The head needs hands and feet

By Henning Kullak-Ublick, August 2022

Lisa's feet have been marvelling since she climbed out of the car barefoot. They feel coolness, gunge, moistness, softness, darkness in some way. Then something firmer, spiky, needle-like, warmer, stony, softer again, dry, huge, tart, warm, bright. A thousand touches. Finally: "Ouch, hot!" and the head gives the signal to Lisa: "Run! Fast! Go! It's soft, cool and wet ..."

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

Lisa's feet told her about the forest floor on the way from the car park to the water, about the hot summer and the wet sand at low tide. Of course, she only knows what her feet say because she has concepts for it, but without the messages from her feet she would not have been able to form many concepts in the first place. To understand, she needs the feet.

Lisa also has two hands, and they are undoubtedly among the greatest marvels of evolution. Only those who understand the hand can understand the human being. The sense of touch, the sense of warmth, the sense of balance and the "kinaesthetic sense", through which we feel our own movements, we have already learned about in Lisa's feet at work. In her hand, they have an even more comprehensive effect: while she simultaneously senses and actively shapes the world with it, what arises is – intelligence.

What does this most differentiated organ of movement that exists tell us about ourselves? What begins at the shoulder blade with the humerus becomes the ulna and radius at the elbow joint, which in turn break down into the increasingly finely differentiated phalanges at the wrist joint. Due to the many joints, tendons and muscles, the arms and even more so the hands are not restricted to certain movements, but can move very freely. Unlike animals, we can move our thumbs towards the other fingers and use them to grasp and guide objects both forcefully and gently.

Even as an infant, Lisa explored with her hands, experiencing the boundary between herself and the outside world. She learned to feel with her little fingers more and more subtly what they reveal about the texture of things. Gradually, the sense of touch gave her an awareness of the world around her. And while her parents held her with their hands, touched her in thousands of ways, changed her nappy, stroked her or picked her up, she always had an encounter with her "I" at the same time, which was present and effective in all these touches. Through touch, Lisa learned that the world and she herself existed.

Are you still sleeping or are you already knitting?

The imaging methods of modern brain research provide a differentiated picture of how intimately the use of our hands, our fine motor skills and the development of the brain are linked. As a "neuroplastic organ", the brain is constantly developing in correspondence with everything we do mentally or physically. Italian researchers were able to demonstrate neuronal changes in their test subjects after only twenty minutes of tinkling around on a piano. And after twelve people without prior musical training practised the dexterity of both hands on a keyboard for ten days for 35 minutes at a time, new connections formed between their left and right brain hemispheres, making the right-handers more skilled on the left and the left-handers more skilled on the right. Both sides worked better together from then on.

At Waldorf schools, children learn to crochet as early as class 1, followed soon after by knitting. The hands develop an extraordinary intelligence in this activity, because the extremely complicated fine motor movements of the right hand must be precisely coordinated with those of the left hand, so that loop can be joined to loop and finally a regular mesh can be created. The hands become intelligent. First there is the will to do with our hands what the pupils initially only have as an idea, which in turn has an effect on areas of the brain such as the prefrontal cortex, where our recognition of complex relationships is represented. When a child learns to coordinate the complicated movements of the right hand with the movements of the left hand while knitting, they are simultaneously working on their will and brain structures.

Rudolf Steiner described this connection, half a century before it could be empirically proven, thus: "If we know that our intellect is not formed by heading directly for an intellectual education, if we know that someone who moves their fingers clumsily lacks skill in their intellect, has few pliable ideas and thoughts, while the person who knows how to move their fingers properly also has pliable thoughts and ideas, can enter into the essence of things, then we will not underestimate what it means to develop the outer human being with the aim that the intellect ... arises from the whole way we handle the outer human being " (Basel, 26 April 1920).

As with piano players, practising a new technique is an extremely difficult process that requires the utmost attention, especially in the beginning. Lisa first has to form an idea of what she wants to do and how she has to move her hands to do it. She must then extend her conception with her will as far as her fingertips. While she does that, she feels exactly what her little fingers are conjuring up – so she is also training her sense of touch and movement. By creating a a complex context through knitting, she is simultaneously working intensively on her will and her brain structures.

The Internet as a neural network

A look at a completely different network makes the importance of the subjects of handwork and crafts for the future of today's children even clearer: the Internet has spread like a huge neural network across the whole world and is conquering more and more areas of our lives. With finger and eye movements reduced to a minimum, we can access an almost inexhaustible reservoir of information in a fraction of a second. Concentration becomes superfluous because for every keyword we are offered a huge range of associations – links – which in turn lead somewhere else and so on. This also directly affects the brain, our dexterity and our will, because skills we don't use atrophy.

The marvel of the brain is characterised by the fact that it is constantly being shaped and developed by our activity. While Lisa knits, she imprints on her brain the complex interrelationships that she previously thinks about and creates with her hands. She forges her intelligence and can rely in completely different, unexpected life situations on being able to recognise and shape contexts. Whether she later uses this intelligence for science, for recognising ecological or economic connections or for other people is not so important. What is important is that she has learned how to become intelligent in the first place. The intelligence of the hands is becoming a vital question for the generation of "digital natives". It helps them to create a living centre amidst the never-ending flood of information. It is what binds our head to reality and makes it healthy in the process. The beautiful mesh is created because Lisa creates it loop by loop. She wants to – and learns to think as a reward.

In the legacy of his "Anthroposophical Leading Thoughts" Steiner wrote shortly before his death: "In the scientific age ... the cultural activity of human beings gradually slides not only into the lowest regions of nature, but down below nature. Technology becomes sub-nature. This requires that human beings find spirit cognition by means of experience in which they rise just as high into super-nature as they sink below nature with sub-natural technical activity. They thereby create within themselves the strength not to sink down." The sometimes devastating effects of (anti)social media are a pretty strong indication of this potential of culture to sink.

The strengthening of "experiential spirit cognition" begins without a doubt by taking our body seriously for understanding, grasping and experiencing the world, through which we can recognise ourselves as human beings (subjects) that act, feel and think on our own responsibility in the first place. Interestingly, recent cognitive research is also increasingly talking about "embodied cognition", i.e. the importance of the body for understanding the world through our actions. The psychiatrist and philosopher Thomas Fuchs even speaks of the new paradigm of a "humanism of the living, embodied spirit" in his extremely readable book In Defence of the Human Being. The intelligence of the hands, indeed of our bodies in general, has become an existential question that is increasingly important not only for the understanding of learning, but of ourselves as human beings. Only as embodied beings can we gain our freedom!

This text appeared in a first version in the book Jedes Kind ein Könner by Henning Kullak-Ublick, Verlag Freies Geistesleben, Stuttgart 2017.

Author: Henning Kullak-Ublick, born 1955, Waldorf teacher and author, member of the Hague Circle – International Council for Steiner Waldorf Education – and spokesman of the supervisory board of Friends of Waldorf Education.

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