Why do we point?

We point as if we're trying to reach out and touch something in the distance...
12 July 2019


Infant pointing


The pointing gesture comes from us trying to reach out and touch something.

Try and point at something in the distance. You might imagine that you’re making an arrow that leads from the end of your finger, to the object. But what’s actually happening is that you’re trying to reach out and touch the object, however far away it might be.

That’s what Cathal O’Madagain and his colleagues from the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris found out from a series of experiments.

Babies from all cultures all over the world learn how to point from 9-12 months of age, and it seems to be a uniquely human gesture. “[Adult apes] have a very hard time understanding informative pointing [pointing to show someone an object], and this is remarkable because adult apes are so much smarter than 9 month old infants” says O’Madagain.

The team found that not only do we learn how to point from a very young age, we then continue to point in the same way right up to adulthood. In a series of experiments where infants and adults were asked to point out various objects, they found that the gesture linked strongly to us trying to reach out and touch the object.

This was particularly evident when trying to point at something “round a corner”. O’Madagain describes it as having a wine bottle placed in front of you, with the label facing to the left. If you have to point at the label with your right hand, you might find yourself rotating your wrist all the way around until the pad of your finger faces the label - as if you’re about to touch it.

Despite the awkwardness of the gesture, that’s how we like to point at things. One infant nearly fell out of her high-chair in her attempt to point in this way!

So where does the pointing gesture come from?

Infants are exploring their environment by touching objects they are paying visual attention to. Anyone who’s spent time with a baby knows they’ll try to touch anything they can!

Parents then look at what the infant is touching and so the infant realises they can get their parent’s attention by touching objects.

They then start extending this to objects further away - making as if to touch the object. Parents then look at the object in the distance. And thus the pointing gesture is born.

“This tells us something about the development of the pointing gesture within our lifetime, but it also suggests a story about the evolution of this gesture and of human coordination, that humans as a species seem to take real advantage of” says O’Madagain.

So what’s next in this line of research?

“We’re very interested to see whether chimpanzees coordinate visual and touch based exploration in the same way that infants do. And we expect that they don’t and this might go some way towards explaining why chimpanzees and apes have such a hard time understanding pointing gestures, which come so naturally to humans.”


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