An innovative study challenges the idea that all thinking is done in the head. Researchers from London found that decision making is heavily influenced by the world around us, and in some scenarios, thinking with your hands could open new doors to problem solving.

Image via Pixabay.

When I’m usually tackling a math problem, I’ll do it with a pen and paper. But Gaëlle Vallée-Tourangeau, Professor of Organisational Behaviour, and Frédéric Vallée-Tourangeau, Professor of Psychology, both from the Kingston University London, had a different idea. They gathered participants and asked them to solve a problem using their hands and shaped pieces of clay.

The participants had to fit 17 animals into four pens in such a way that there were an odd number of animals in each one – something which seems impossible at first. They were then split into two groups. The first group was asked to ‘think with their hands’ – build physical models with their hands. The second one was asked to solve the problem using an electronic tablet and stylus to sketch out an answer.

The solution requires some pen overlapping, and the first group was much quicker to find the solution.

“We showed with this study that for some types of problem — regardless of an individual’s cognitive ability — being able to physical interact with tools gave people a fighting chance of solving it,” said Professor Frédéric Vallée-Tourangeau. “By contrast, a pen and paper-type method almost guaranteed they wouldn’t be able to. It demonstrates how interacting with the world can really benefit people’s performance.”

Professor Gaëlle Vallée-Tourangeau said that when you approach the problem in a physical way, your entire thought process is different. She believes that physically interacting with the problem could help people find new, creative solutions.

“When you write or draw, the action itself makes you think differently,” she said. “In cognitive psychology you are trained to see the mind as a computer, but we’ve found that people don’t think that way in the real world. If you give them something to interact with they think in a different way.”

The study could have significant implications for something called “maths anxiety” – a debilitating emotional reaction to mathematics that is increasingly recognized in psychology and education. It has been defined as “a feeling of tension and anxiety that interferes with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in ordinary life and academic situations”. Basically, this anxiety makes people avoid even simple mathematical tasks, such as splitting the bill at a restaurant or calculating price discounts. The same team found that maths anxiety can be overcome by asking people to move tokens around as if they were doing maths in their head.

“We found that for those adding the sums in their head, their maths anxiety score predicted the magnitude of errors made while speaking a word repeatedly. If they’re really maths anxious, the impact will be huge,” he explained. “But in a high interactivity context — when they were moving number tokens — they behaved as if they were not anxious about numbers.

“The horrible thing about maths anxiety is that some people cope by completely avoiding maths, which only worsens the problem. That’s what makes these findings really interesting. Trying to understand why the fear factor is eliminated or controlled to a manageable level when using your hands rather than just your head is the question we’re trying to get to the bottom of now.”

Journal References:

  1. Frédéric Vallée-Tourangeau, Sune Vork Steffensen, Gaëlle Vallée-Tourangeau, Miroslav Sirota. Insight with hands and things. Acta Psychologica, 2016; 170: 195 DOI: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2016.08.006
  2. Frédéric Vallée-Tourangeau, Miroslav Sirota, Gaëlle Vallée-Tourangeau. Interactivity mitigates the impact of working memory depletion on mental arithmetic performance. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, 2016; 1 (1) DOI: 10.1186/s41235-016-0027-2

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