For sake of humanity, give yourself a hand

Most people think the brain tells the hand what to do. It seems to me that the brain doesn’t know much about the hand until the hand tells it. How can a brain know what is hot or cold until the hand touches hot and cold things? How can a brain know left and right until the hand learns to put the right shoe on the right foot? 

Okay, technically I suppose that is your foot telling your brain what is right and left. Still, the concept is the same. Your body informs your brain about the physical world long before your brain tells your hand what to do. 

I bet the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning is hit the snooze button with your hand. That is probably the one time during the day when we have a lot of time on our hands. Now, you may be one of those rare, disciplined, disgusting individuals who actually gets up when you are supposed to. Then the first thing you do is turn the alarm clock off, so it won’t disturb the other more-normal people in the house.

The fact is, you probably used your hands for dozens of things before you even uttered a word. Okay, maybe you said a word or two when the alarm went off. But that is a learned response and must be carefully taught. Speaking before thinking is actually a very dangerous thing to do and should only be attempted by specially trained windbags called college professors. Do not try this at home.

Babies learn to reach for things long before they learn to talk. Most of them are successful at picking things up and putting them in their mouths before uttering their first words. Could that be the origin of the phrase a “hand-to-mouth existence?” 

What does all this have to do with science? The history of human invention, which we like to call progress, is mostly the understanding that we develop of the physical world through things we build with our hands. Like the old saying goes, “The things we make, make us.” 

So what do we make? Music? Gadgets? Gardens? Golf scores? Apps? Does it make any difference what we make? What happens when we become a service society and don’t make anything anymore? Scientific discoveries always involve the making of something — from making the first microscopes or electrical circuits to trying to make gold from straw. The brain seldom knows much until the body becomes involved. 

Unfortunately, modern educational practice has either forgotten this, or has chosen to ignore it. There is still some drawing, cutting, and pasting in the first few grades — highly valued skills, I suppose. But by and large hand education has disappeared. Today, many even want to do away with cursive writing, in spite of the fact that it has been shown to increase reading skill and clarity of thought. 

The students are left empty-handed. Making things is time-consuming and a material-driven endeavor. More expense is involved than merely reading and writing. However, reading and writing have limited application, unless used to direct someone’s hand somewhere.

In my experience, making things almost always involves making mistakes. Making mistakes, however, is sometimes the most useful thing one can make because we learn so much when we make them. 

I had a professor once who said that if an experiment came out the way we expected, it was boring and was an indication that we already understood the system. Only when the results don’t meet our expectations does it get really interesting! 

On the other hand ... you just have different fingers. There is no “other hand.” The brain cannot know anything until the hand teaches it. The brain cannot know that its “reach can exceed its grasp” unless the hand has had to reach and grasp.

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University.


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