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“Hand-Made Minds in the Digital Age”

Posted on May 31, 2013 by in The OFI Blog

On May 30, 2013, Frank Wilson, M.D. – Sr. Goldman Sachs Fellow at the National Museum of American History Lemelson Center - gave a lecture on the connection between human cognition and human hands. Frank is a neurologist who once was an emergency room doctor and clinical researcher. He is also an author, a musician, and a proponent of education that encourages dexterous and manual activity; this kind of activity increases cognitive ability.

Dr. Wilson presented the crowd with a few basic questions: Do the differences between human hands and the hands of our closest genetic relatives relate to the success found in human life? In the “Information Age,” the brain doesn’t seem as important. Prior to the “Information Age,” people would spend years perfecting a manual skill, and that skill would later define them as people — as tailors, chefs, blacksmiths, and the like. Should we care that those titles and manual skills no longer seem as important? Are humans intelligent because we have hands, as Anaxagoras argued, or do humans have hands because we are intelligent, as Aristotle argued? Is it important to develop hands in order to develop cognition?

Some of these questions rely on personal opinion — the Anaxagoras and Aristotle dilemma very closely resembles the chicken and the egg dilemma. Other questions can be answered with a bit of scientific background.  The differences between human hands and those of our close genetic relatives, such as chimpanzees, give humans the upper hand, so to speak, in tool dexterity through use of the flexor apparatus. The flexor apparatus is a part of the thumb which allows us to grasp objects in such a way that allows us to control them more efficiently; it allows us to accurately throw baseballs, and hit a nail on the head with accuracy, among other activities that involve grasping objects and manipulating them to hit a predetermined target.

Rembrandt's "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp" which shows the flexor apparatus

Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp shows the flexor apparatus.

In order to understand how important hands are, one can observe a human baby playing with a toy.  When babies handle any object, they closely watch their hands as they manipulate the object; through the process of trial and error, babies begin to understand which hand positions allow them the most efficient control over the object in their hands.  Manually manipulating and controlling an object is such an intricate cognitive process, that it takes a child approximately eight years to effectively manipulate and control objects as well as an adult.  The brain takes this long to develop this skill because the brain keeps meticulous records of trials and errors in order to make this skill as accurate as possible.  With this knowledge in mind, we can confidently affirm that hand development is crucial to cognitive development; therefore, we should be concerned that hands are less involved in the Digtal Age.

Many first world children now draw and color on items such as iPads, other tablets, and computers.  While drawing on these items may be less messy, it could be detrimental to their cognitive development.  When children use their hands, not just their fingertips, they aid cognitive development because they force their brains to undergo a variety of functions in order to grasp an object, apply pressure at the proper points on that object to allow control, and maintain control and precision as the child moves the object.  Children need to draw, paint, color, play with building blocks, and participate in other manual activites in order to maximize their cognitive development.

Playing a musical instrument is also a fantastic way to aid congnitive development; as a saxophone player, I can attest to this.  When I, or anyone else, play a musical instrument, the brain is constantly assessing rhythm, horizontal melodic structures, vertical harmonic structures, among countless other components.  While the brain is assessing this information, it is also recalling the proper hand positions and fingerings, along with any other instrument-specific requirements.  For wind instruments, the brain is signaling the diaphragm to contract and relax as needed.  The brain outputs a significant amount of this information into the instrumentalists’ hands; therefore playing a musical instrument forces the brain to undergo several cognitive processes simultaneously in tandem with one’s hands, greatly increasing both cognitive ability and the need for, literally, hands-on education.

Both as an instrumentalist and as someone who has hands, I found this lecture enlightening, interesting, and frankly, a bit frightening.  We  must challenge ourselves, our educational systems, and our children to continue partaking in manual and dexterous activities in order to continue our cognitive evolution.  Fortunately, the Smithsonian is already doing its part in spreading this message in order to help complete its mission — to diffuse knowledge to all.

For more information, visit Dr. Wilson’s website here.

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