Send to

Choose Destination
Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2012 Jan 12;367(1585):129-43. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2011.0162.

A word in the hand: action, gesture and mental representation in humans and non-human primates.

Author information

Department of Psychology, University of Chicago, 5848 South University Avenue, Chicago, IL 60637, USA.


The movements we make with our hands both reflect our mental processes and help to shape them. Our actions and gestures can affect our mental representations of actions and objects. In this paper, we explore the relationship between action, gesture and thought in both humans and non-human primates and discuss its role in the evolution of language. Human gesture (specifically representational gesture) may provide a unique link between action and mental representation. It is kinaesthetically close to action and is, at the same time, symbolic. Non-human primates use gesture frequently to communicate, and do so flexibly. However, their gestures mainly resemble incomplete actions and lack the representational elements that characterize much of human gesture. Differences in the mirror neuron system provide a potential explanation for non-human primates' lack of representational gestures; the monkey mirror system does not respond to representational gestures, while the human system does. In humans, gesture grounds mental representation in action, but there is no evidence for this link in other primates. We argue that gesture played an important role in the transition to symbolic thought and language in human evolution, following a cognitive leap that allowed gesture to incorporate representational elements.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]
Free PMC Article

Supplemental Content

Full text links

Icon for HighWire Icon for PubMed Central
Loading ...
Support Center