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Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience

August 2017, Vol. 29, No. 8, Pages 1355-1367
(doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_01125)
© 2017 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
When to Take a Gesture Seriously: On How We Use and Prioritize Communicative Cues
Article PDF (667.91 KB)
Abstract

When people talk, their speech is often accompanied by gestures. Although it is known that co-speech gestures can influence face-to-face communication, it is currently unclear to what extent they are actively used and under which premises they are prioritized to facilitate communication. We investigated these open questions in two experiments that varied how pointing gestures disambiguate the utterances of an interlocutor. Participants, whose event-related brain responses were measured, watched a video, where an actress was interviewed about, for instance, classical literature (e.g., Goethe and Shakespeare). While responding, the actress pointed systematically to the left side to refer to, for example, Goethe, or to the right to refer to Shakespeare. Her final statement was ambiguous and combined with a pointing gesture. The P600 pattern found in Experiment 1 revealed that, when pointing was unreliable, gestures were only monitored for their cue validity and not used for reference tracking related to the ambiguity. However, when pointing was a valid cue (Experiment 2), it was used for reference tracking, as indicated by a reduced N400 for pointing. In summary, these findings suggest that a general prioritization mechanism is in use that constantly monitors and evaluates the use of communicative cues against communicative priors on the basis of accumulated error information.