Here’s an interesting article about how our brains deal with using tools:
It basically says that our brains just treat the tool as an extension of the body. We obviously still have to learn to use it, but once our brains have got the hang of it they control the tool as though it was part of the body. From the description of the experiment, the brain seems to abstract the actions of the tool. So instead of saying “open fingers” or “close fingers”, it says “open pliers” or “close pliers”, thinking about the tool rather than the actual body parts that control it.
I think in the last 6 months or so I’ve got to the stage of using my bike as part of my body. I didn’t learn to ride till I was 12 years old, and I’ve always felt pretty awkward and out-of-control on a bike. But I’ve been riding to uni for about a year now, and I’ve been noticing, particularly when taking corners fast, that it all seems to happen smoothly and easily and naturally. And, now that I think of it, it’s always when concentrating particularly hard (to go through a thin gap, for example) that I’m most wobbly – when I’m thinking too much about my body itself (shoulders and arms, “hold straight, don’t wobble”) instead of letting my brain do it’s thing.
This reminds me of the story about how in WWI they had to provide French shovels for French troops and British shovels for British troops – they couldn’t use each others’ tools! The small differences meant that it was really hard to use the shovel that you hadn’t learned to shovel with. And that’s just shovels, which are really fairly simple devices. Imagine if there had been some subtle differences between the two countries’ guns…
What’s really interesting about this story is that it demonstrates the influence of culture on the way we move and use our bodies. We usually think that our bodies just move the way they move, but what we do and how we do it are strongly influenced by culture. Actually, just last night I had an entertaining encounter with this very issue. I was eating noodle soup… I was using chopsticks, which is fine, but we don’t have any of those Asian spoons, so I was trying to use a Western soup spoon. And I was having all sorts of trouble with the spoon. Because of the chopsticks, and how I was using the spoon, I was trying to hold it like and Asian spoon. But because it wasn’t an Asian spoon, it just wasn’t working! I tried holding the spoon ‘normally’, but it just felt wrong. It was a very weird and awkward meal. Try it, next time you have soup… Me, I think I’m gonna aquire some proper Asian spoons. 😛
This sort of stuff, about how our use of and ideas about our bodies are culturally constructed is really fascinating. Mostly, I think, because it’s not something we usually think about. Our bodies just ‘are’, and we don’t think much about the hows and whys of it. I’m going to have to see if I can come up with an honours topic in this area – I think I could do that for a year without getting sick of it 😛