I’ve been reading this book by Frank R. Wilson called The Hand. It is, not surprisingly, about the human hand, the evolution thereof, and a discussion of how the evolution of hand and mind occurred simultaneously and interdependently, each having a mighty influence on the other. It’s fascinating stuff.
I bought the book a year ago, and just got around to reading it. I’ve put myself on a book-buying freeze until I read the stacks of books I’ve already bought and have yet to read. (It’s going to take awhile.) It caught my attention because hands are interesting to me. They tell you a lot about a person. For example, my hands will tell you that I’m a person who scars easily and frequently, that I am well past the full bloom of youth (discovered my first age spots recently), that whatever job I have, it doesn’t involve hard manual labor, and that I play guitar. My left hand will tell you that I’m married, even if I took the rings off; they’ve left a permanent crease on my finger. It will also tell you the season if you’re savvy, because I have a birthmark on it that darkens in the summer sun to a far greater degree than the skin around it.
Hands are even more interesting for what they can do. Until I started reading this book, I really hadn’t considered just what a feat of evolution and engineering my hands are, and just how amazing it is that I can type this post at 71 words per minute. Which makes me wonder why playing the guitar has been so difficult at various times. Clearly, I have the capability to use discrete digital movements to create at top speed, but it doesn’t apply to the guitar at this point. The answer seems to lie in the way the brain and the hands interact.
The book covers things that beg for instant experimentation. It is not often when I’m reading a scientific work that I have all the components necessary to experience first-…uh…hand the truth of the statements. When I was reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, it wasn’t so easy to attempt fission in the home, or to simulate billions of years of plate tectonics. But hands are another story entirely, and I found myself engaging in mini-experiments because I’m a curious sort and because I nearly always have my hands with me.
The chapter I’m in the middle of is about handedness, which seems to be unique in the animal world and, as everyone knows, tends toward right-handedness for the majority of us. The connection to the brain and learning and handedness, while not entirely understood, brings up some intriguing points. One anecdote talked about naturally left-handed children who were forced into right-handedness, and subsequently found they had trouble in school; when they were allowed to revert to their natural left-handedness, their performance on learning tasks improved dramatically. Consider what your school years might’ve been like if you’d been forced to write with your non-dominant hand. “Frustrating” is the word that comes to mind for me.
Like most kids, I suppose, I experimented with writing with my left hand, and found the resulting mess a good reason to revert to my right hand. But it’s been decades since I repeated the experiment. Until the other night. (People who don’t have kids have this kind of free time.)
I started at the top by writing in cursive with my left hand. That Christmas song had just come up on shuffle-play when I was starting, so that’s what I wrote. It’s nigh on illegible, and the printing wasn’t much better. The sad thing was, I was trying really hard to make it as neat as possible, and this is the best I could do.
I had a brainstorm, and wondered if the superiority of my right hand was a function of the hand alone, or just a change of orientation, so decided to write upside-down with my right hand, both printing and in cursive. Oddly enough, it was much better than either of the left-hand versions. So the connection between writing and my right hand is a strong one, much stronger that that of my left-hand, regardless of orientation. Writing, it seems, is hard-wired into my right hand. It makes no sense to me that I should write better upside-down with my right hand than I do right-side-up with my left, but so it is. And it’s interesting that none of the versions look anything like my normal handwriting. That is the tasty mystery in all this, how that path gets so well worn as to make writing virtually effortless, and also make the transference of the skill to the non-dominant hand such a struggle.
I have had a similar experience with my eye injury. It is not the original injury that keeps me from seeing with that eye, not anymore. That could be repaired. However, the neural pathway from eye to brain is atrophied; that’s what makes it impossible now. Only losing the use of the other eye could reactivate it in time. But what’s amazing is that it could.
The malleability of ability is pretty amazing. It’s what allows practice to make a difference—as you do something over and over again, your brain learns how to do it to the point of automaticity. The rate at which we learn varies, but we all tend to go through the same stages in the end, if we stick with it. (When’s the last time you thought about tying your shoes?) Which is why I can play the guitar now; there was a time when I couldn’t even get my fingers into the proper chord shapes. People talk about muscle memory, but it’s really more muscle AND memory, the brain and hands conferring at the speed of light to work in concert. How cool is that? For all my complaints about this carcass, it really is an extraordinary machine.