The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues


Pointing puts an idea into another's mind. (Paraphrasing a comment by Rita Carter [1998:141; see Usage below])

Gesture1. Extending an index finger (or less frequently, other body parts such as the lips) to indicate the presence or location of objects, features, or forces. 2. Stiffening a forefinger to direct attention to people, places, or things. 3. A stabbing motion of the index finger, as given in anger.

Usage: Pointing has two two distinctive usages, one emotional (as in anger) and the other cognitive (as in pointing to show mom a butterfly on the wing). We point with the second digit to turn another person's attention to something we, ourselves, see, hear, or smell. Because it refers to the outside world, the referential point is a high-level, language-like gesture. In babies, the referential point first appears at ca. 12 months of age, in tandem with the first use of words. (N.B.: Prior to the appearance of speech, pointing is a reassuring indicator of an infant's probable language ability.) While animals such as honeybees, e.g., can refer to environmental features, only humans point them out with fingers. At close quarters, pointing at another human being is almost universally considered an aggressive, hostile, or unfriendly act. Because it focuses so much attention upon the recipient, close-quarters pointing is frowned upon throughout the world (see Anthropology 4. below).

Anatomy. We may extend all four fingers (the thumb has its own extensor muscles) in a coordinated way, by contracting the forearm's extensor digitorum muscle. Our index finger, however, has an extra forearm muscle (extensor indicis), which enhances the neural control of its muscular ability to point.

Anthropology1. Kiowa Indians point at objects with pursed lips (LaBarre 1947). 2. The Cuna Indians of San Blas, Panama use a pointed-lip gesture as a means of pointing (deixis) and of greeting others (Sherzer 1973). 3. Pointing with protruded lips is also found in the Philippines, and in parts of Africa and South America (Morris 1994:156). 4. Pointing a bone to direct psychic energy is commonly used by sorcerers when casting a spell.

Evolution. A relatively recent gesture, pointing may trace back ca. 2.4 m.y.a. to neural circuits evident in the brain of our oldest-known human ancestor, Homo habilis (see HUMAN BRAIN). In tandem with mime cues, referential pointing may have helped set the stage for the debut of speech in Nonverbal World. Today, the point remains an effective means of communication, and has been extended for use in certainconsumer products (e.g., in the tapered pointer stick, the laser pointer, and the computer mouse).
Observations1. An excited toddler extends her index finger toward a chirping bird, as mother watches and smiles. 2. A Brazilian Indianpoints to show an anthropologist where she forages in the rain forest. 3. An angry manager frowns, compresses his lips, and jabs his index finger at the low sales figures on a flip chart.

Salesmanship. One signal of a prospect's skepticism: "The index finger is raised slightly for a second, then lowered" (Delmar 1984:46).

U.S. politics. On January 26, 1998, President William Jefferson Clinton pointed his index finger aggressively at the American people and stated, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."

Word originPoint originates from the ancient Indo-European root, peuk- ("to prick"); derivatives include pugilismpunctuate, and puncture.

RESEARCH REPORTS1. Pointing and other deictic movements have been called illustrators (Ekman and Friesen 1969). 2. Pointing is part of an infant's repertoire by 15 months of age. Children point at objects and gaze at their mothers, but "the mother herself is never pointed at" (Anderson 1972:208). 3. "Prespeech is frequently combined with more complex and individuated finger movements, including pointing with the index finger" (Trevarthen 1977:252). 4. The pure point follows the hand-reach: "Initially it is used like an indicating reach. But like most new forms, pointing [typically with vocalization and gazing back at the mother] explodes in usage soon after the first appearance (Bruner 1978:207).5. "Pointing emerges at 9 months but is not integrated with vocal activity until 14 months" (Murphy 1978:371). 6. According to Vygotsky, thepointing gesture originates from infantile attempts to grasp objects in a mother's presence (Gray 1978). 7. The forefinger point (1), which evolved to aide in cooperative hunting, is used worldwide to indicate direction, "usually in response to a query" (Morris 1994:85). 8. In theforefinger point (2), "The forefinger points directly at the companion"; the stiffened finger resembles a "symbolic weapon, about to stab the victim" (Morris 1994:85). 9. Morris (1994) lists 51 forefinger gestures, compared with 8 thumb, 19 arm, and 17 fist cues.

Neuro-notes I. The earliest pointing is clearly emotional, as babies point to share their excitement with adults nearby (see EMOTION). The gesture itself, however, is controlled by newer, more advanced, non-emotional modules of the forebrain's neocortex. Nerve fibers from its primary motor areas link directly to motor neurons, enabling the index finger to move deliberately and with great precision. The long nerves descend in a "mental expressway" which bypasses ancient brain-stem paths and fall directly onto the digit itself. Thus, pointing shows direct cortical control, as its neural pathway detours around primeval interneuron routes of the spinal cord (i.e., the cord's paleocircuits, utilized by older hand signs such as the palm-down, the palm-up, and self-touch).

E-Commentary: "Dear David: In a nutshell I have monozygotic twins with autism. They are 5. They have language (of which is disordered but functional). They did not point until about 2 -3 years of age and that was with us asking them to. About 6 months ago they begin having some pragmatic language. They have some fairly decent primitive conversational skills which we work on constantly because it is very hard for them. They have extremely strong visual spatial skills like many of these kids. Here is my question. They both point with their middle finger!!!! I can't seem to find any data on how often this occurs in the population or if it is just another soft sign of their autism? Interestingly their dad also does the same thing . . . his language if fine but he did have a history of some articulatory problems around 5-6yrs of age. Short of that he has a medical degree and 2 advanced degrees, so his trajectory has been great!!! This is driving me crazy because no one seems to be able to answer this and I can't imagine that this isn't either not that common and is cited in the literature somewhere or it is and nobody reports it!" --A. (6/26/03 3:17:26 AM Pacific Daylight Time) 

E-Commentary: "Dr. Givens, Prof. Becker came up with a question about a finger-on-finger gesture (both index fingers extended with the others clenched, and one rubbing on the other, in a sort of whittling motion) that is universally (at least in the U.S.) understood to be a "shame on you" gesture used by or with children. The question is: Where did the gesture come from? Does it symbolize something? Related questions are: How universal is it outside the U.S.? Is it primarily a part of children's culture? I enjoyed looking at the Nonverbal Dictionary, but could not find such a gesture. We would appreciate any answers to our questions. We have gotten a number of the Physics faculty here wondering about the gesture (and perhaps wondering how two astronomers came up with such questions)." --Glen W. Erickson, Physics Professor Emeritus, University of California, Davis (6/1/01 8:07:17 PM Pacific Daylight Time)

E-Response: "Hi, Glen--Thanks for your e-mail. Yes, according to Desmond Morris (1994:94-5), the gesture (forefingers rub) means "shame," and is restricted to North America. The rubbing of the two forefingers is thought to symbolize friction. There's a related gesture (forefingers scrape) from Wales, Germany, and Austria, in which one finger "saws" across the pointed other one. The latter is considered an insult, again with the friction message coming though. The origin of both of these gestures is unknown. The closest sign in The Nonverbal Dictionary is the entry for "Point." In the forefinger rub, the scraped digit may be pointed at the guilty party. Okay, I hope this helps!" (6/4/01 3:20:35 PM Pacific Daylight Time)

Neuro-notes II. A pointed finger shows that advanced centers of the neocortex have been engaged. As a skilled gesture, pointing involves a. thesupplementary motor area (which programs the sequence of arm, hand, and finger movements), b. the premotor cortex (which orients the arm movements), and c. the primary motor cortex (which programs the direction the gesture takes). In turn, the frontal neocortex receives visual information about persons, places, and things from the posterior parietal lobes. While the left lobe is involved in language processing, the right lobe processes spatial information to guide our pointed finger in the proper direction. (Like aphasia [the inability to speak], apraxiaincludes an inability to point. That both disorders may be brought on by injuries to the left side of the neocortex demonstrates the similarity between voluntary pointing and speech.) (N.B.: Despite severe damage to the brain's neocortex, we are still able to utter obscene words and make angry gestures, such as the middle-finger jerk [digitus impudicus, i.e., "give the finger"]. Gestured and verbalized expletives are motivated by the limbic system working through motor patterns stored in basal ganglia of the primitive reptilian brain.)

Photo of Raphael Palmeiro testifying before a U.S. Congressional hearing on March 17, 2005. Note the pointing index finger, aimed at committee members, as Palmiero says, "I have never used steroids. Period. I don't know how to say it any more clearly than that. Never" (Givens 2008:10). (Picture credit: unknown.)