Friday, January 21, 2011


One of the ideas I've expressed many times in this blog has been that as one develops skill, the cognitive burden of a task decreases. When you first tackle an operation, or learn a new tool useage, a great deal of conscious attention is required. For example how do I hold the tool, this way or that? After, some practice, questions have been answered. The right posture is automatically adopted, the grip on the tools feels natural to the operation.

This brain research, Cortical activations in primary and secondary motor areas for complex bimanual movements in professional pianists, by researchers Jäncke L, Shah NJ, Peters M. shows that as a pianist's training advances, his or her hands perform with with fewer brain cells being required for the task. In essence, the research describes and illustrates the reduction in cognitive burden as skills are developed in the hands.
The results suggest that the long lasting extensive hand skill training of the pianists leads to greater efficiency which is reflected in a smaller number of active neurons needed to perform given finger movements. This in turn enlarges the possible control capacity for a wide range of movements because more movements, or more 'degrees of freedom', are controllable.
In other words, when we develop hand skills, not only are we able to perform those skills with less attention, more processing power is made available for the advancement of further skills. We wonder how so many wonderful things were accomplished by our human predecessors without the mechanical processes we have now. And perhaps at least the start of the answer lies here.

John deal sent this link explaining that children who write by hand learn better than those who type. the article states:
When writing by hand, the movements involved leave an imprint in the part of the brain called the sensorimotor. This process helps to help us recognise letters.

Simply touching and typing on a keyboard produces a different response in the brain, which means it does not strengthen the learning mechanism in the same way.


  1. Anonymous5:15 AM

    Ah, but as we become more skilled, what about attention on the level of watching for the dangerous side of tools? I do hurt myself less with my tools as time goes on.


  2. In my own experience, I find that when I work with my hands, I am able to process thoughts much better. I don't know if the hand activity helps reduce my susceptibility to distractions or if it helps me to move my thinking away from my conscious mind (see "Hare Brained - Tortoise Mind" by Guy Claxton). When I design something, it may start out as an abstract concept captured in CAD, but as it becomes a prototype, I have to participate in the crafting of it and have to touch it.

  3. David, it shouldn't surprise anyone that we respond differently to real reality than we do to fantasy or virtual reality. Children grow up with fantasy as that is part of how they adjust and find a proposed place for themselves in the world. They learn quickly to distinguish between fantasy and reality. Matt Crawford's book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work opens with words that I had written for this blog:

    “In schools we create artificial learning environments for our children that they know to be contrived and undeserving of their full attention and engagement… Without the opportunity to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract, and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged.” In other words, we take reality seriously, and know that that which is not real to us, can be safely ignored.It is a matter of allocating mind to those things that matter.