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The Secret World of Pointing

In 2004, Irish TV journalist Carole Coleman interviewed George Bush, pressing him about the war in Afghanistan. Near the end of the segment, Bush replied, “The free world has to make a choice. Do we cower in the face of terror or do we lead in the face of terror?” When he said “free world,” he pointed to his own chest.

For Kensy Cooperrider, a professor of cognitive science at University of California San Diego, this gesture was easy to understand, but simultaneously rich with meaning. “It was a really interesting conceptual move where he equated his own body with the abstract entity of the ‘free world,’” he said.

This moment helped launch Cooperrider’s interest in pointing—the ubiquitous act that we all partake in, perhaps daily, without thinking too closely about. Yet pointing is a gesture that Cooperrider and other linguists, anthropologists, and psychologists have found to be wrapped up with culture, cognition, and language.

Pointing’s basic definition is that it’s when a person moves part of their body to direct another person’s attention somewhere. The German psychologist Wilhelm Wundt wrote that pointing was “not only the simplest, but also the most primary gesture in the effort to communicate.”

Pointing can be used for rudimentary communication, but it can also be a vehicle for more subtle and sophisticated content. Cooperrider has categorized 15 different ways to view pointing, including as a building block of language, a gesture that raises philosophical questions, a recurring motif in art, as well as a window into another person’s mind and development. Like other complex human behaviors, though pointing can be found everywhere, there is also considerable variation in the cultural scaffolding around pointing—like what it’s taboo or bad luck to point at, and what body parts are used to do the pointing.

“Once you get into it, you see how [pointing] connects to so many different aspects of what it means to be human,” Cooperrider said.

After starting to pay attention to pointing, you’ll start to see it everywhere, and how often we use it in our interactions. In a 2011 study of math lectures in the U.S. and Japan, pointing and other kinds of indicating took up more than 60 percent of all the gestures. Gestures like peace signs and thumbs ups, though more specific in meaning, are much less frequent.

Cooperrider has written about how pointing appears in many Leondardo da Vinci paintings, from The Last Supper to Saint John the Baptist to A Woman in a Landscape (which is sometimes called the “pointing lady” sketch). Visual representations of pointing are not only common in art, but also in other forms, like manuscripts starting in the 12th century, where “manicules,” or little hands in Latin, were often placed in the margins. These are tiny representations of hands which could have stretched out index fingers to point to important parts of the text.

Examples of manicures

Collage courtesy of Kensy Cooperrider, “Fifteen ways of looking at a pointing gesture.” Images sourced from Flickr user POP (Provenance Online Project).

As the researcher Bill Sherman wrote, these pointers “may have been the most common symbol produced both by and for readers in the margins of manuscripts and printed books.”

Cooperrider noted that “fingerposts,” signs that point out directions, help us to find our way on hiking trails, and up until recently, computer cursors were shaped like small pointing hands. Today, the emoji of an index finger sticking up into the air is a symbol for having a new thought or insight, or gesturing to something for emphasis.

Pointing is all around us, and it also reliably emerges in humans on a developmental timeline, when we are around 11 to 13 months old. Sotaro Kita, a professor of psychology of language of the University of Warwick, said that pointing arrives nearly always a month or two before children say their first words.

“When you first observe a pointing gesture in the infant, we know that within one or two months, the first word will come,” Kita said.

Because of this timing, there are some scholars who have proposed that language first evolved in the form of gestures like pointing, and became combined with spoken words over time, though there’s some disagreement about this.

Pointing is closely linked with words called demonstratives, which include “this, that, here, there, these, and those.” There are sentences with demonstratives that can’t communicate their full meaning without pointing, like, “Look at this one.” If said without pointing, it would be harder to interpret than if accompanied by the gesture.

Demonstratives are unique because they’re found in every spoken language, and they are very old. Since they’re often paired up with pointing in order to fully communicate their meaning, “demonstratives may have been present at the very first stirrings of human language,” Cooperrider has written. “And, if they were, it was likely along with their steadfast partner, pointing,”

We can point to the pastry in a bakery that we want, or in the direction of the bus stop, but we’re also capable of more philosophically complex pointing.

People can point to things that aren’t there, or point in a way that refers to abstract concepts and not to physical objects, called “metonymic pointing.” One of Cooperrider’s first projects was to examine what people are doing when they point to themselves, because as Bush demonstrated, they don’t always mean “I” or “me” when they do so.

This is like Bush pointing to the free world vis-a-vis himself. Or, as philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine thought up, pointing to an empty gas gauge in a car to refer to a lack of gasoline elsewhere in the vehicle, or pointing to something to refer to its color rather than the object itself. We can point through physical objects, like walls, we can point to things that don’t exist, we can point as a reference to the passage of time, or to something that was once present but is now gone.

Even infants who can only produce one word at a time can coordinate speech and gesture together in meaningful ways. “A one year old might point at a chair and say, ‘Daddy,’ when Daddy’s not there,” Kita said.

Consider trying to teach someone a word by pointing at what the word refers to, as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once pondered: Could you correctly do this, just by pointing? In Philosophical Investigations he wrote, “Point to a piece of paper—And now point to its shape—now to its color… How do you do it?” Each time, you might point to the same object, but have different intentions. In this way, pointing can be both simple, and ripe for conceptual misinterpretation.

Cooperrider reported an anecdote that captures the potential for confusion: a lemur in Madagascar called “indri” received its name when a visiting French naturalist wrote down the word after hearing a person shout “indri” while pointing at it. But “indri” doesn’t mean lemur, it means, “Look there.” (“The truth of this anecdote remains debated,” Cooperrider wrote, adding that “the veracity of such stories is beside the point: what is crucial is the observation that a pointing gesture does not single-handedly identify a referent.”)

“The transparency of pointing is—at least sometimes—an illusion,” Cooperrider wrote.

Though every culture points, there are distinctive cross cultural differences in pointing. Some cultures predominantly point with their fingers or hands, as in the West, while in others lip or nose pointing is part of the pointing repertoire.

In Japan, Kita said, flat-hand pointing is seen as more polite. “A shopkeeper would point out products with a flat hand to a customer,” he said. “But when shopkeepers are talking between themselves, they might just point with a finger.”

An Australian Aboriginal group called the Arrente uses specific handshapes for specific pointing purposes, Kita said. One is called the “horned hand,” used when you’re pointing to someone in the direction their destination is in, but not the exact route to get there. Lip pointing has been observed in Peru, Australia, Nigeria, Panama, Laos, and China. Cooperrider and his colleagues have published about nose pointing in Papua New Guinea, which “involves scrunching the face together while aiming the gaze toward a target.”

“They use a broader variety of ways of pointing than Westerners do,” Cooperrider said. “That raises questions about why, and what the different forms of pointing are doing.” Cooperrider thinks that the other forms of pointing that Westerners see as “exotic or marginal” were probably much more pronounced for a lot of human history.

Pointing can also carry weighty superstitions or taboos, like the belief that pointing can hurt or even kill another person. In South Africa, pointing at crops is said to make them die, and it’s forbidden to point at objects or places affiliated with one’s ancestors.

Pointing can be considered rude, and young children can be scolded for pointing (ironically, sometimes scolding comes with its own pointing gesture). Anthropologist Rita Astuti found that among the Vezo of Madagascar, you shouldn’t point to whales, sharks, or large octopuses with the index finger extended. In parts of Indonesia, you should not point to a still-growing pumpkin or the constellation Ursa Major.

The linguist Robert Blust has written about how there is a common taboo about pointing to rainbows. The consequences could include “having one’s fingers permanently bent” or “the offending finger will wither away.” Blust found the no-rainbow pointing rule in 124 different cultural communities.

Pointing taboos can be found at Disney resorts, as reported by Refinery 29, where the staff are told to point with both their index and middle finger. It does seem to be a cultural universal that people find index-finger pointing to be aggressive, Cooperrider said, whereas other forms of pointing are taken as softer. The term “finger pointing” does mean “to accuse someone,” in multiple languages.

“It’s almost like index finger pointing is shouting, and all these other forms of pointing are whispering,” he said. “It feels like a volume or intensity thing.”

Kita and his colleague James Essegbey did a study where they asked people for directions in Ghana, and found that people would go out of their way to avoid pointing with their left hand, since there is a widespread left-hand taboo. Kita and Essegbey found that people will sometimes combine their hands together to point, so it’s not just the left hand being used.

Kita combed through newspapers for examples of the dire consequences of left handed pointing. One publication described a conflict between foreign film directors who were trying to get actors to point with their left hand in a scene. Another, from a Ghanaian newspaper, described an incident where a cab driver gestured with the left hand to a military officer passing by him.

“According to what the cab driver told the newspaper, which the officer denied, he and his friend were physically abused because of the offensive left-hand gesture,” Kita and Essegbey wrote. “According to him, the officer questioned him as to why he used his left hand to give him a signal. Then the officer called in his junior officers, who took the driver and his friends to the air force base, shaved them with broken bottles, beat them up, and locked them up in a room till the following day without food or water.”

Though there seems to be, as Kita put it, a “human imperative to point,” there’s still a lot to learn about pointing. For instance, work is ongoing as to whether nonhuman animals point and for what purpose, as well as the role of pointing in sign language.

Some still call pointing a “nonverbal behavior,” which indicates that in some spheres of linguistics research, gesture is considered to be not part of language, Kita said. He thinks that gesture plus speech should be considered as language together.

“Gesture is a very important window into a speaker’s mind,” Kita said. “If you look at gesture, you can have a more holistic view of what the speaker is intending to communicate.”

This hidden complexity of pointing may even allow it to be seen as a diagnostic window, according to Cooperrider. “Its absence or delay can signal trouble ahead,” he wrote. In 2017, a study found that when children don’t point with one finger, but with their hand, they are at higher risk for having their language be delayed.

Doctors can ask patients to point to their own bodies to do coordination, motor control, or neurological tests. In one intriguing set of case studies, the neurologist Arnold Pick reported that two patients couldn’t point to parts of their own bodies, though they could name them. Later, this disorder was called autotopagnosia. Another report of what was called heterotopagnosia revealed that in some cases, people are unable to point to parts of other people’s bodies, though they can still point to their own nose or knee.

But despite containing multitudes, Cooperrider said that at its core, pointing reveals how important attention, and shared attention, is in our lives. If we think about all communication as relying on attention, Cooperrider said, then pointing helps us to achieve that. (Pointing can help direct our own attention too—like the experience of pointing to words on a page as we read as a tool of focus.)

Pointing can be seen as a tool for capturing, sharing, and manipulating attention on each other and the world around us. “This is a physical embodiment of our will to express or manipulate others’ attention, but also express our own attentional state,” Cooperrider said. “It’s a physical embodiment of how prominently attention figures in everyday interaction, and our experience of social life.”

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