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Use Your Hands

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Have you stopped using your hands? Do your fingers struggle to sign your name? Is chopping an onion with a knife hard work? Must you call someone to fix a cabinet door off the hinges? Is it agony to sew on a button?

For many, computers and laziness have sapped our manual skills. This is not progress.

In a much-read essay, Maria Konnikova cites several studies revealing what's lost when people replace handwriting with a keyboard. At Indiana University, for example, psychologist Karin James showed preliterate children a letter on an index card and asked them to reproduce it by tracing, drawing on blank paper or typing on a computer.

The children were put under a brain scanner and shown the letter again. Those who had drawn the letter freehand, Konnikova writes, "exhibited increased activity in three areas of the brain that are activated in adults when they read and write." Those who traced or typed were far less so affected.

James noted that the messiness in writing freehand yielded highly variable results. She believes the variability itself helped the children to learn.

In another study, older students taking notes by hand were found to process and remember information better than those using a keyboard.

The benefits of doing things manually could apply to a lot of things people once used their hands for but now do not much. Very often, the old-fashioned, hand-based activities also do a better job.

A friend tells me of his newfound preference for shaving with traditional instruments, as opposed to a plastic razor ripped out of the wrapping and soon disposed of. First, he must loosen screws on the razor holder. Then he inserts a double-edged blade and tightens the screws. He makes his shaving cream with an old-style shaving soap and applies it with a brush.

This makes the shaving routine more tactile and active. It also produces a better shave, my friend insists, exfoliating the skin while removing hair.

The great vegetarian food writer Deborah Madison calls hands "your most important tool," followed by an ordinary sharp knife. "Food processed in a machine never reveals the hand of the cook," she writes. "I always find it much more interesting to see the person in the way he or she cuts vegetables; it's one of the things that makes hands-on cooking so vital."

Like much else, sewing machines are now computerized. The upscale models come with a wide repertory of embroidery stitches. Who does embroidery by hand these days? Only a few. Sadly, the machine-embroidered product doesn't hold a candle to hand embroidery, with its human imperfections.

My mother was a great needleworker. I recall helping out with one of her projects when I was small. It was a large tablecloth printed with marks for the cross-stitches. She gave me a corner to work on and never touched my sloppy stitching. I now tear up every time I use the tablecloth.

Back at the written word, even pre-computer typing creates a more crafted product than the perfect digital version. Banging the keys on a manual typewriter makes uneven letters and thus more personalized results. (I heard of a recent wedding where the couple set up an old typewriter with cards on which guests could pound out their comments.) And no, clever fonts that ape handwriting don't do the job.

Speaking of apes, modern humans hold dominion over the other hominids because of our manual dexterity and attendant brain development. What will happen to a species that equips its toddlers with iPads? Can't say. But if Bigfoot ever learns to write thank-you notes, we may all be in trouble.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.

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