The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture

The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture

“The human hand is so beautifully formed, its actions are so powerful, so free and yet so delicate that there is no thought of its complexity as an instrument; we use it as we draw our breath, unconsciously.” With these words written in 1833, Sir Charles Bell expressed the central theme of some of the most far-reaching and exciting research being done in science today. For humans, the lifelong apprenticeship with the hand begins at birth. We are guided by our hands, and we are indelibly shaped by the knowledge that comes to us through our use of them.

The Hand delineates the ways in which our hands have shaped our development–cognitive, emotional, linguistic, and psychological–in light of the most recent research being done in anthropology, neuroscience, linguistics, and psychology. How did structural changes in the hand prepare human ancestors for increased use of tools and for our own remarkable ability to design and manufacture them? Is human language rooted in speech, or are its deepest roots to be found in the gestures that made communal hunting and manufacture possible? Is early childhood experience in reaching and grasping the secret of the human brain’s unique capacity to redefine intelligence with each new generation in every culture and society?

Frank Wilson’s inquiry incorporates the experiences and insights of jugglers, surgeons, musicians, puppeteers, and car mechanics. His fascinating book illuminates how our hands influence learning and how we, in turn, use our hands to leave our personal stamp on the world.The hand is, among other things, a complex symbol, representing both the creative and the prosaic. This blending of the spiritual and the mundane is what makes the hand unique, as it in turn makes us unique among animals. Neurologist Frank R. Wilson has taken on a heroic task: to explain the hand on both of these levels and to show us how we use these marvelous instruments to find and create meaning in our lives.

Anthropology, neuroscience, music, and puppetry all figure prominently in The Hand, which effortlessly guides the reader through its million-year biography. Brains and thumbs growing and changing to accommodate each other, discovering tools and language together, kicked us out of the monkey house for good. While there is still controversy over whether we are the brainiest animals on the planet, it is abundantly clear that we are the handiest.

This manipulative ability is our greatest strength and our most terrible flaw. Without hands we would have no Louvre but also no nerve gas. But, Wilson says, our situation is more complex. Our access to far greater means to achieve our ends gives us a greater hunger for meaning. We long to use our hands to satisfy our needs–whether spiritual or down-to-earth. This creation of meaning from nothing may be our greatest achievement. In the end, The Hand is brightly optimistic, showing that our reach truly does exceed our grasp. –Rob Lightner

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