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Inconsistent use of gesture space during abstract pointing impairs language comprehension

Gunter, Thomas C.; Weinbrenner, J. E. Douglas; Holle, Henning


Thomas C. Gunter

J. E. Douglas Weinbrenner

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Dr Henning Holle
Reader in Psychology / Leader of Cognitive and Clinical Neuroscience group (


Pointing toward concrete objects is a well-known and efficient communicative strategy. Much less is known about the communicative effectiveness of abstract pointing where the pointing gestures are directed to “empty space.” McNeill's (2003) observations suggest that abstract pointing can be used to establish referents in gesture space, without the referents being physically present. Recently, however, it has been shown that abstract pointing typically provides redundant information to the uttered speech thereby suggesting a very limited communicative value (So et al., 2009). In a first approach to tackle this issue we were interested to know whether perceivers are sensitive at all to this gesture cue or whether it is completely discarded as irrelevant add-on information. Sensitivity to for instance a gesture-speech mismatch would suggest a potential communicative function of abstract pointing. Therefore, we devised a mismatch paradigm in which participants watched a video where a female was interviewed on various topics. During her responses, she established two concepts in space using abstract pointing (e.g., pointing to the left when saying Donald, and pointing to the right when saying Mickey). In the last response to each topic, the pointing gesture accompanying a target word (e.g., Donald) was either consistent or inconsistent with the previously established location. Event related brain potentials showed an increased N400 and P600 when gesture and speech referred to different referents, indicating that inconsistent use of gesture space impairs language comprehension. Abstract pointing was found to influence comprehension even though gesture was not crucial to understanding the sentences or conducting the experimental task. These data suggest that a referent was retrieved via abstract pointing and that abstract pointing can potentially be used for referent indication in a discourse. We conclude that abstract pointing has a potential communicative function.


Gunter, T. C., Weinbrenner, J. E. D., & Holle, H. (2015). Inconsistent use of gesture space during abstract pointing impairs language comprehension. Frontiers in psychology Frontiers Research Foundation, 6(FEB), Article ARTN 80.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Jan 14, 2015
Online Publication Date Feb 9, 2015
Publication Date Jan 9, 2015
Deposit Date Apr 14, 2015
Publicly Available Date Apr 14, 2015
Journal Frontiers in psychology
Print ISSN 1664-1078
Electronic ISSN 1664-1078
Publisher Frontiers Media
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 6
Issue FEB
Article Number ARTN 80
Keywords Pointing, Gesture, N400, P600, Communication, Referent identification
Public URL
Publisher URL
Additional Information This document is protected by copyright and was first published by Frontiers. All rights reserved. It is reproduced with permission.


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Copyright Statement
Copyright © 2015 Gunter, Weinbrenner and Holle. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

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