During my leisurely walk in Arles, away from the hustle bustle of Paris, I came across several different spots where Van Gogh had painted works of art that are now world renowned. Van Gogh was extremely productive during his stay at Arles and he felt so inspired that he created around 300 paintings and drawings there. During my walk with a group of friends, I had mostly anticipated seeing certain spots where several tourists can be found.
However, when we were exploring the less frequented streets of Arles, not only did I come across an amazing home-made sorbet shop, I came across this sign that caught my attention:
“La main qui pense” translates to “The hand that thinks”. In my neuroscience classes, I had obviously not learnt about a “thinking hand”. But after doing some research, I realized that what neuroscientific/neuropsychological research has to say about the connection between the brain and the hand, actually could explain what it means for “a hand to think” but not in the most “obvious” way.
Firstly, it is important to understand the basic neuroscience behind how the brain and the hand “communicate”. Various types of receptors that innervate our hands and fingers are able to detect a specific form of energy of a stimulus in the environment (G. Jones, 2006). The receptors convert the stimulus energy into electrical energy through a process known as sensory transduction. The receptors and an afferent neuron form what is known as a sensory unit and sensory units are activated in specific areas known as receptive fields (G. Jones, 2006). Tactile information including size, shape, temperature etc., detected by different receptors, is sent to the central nervous system (G. Jones, 2006).
But how is the signal for movement transmitted from the brain to the hand? The motor system of the brain mainly includes the premotor area, involved in planning movements and the primary motor cortex, involved in then sending commands to the spinal cord for execution of movement (Cunnington, 2016). So, the way the brain “communicates” with the muscles, is through motor neurons in the spinal cord which receive the commands from the brain, which then cause contraction and movement of the muscles needed for that particular movement (Cunnington, 2016).
But you might be wondering – it definitely still seems that the brain is doing the “thinking”… After doing a bit more research, it started to become clearer to me what some researchers meant by “thinking with your hands”.
For artists including Van Gogh, their job involved heavy usage of their hands. Many of us, on the other hand, like to think of our jobs as mind intensive rather than labor intensive. And there is no denying that there is some superiority associated with mind intensive jobs. But where does this belief stem from? Dr. Gaëlle Vallée-Tourangeau and Dr. Frédéric Vallée-Tourangeau highlight that while children are learning, teachers encourage the use of props and in the elderly, props are used to evaluate memory loss (Vallée-Tourangeau, G., & Vallée-Tourangeau, F., 2016c). But during the time between these two stages, we are often judged for using our hands. Children are expected to do “mental math” and are told to just “do it in their heads”. I distinctly remember hiding my fingers behind my back while doing calculations. Our assumption is that the brain is the source of any and all intelligence (Vallée-Tourangeau, G., & Vallée-Tourangeau, F., 2016c).
This assumption is in line with the evidence found within neuroscience research. Mirror neurons in the brain fire when an animal acts and when the animal sees someone else executing the same action. Researchers including Frédéric Vallée-Tourangeau and Gaëlle Vallée-Tourangeau believe that physically interacting with objects as compared to simply playing out an action in one’s head could more positively impact behavior and actions (Vallée-Tourangeau, G., & Vallée-Tourangeau, F., 2016c).
The study conducted by Vallée-Tourangeau et al. (2016a), consisted of 50 participants trying to find a way to put 17 animals in four pens such that each pen had an odd number of animals. One group of participants used electronic tablets and a stylus to draw the solution and the other group had to use props to physically create a model. The study suggests that irrespective of cognitive ability, the participants using their hands to build models had more success with the task compared to those using the tablets and stylus. Overall, the study suggests that physically interacting with the environment around us can prove even more beneficial than drawing.
To further investigate their hypothesis, Vallée-Tourangeau et al. (2016b) conducted another study in which participants were asked to do long sums while repeating a word (Vallée-Tourangeau et al., 2016b). The study suggested that the participants who used number tokens (“high interactivity”) to work out the sums were less affected by the distractor as compared to those who were working out the sums mentally, who showed higher levels of mathematics anxiety (Vallée-Tourangeau et al., 2016b). Further emphasizing that the importance of physically interacting with the environment and using sense of touch cannot be underestimated. Therefore, researchers like to metaphorically say that the hand “thinks” too.
Juhani Pallasmaa, the author of the book titled The Thinking Hand: Existential and Embodied Wisdom in Architecture, believed that “it is by permanently mobilizing our five senses that the body becomes our own tool for perceiving the world, and it is only through a unity of body and mind that the act of creation can take place” (Acte Sud).
So perhaps Van Gogh had it right. Van Gogh may have been using art as an outlet of his emotions. Or perhaps, engaging his hands while painting and drawing facilitated his thought process. While Van Gogh was suffering through psychiatric illness, it is possible that painting and drawing helped him gain clarity, even though it may have been fleeting.
Acte Sud. « La main qui pense ». Retrieved June 10, 2019, from https://www.actes-sud.fr/catalogue/architecture-et-urbanisme/toucher-le-monde
Cunnington, Ross. “How our brain controls movement and makes new connections when parts are damaged” The Conversation, 28 September 2016, https://theconversation.com/how-our-brain-controls-movement-and-makes-new-connections-when-parts-are-damaged-63520
Fernandes, M. A., Wammes, J. D., & Meade, M. E. (2018). The Surprisingly Powerful Influence of Drawing on Memory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(5), 302–308. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721418755385
G. Jones, Edward. (2006). The sensory hand. Brain. 129. 10.1093/brain/awl308.
Vallée-Tourangeau, F., Steffensen, S. V., Vallée-Tourangeau, G., & Sirota, M. (2016a). Insight with hands and things. Acta Psychologica, 170, 195–205. doi: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2016.08.006
Vallée-Tourangeau, F., Sirota, M., & Vallée-Tourangeau, G. (2016b). Interactivity mitigates the impact of working memory depletion on mental arithmetic performance. Cognitive research: principles and implications, 1(1), 26. doi:10.1186/s41235-016-0027-2
Vallée-Tourangeau, G., & Vallée-Tourangeau, F. “Why the best problem-solvers think with their hands, as well as their heads” The Conversation, 10 November 2016c, https://theconversation.com/why-the-best-problem-solvers-think-with-their-hands-as-well-as-their-heads-68360
Figures 1, 2 and 3 – Images taken by me in Arles
Figure 4 – Overlapping pens solution, Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/our-innovating-minds/201701/creative-thinking-in-action