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Step Away From The Keyboard: How Our Hands Affect Our Brains

Does it matter whether you type, print, or write in cursive?

Our Brains and Hands Evolved Together.

Our Brains and Hands Evolved Together.

In 1999, neurologist Frank Wilson wrote a book on hands. Inspired by his own efforts to learn a challenging manual task - playing the piano - and working with people with injured hands, he compiled a book-length essay on the intimate relationship between brain development and how we use our hands.

He begins with Washburn's thesis that humans, as a species, broke off from our ancestral line when our brains and hands co-evolved in such a way that it made tool use possible. Developing a bipedal gait freed us to use our hands for other tasks and allowed them to evolve more specifically for fine motor skills rather than locomation. The use of tools and the co-evolution of hand and brain prompted a raft of other evolutionary changes. As early humans used tools more, those with greater manual skills - i.e., those whose brains had the necessary capacity for fine control and learning - were at a relative advantage, and so the species evolved.

Recently, a number of studies have shown how different ways of using our hands can have profound effects on how we think. In recent weeks, one of the most popular New York Times science pieces has been on how writing, rather than typing, engages different parts of our brains. Children express more and better ideas writing in cursive than when typing. Brain scans show that more of the areas of the brain associated with memory formation are activated when writing than when typing. This seems to have consequences. Work by researchers Mueller and Oppenheimer demonstrates that when people take lecture notes by hand, rather than typing, they learn more. One reason for this may be the type of brain activation evoked by manual handwriting rather than typing. However, another part of it is that typing is just too fast and easy. We can almost transcribe what is said when we type - and we try to. But the key thing about taking notes is not getting information on the paper. It is UNDERSTANDING what was said and processing it deeply. Notetaking should summarize and make connections. It is not about stenography. Writing, because it is slower and more effortful, forces us to process more deeply.

Kids Should Learn to Print, Write in Cursive, and Type at Different Ages.

Several researchers have found that writing in cursive (an increasingly esoteric skill) and printing also involve different brain process and cause us to think in somewhat different ways. But I would argue that learning to print and learning cursive at different times in our developmental history - i.e., in different grades - is just a good thing anyway. Children develop on different schedules. In addition to individual differences, normatively girls tends to develop fine motor skills at an earlier age than do boys.

Both of my sons - like their father and grandfather before them - are ambidextrous and consequently were very late at developing good manual coordination of their writing hand. Their printing - learned in kindergarten - was atrocious. They also never learned proper letter formation - they do some of the oddest things with their strokes, even after years of correction. By the time they were in the third grade, however, their small motor skills were much improved. So was their attention span. So when they took up cursive, they were much more ready to learn. Both are much better cursive writing than printing. Why? Timing. For many children, getting a second shot at learning to write by hand may have developmental advantages. In the US, we tend to teach printing first, then (if ever) cursive. In Chile, where I do much of my research, they learn cursive first, because it is through to be easier. They learn to print later. I don't know if it matters which comes first. I do think there is an advantage in having two chances to learn to communicate legibly.

Sewing Barbie Dresses, Carpentry, and Downspouts

I was thinking about the rich interconnections between brain development and how we use our hands this morning. I was building an arbor for my garden out of some old futon parts I had scavenged and some joists taken from our roof. It was a rough, but satisfying job, involving an hour's work and ending in a lovely entrance to my garden. I was not working with plans, just measuring and adjusting and cutting the evolving project as I went. I work that way a lot on projects of all sorts. Whenever I do, I thank the hours and hours and hours I spent sewing Barbie clothes as a kid.

Barbie gets a lot of flack. She is bizarrely proportioned and, especially in the 60's, when I was a kid, her major activities seemed to involve getting dressed up for improbably elegant balls. But we spent hours playing with her. Unlike now, when you buy a different Barbie for each outfit she owns, our Barbies came dressed only in a bathing suit. You bought - if you were lucky - her outfits separately.

We weren't lucky. Barbie taught me to sew. My mom had bags and bags of rickrack and filmy fabric left over from lingerie scraps. We had sequins and scraps from old clothes. We bought snaps and tiny little buttons. There were Barbie dress patterns, but we didn't use them. We held up fabric. We cut and adjusted and basted. We tried things this way and that. It all worked out. We made lots of clothes. And furniture from paper cups, rocks, and wood. And saddles for her horses and little tiny dog beds for the toy animals we gave her.

Between those adventures in sewing and minature carpentry and paper craft, we built with blocks. We made bizarre forts of odds and ends of wood. We painted rocks with faces, made candles, and nailed boards to trees to make them easier to climb. We did lots and lots and lots of things with our hands.

The reason I always think of Barbie when I do carpentry is that carpentry uses the same skills I learned doing those crafts years ago. Estimation. Adjustment. Fine motor skills. Spatial ability. Imagination. I use very similar skills in the work as a statistician. And I used them in my previous career in architecture.

Roberta Golinkoff has done work recently published in Child Development demonstrating that playing with toys like blocks and puzzles fosters the development of strong spatial abilities. These spatial abilities help us learn math and science. I would argue that learning to fit together little pieces in sewing and other crafts has very similar functions.

But the bottom line is the same as in the research on writing by hand. Using our hands requires the development of particular areas of the brain. That's true when we are learning to use a tool, like our ancesters weilding an axe. It's true when we learn to play the piano. It's true when we learn to write. It's true when we learn to sew or play with blocks.

One of the advantages of moving away from the keyboard and doing something that requires greater flexibility in how we use our hands is that it also requires greater flexibility in how we use our brains. This, in turn, requires our brains to develop in new ways.

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