About this Project

2013 – 2016

How does the body influence the mind? This compelling question has motivated researchers in psychology, linguistics, human development, and the performing arts for many years. Recent technological innovations and a turn toward interdisciplinary collaboration have opened up new possibilities for scholars seeking ways to disentangle thought from physical sensations. The University of Chicago has emerged as a globally recognized leader in this area of research, known as “embodied cognition,” with pioneering work on gesture, formal and informal sign languages, and the universal features of language. The Body’s Role project (2013–2016) served as a catalyst for additional work in this area, uniting a number of small projects and establishing a foundation for empirical research that cuts across the humanities and social sciences.

The project supported three studies that looked at gesture and sign in relation to storytelling, action, and indexical pointing, respectively. For the storytelling study, Peter Cook—an American Sign Language (ASL) scholar and a renowned Deaf performance artist who served as a Neubauer Collegium Visiting Fellow in the 2013–14 academic year—helped conduct comparative analyses of poetry and performance in both English and ASL. The research team used video and motion-capture recordings of ASL and English performers, and then developed coding procedures to analyze aspects like metrical structure and rhythm. The comparisons yielded important insights on the similarities and differences between the ways Deaf and hearing storytellers use their bodies to narrate. Related work in this area explored the role of eye gaze and facial gestures in performance.

The second study used motion-analysis equipment to explore the connections between gesture and action. By observing participants as they encountered perceptual illusions, the researchers were able to determine the extent to which gesture mirrors the actions on which it is based compared to the language it accompanies. Preliminary results were presented at the 2016 International Society for Gesture Studies conference in Paris. A third study, the first of its kind, clarified distinctions between pointing gestures used by signers and pointing gestures speakers produce when they talk.

The schedule of Body’s Role activities at the Neubauer Collegium was ambitious, with conferences and performances, a quarterly workshop series, biweekly meetings, a sign language reading group, and related work. The project culminated with the October 2017 capstone conference, which included a lively evening of performances by sign-language and spoken-language artists, followed by a full day of presentations by graduate students and postdoctoral scholars on the project’s three studies. Herb Clark, a psycholinguist at Stanford University, delivered a keynote address on the use of the body in everyday communication. The event, cited by the research team as a high point of the project, “not only brought together the work that we have been doing on our Neubauer Collegium projects, but also made it clear that this is not a stopping point—we have laid the groundwork for a new set of interdisciplinary interests to flourish among our faculty and students.”

From the outset, the researchers considered next-generation training a central component of the project. Students and postdoctoral fellows were involved in every aspect of the research, from study design, data collection, and statistical analysis to the presentation and publication of findings. Young scholars’ contributions at regular working meetings and reading groups helped the research team think through technical challenges and keep the project’s many activities on track, and the project inspired nearly a dozen student-led projects.

“Very early on, the Neubauer project became an exciting cross-disciplinary hub,” said Kensy Cooperrider, a postdoctoral scholar in the Psychology Department who helped run the study on pointing in gesture and sign. “Collaborations were springing up between young scholars who might not otherwise have talked much to each other. And it wasn’t long before it felt like a community. In my case, being part of this community really broadened my understanding of my research and the questions I was asking—it got me thinking about issues that will be with me for the rest of my career.”

Significant supplemental support for the project was provided by internal partners at the Humanities Division, the Delhi Center, and the Center for Gesture, Sign, and Language, a research initiative launched by Diane Brentari, Anastasia Giannakidou, and Susan Goldin-Meadow in March 2013. A $750,000 grant from the NSF Science of Learning competition will provide the collaborative network that the Body’s Role project fostered with funds for a three-year project to explore how the body can be incorporated into primary school math education. The Neubauer Collegium has also extended its commitment to this growing network with the Motion and Meaning project, which is studying the relation between sign and body gesture in classical Indian dance.


How the Brain Links Gestures, Perception and Meaning

March 26, 2019

Quanta magazine explores the pioneering research of Susan Goldin-Meadow, a member of the Neubauer Collegium Faculty Advisory Board and former member of the research team on the Body's Role project.

Fending Off Math Anxiety

April 24, 2017

Faculty Fellow Sian Beilock (The Body’s Role in Thinking, Performing, and Referencing) speaks to the New York Times on the effects of parents' math anxieties on their children's math learning. 

Anxiety Affects Test Scores Even Among Students Who Excel at Math

March 10, 2017

Facutly Fellow Sian Beilock, a Principal Investigator on The Body’s Role in Thinking, Performing, and Referencing research project, speaks to UChicago News about the effects of anxiety on test-takers. 


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