If you want to learn something new, give yourself a hand

Most people think the brain tells the hand what to do. However, it seems to me that the brain doesn’t know much about the hand until the hand tells it something. How can a brain know what is hot or cold until the hand has touched hot and cold things? How can a brain know left and right until the hand has learned 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 thing. 

I bet I know the first thing you did when you woke up this morning. You hit the snooze button with your hand. Early morning is probably the only time of the day when I have a lot of time on my hands. You may be one of the rare, disciplined, disgusting individuals who actually gets up when you are supposed to. Then the first thing you did was turn the alarm clock off, so it wouldn’t disturb the other more normal people in the house.

The second thing you did was use your hand to push back the covers so you could get up.  In fact, you probably used your hand for dozens of things long before you uttered your first word. Okay, there might be a few maladjusted folks who say things when the alarm goes off, even before hitting snooze. But that is a learned response and must be carefully taught. Speaking before thinking is actually a dangerous thing to do and should only be attempted by specially trained windbags called college professors. Do not try this at home without supervision.

Babies reach for things long before they learn to talk. Most are even successful at picking things up and putting them in their mouths before uttering their first words. Could that be the origin of the phrase “hand-to-mouth existence?” I am told that about a quarter of the motor cortex of the brain, the part that senses and controls the body, is devoted to the hand. You gotta hand it to the hand if it is that important!

I am taking that last fact on faith since I didn’t have a hand in figuring it out. I don’t know how someone could know about the motor cortex unless they actually had a hand in determining it. I’m not sure we can really know anything unless we put our hands to it. On the other hand, you have different fingers.

What does all this have to do with science? The history of science and human invention, which each generation likes to call progress, occurs mostly through understanding that we develop of the physical world. We mostly learn to understand the physical world through our hands. Like Jacob Bronowski observed, “The hand is the cutting edge of the mind.” 

While science has amassed a large catalog of facts, it is not the collection of facts that comprise science. It is true that we can use the stockpile of knowledge to help us do things. Science, however, is the making of new facts through direct experience with the physical world.  This often requires the doing or making of new things to better manipulate the world, or the use of previously developed tools to understand the world.

It is hard to understand computer code if one does not understand electrical switches. It is hard to understand hearts or lungs if one does not have some experience with pumps, pressure and liquid flow. So what do we Americans make nowadays? Does it make any difference what we make? Do children make anything in school after grade four? Can a college graduate actually make anything? Maybe, in 2014, it would be good if we could find ways for the hand to teach our brains something new. Let your hands tell your brains something new.

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


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