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The hand as the human outer brain

By Margaret Kaye, October, 2015
originally published in Feldenkrais Australia, Journal of the Australian Feldenkrais Guild, October, 2015

Kant called the hand the human outer brain, and psychologist Revesz thought the hand is frequently more intelligent than the head. Our hands are often the first point of contact with our environments, and movement with our hands a primary way of communicating.

Ashley Montagu
, Touching : The Human Significance of the Skin

Moshe Feldenkrais liked to open a public workshop with a hand Awareness Through Movement® lesson, such as the Bell Hand. My understanding of this lesson is it is based on primal movements of the hand. The folding and unfolding has more significance than the mere capacity of the hand. The sensory cortex of the brain has neurons that identify areas of the body being stimulated from somatic receptors in the skin and proprioceptors in the skeletal muscles. The representation or map of the body is called the homunculus, or ‘little man’. In it, the ‘body within the brain’, the representation of the hands is, as a percentage of the brain, huge. In this way Feldenkrais believed we could access a large part of the brain very quickly.

If I ask you to do nothing but notice your hands, they will feel larger, warmer, more vital. If I ask you to do no movement, but to notice your little finger on your left hand, it will feel something else again. We’ve now engaged a large part of the brain.

Or how about this: interlace your hands together. It’s possibly a familiar feeling. Now notice which thumb is on top. And which little finger is below. Unravel them, and interlace them the other way, so the opposite thumb is on top, and the other little finger. You know they are your hands, but they feel so unusual. It’s as if someone else is holding your hand. But it is yours. I hook cynics in every time with this experience. They’re ready to learn.

My fascination with hands came originally from my own dilemmas. When I began to work as a Feldenkrais practitioner, I was unable to do Functional Integration in many of the ways we were taught. My hands were still painful and hyper sensitive from a condition so severe I was told I could never work again. My repetitive strain injury was lessened, but I still had to find a way. There was no way I could lift limbs and shuffle trunks. I had to learn how to affect people’s sense of self without doing myself harm. I had to work with my hands, and find out how my body could get behind them. That’s always the dance.

So how can we think about the hand?

  • anatomically
  • functionally
  • developmentally
  • posturally ( the kind of grasp for example)
  • symbolically (think of handshakes, and prayer poses)
  • gesture
  • emotionally
  • and in relationship to human thought, growth and creativity

There are so many ways. In this article I explore some of these concepts with case studies.


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Tags: hands, focal dystonia, frozen shoulder, cerebral palsy, musicians, computer problems, repetitive strain