Hands on the Mediator. The Hand-Brain Connection

The human hand – considerably more developed than those of our closest primate ancestors, is one of the great marvels of our evolution. There isn’t another creature on the planet whose hands have the same knack for grasping and manipulation – and the opposable thumb may have given us the upper hand when it came to outlasting the hominids around us.

Push forward several centuries and we’re doing a lot less intricate work with our hands than we might have in a bygone age. A 3-D printer means less hours spent hammering together a suit of armor. In fact, even reading the newspaper nowadays just takes a few swipes or clicks on a tablet screen. Apart from the convenience of it all, we rarely think of the consequences about how all of this innovation makes us think or feel.

“When you look at the brain’s real estate — how it’s divided up, and where its resources are invested — a huge portion of it is devoted to movement, and especially to voluntary movement of the hands,” says Kelly Lambert, who is a professor of behavioral neuroscience of the University of Richmond in Virginia.

Dr. Lambert’s areas of interest include effort-based rewards, and she particularly focuses on “the connection between the effort we put into something and the reward we get from it,” with the belief that working with our hands could offer its own reward as far as the mind is concerned.

In the research she has conducted on animals, Dr. Lambert and her research teams found that lab rats who used their paws (not too differently shaped from our own) to shovel up their food showed healthier stress hormone profiles and were also more efficient with problem solving when compared to rats who were rewarded food without needing to dig.

She sees a few similarities in similar studies done on people, which have already established that a wide range of what we call hands-on activities — common hobbies like knitting, gardening or coloring — are commonly associated with both cognitive as well as emotional benefits, including an improvement in memory and attention, in addition to overall reducing our own feelings of anxiety and diminishing any symptoms of depression.

These studies haven’t determined that hand involvement, specifically, deserves the credit. The researchers who looked at coloring, for example, speculated that it might promote mindfulness, which could be beneficial for mental health. Those who have studied knitting said something similar. “The rhythm and repetition of knitting a familiar or established pattern was calming, like meditation,” said Catherine Backman, a professor emeritus of occupational therapy at the University of British Columbia in Canada who has examined the link between knitting and well-being.

When it came to considering the long term, however, Dr. Backman suggested the idea that frequently working with one’s own hands could be beneficial to a person’s mind and their overall wellness did seem quite plausible. Hands-on tasks that require a full engagement of our attention — and those that even give us a small challenge — can nourish pathways for learning, adds Backman.

Dr. Lambert proposes a different hypothesis. “With depression, people experience something called learned helplessness, where they feel like it doesn’t matter what they do, nothing ever works,” she said. Lambert believes that by working with your own hands you are actively stimulating the brain, and in so doing, it is possible for an individual to help counteract any feelings of learned helplessness. “When you put in effort and can see the product of that, like a scarf you knitted, I think that builds up a sense of accomplishment and control over your world,” she said.

Some academics have honed in on the potential repercussions of switching out relatively complex hand tasks with much more simplistic ones.

In one small study taken of university students and published this January, Norwegian researchers documented the neurological effects of writing by hand compared to typing with a computer keyboard. Handwriting, they found, was strongly correlated with “far more elaborate” brain activity than they observed in the test subjects who typed on a keyboard.

“With handwriting, you have to form these intricate letters by making finely controlled hand and finger movements,” says Audrey van der Meer, one of the lead authors of the new study who is a professor of psychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Each letter has a different shape, she explains, and to create it on paper requires the individual to make a different type of hand motion with their pen.

Dr. Van der Meer says that the simple act of writing the letter a requires the individual to unlock distinctive memories and lights up brain pathways connected to what that particular letter of the alphabet represents (such small details like the way in which it sounds in a particular given word, and even what words require its use.) “But when you type, every letter is produced by the same very simple finger movement, and as a result you use your whole brain much less than when writing by hand,” she added.

Dr. Van der Meer’s new study is her latest endeavor in a sequence of research efforts pieced together by herself and her colleagues to understand the differences between kinetic writing and drawing compared to the same tasks being performed with the use of a keyboard. Van der Meer and colleagues suspect that doing these tasks by hand is considerably more demanding than using an electronic device. “Skills involving fine motor control of the hands are excellent training and superstimulation for the brain,” she says. “The brain is like a muscle, and if we continue to take away these complex movements from our daily lives — especially fine motor movements — I think that muscle will weaken.” Although there needs to be further research, Dr. Van der Meer proposes that continuous under stimulation of an individual’s brain may ultimately lead to prolonged deficits in our attention spans, as well as in memory formation and even problem solving.

But as the researchers have found with both knitting and coloring, there remain questions about what underlying mechanisms these activities unlock.

“With some of this research, I think it’s hard to dissociate whether it’s the physical movement of the hands that’s producing a benefit, or whether it’s the concentration or novelty or cognitive challenge involved,” says Rusty Gage, who is a professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies of San Diego.

Dr. Gage’s areas of study include the ability of certain activities to stimulate the development of new cells throughout the human brain. “I think if you’re doing complex work that involves making decisions and planning, that may matter more than whether you’re using your hands,” he said.

Having said that, there’s no doubt that the typical activities we perform using our hands have a litany of benefits. Alongside gardening or handicrafts like weaving and knitting, there has been a body of research literature showing that pursuits like working on visual  arts or learning how to play a musical instrument have long term health benefits that start with the brain.

“You know, we evolved in a three-dimensional world, and we evolved to interact with that world through our hands,” says Dr. Lambert. “I think there are a lot of reasons why working with our hands may be prosperous for our brains.”

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