures, bilingualism) and processes such as creative thinking and mental imagery.



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