Opinion » Note

Thinking Hands

No texting while we listen to my new theory

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Ask any accomplished pianist, she'll tell you. And by "accomplished," I mean someone who can play with all 10 fingers. And by "play," I mean to generate elaborate patterns and variations of movement with those fingers moving independently of one another, rather than shaping one's hands into inflexible claws in order to bang out block chords on "My Baby Does the Hanky Panky."

Ask her how on earth she ever managed to memorize all of Bach's Partitas, every one so fugueishly complex as to make it sound like four melodies playing at once (which is exactly what is happening). Or how does one brain, no matter how musically inclined it may be, hold all 32 of Beethoven's piano sonatas?

She will tell you it's in her fingers, this vast store of musical data-bytes. We call it "muscle memory." That's what all the practicing is for, to get your fingers in line with your brain in order to produce the sounds you wish to produce in the sequence you wish to produce them. Good musicians are "thinking" with pieces of flesh and sinew and bone located far outside the skull.

So it would come as no surprise to Johann and Ludwig that evidence is gathering which indicates those children who are writing their assignments out in longhand are retaining more of what they write, and are stimulating more of their brain, than ones who spend their school days glued to a computer keyboard.

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I knew as a junior-high kid that if I really wanted to firmly grasp whatever I was reading, especially the stuff that was the hardest to comprehend and retain--you know... the stuff that always ended up on tests--it would become more clear and stick to my brain more solidly if I wrote it out. I would copy entire paragraphs, passages, even pages if I had to. Sometimes it felt like I was etching the material onto the back of my eyeballs.

I'd forgotten I ever did that until I read a report recently of the research being done to establish the different sort of reactions in the brain and results in the learning process, depending on whether the child is longhand writing or typing. In study after study, psychologists and neuroscientists are finding that research subjects writing in longhand retain more and are more facile at creating new ideas than those doing the same functions on a keyboard. There are even indications that cursive writing--that often elegant calligraphy so quickly going the way of the dodo and the eight-track tape--is more powerful than printing when it comes to memory and general brain activity.

Now, no one is claiming--at least, not in the report I read--that writing longhand makes you smarter. But exactly what is being smarter, if not memory strength, idea generation and increased brain activity? And I am here today to carry these revelations to an even more unsubstantiated claim, being: If there is indeed a relationship between handwriting and brain activity--a "unique neural circuit," as one researcher describes it--then wouldn't that make our hands an extension of our brains?

And wouldn't it imply that the more intricate and complicated demands we make on our hands--writing in fluid cursive, for instance, or playing a Mozart sonata--the more our brains are improved? Stimulated? Enhanced? Activated?

Might this explain how so many masters of both the quill and the Age of Reason--Voltaire, Rousseau, Ben Franklin--seem so extraordinarily lucid? Think about it: There isn't a single signature on the Declaration of Independence written out in sloppy block letters, is there?

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And might it also explain why we don't seem to have an overabundance of smart people around today?

Let's suppose that the big leap in human intelligence levels, the one which anthropologists still haven't satisfactorily explained, came in direct juxtaposition with more sophisticated use of our pre-historic hands--e.g., back when we went from clubbing our dinners to death, to fashioning sharp objects for stabbing? Might the very act of turning a rock into a crude spearhead have triggered something under those heavy supraorbital ridges that led to more and more refined spearheads? Might the whittling of straight shafts into arrows have inspired the groggy Cro-Magnon mind to consider carving out the likeness of a cave bear from a hunk of firewood, or the shaping of a rudimental clay water jug led in the imagination to Grecian urns and Ming vases, all because the hands and the brain were working as complementary, synergistic units, feeding each other and off each other?

And might the biggest jumps of all have occurred when we started to turn the grunts and sputterings of early man into written symbols? That the very act of handwritten communication inspired deeper levels of thought to communicate? And that the more refined and intricate our symbols became--which could not have happened without a more refined and intricate use of the hands--the more refined and intricate our thinking became?

Yeah. That's my new theory. It's not entirely new, and it sure as hell isn't entirely mine. And it has a depressing flipside to it that bodes ill for the future of Mankind, because if it's true, then it stands to reason that as handwriting fades into the past with all the other hands-on stuff technology has enabled us not to do anymore, so will the accompanying intellectual growth.

Another day, perhaps we can explore the question: Is Tweeting making people stupider?... or were they stupid for taking up Tweeting in the first place?