The Work at Hand

April 18, 2017

Our society is beset with so many problems it is sometimes difficult to know which to address first. This blog post isn’t about resisting the corrupt U.S. administration, or confronting global climate change, however. I want to discuss something far more basic about the nature of work, the work of thinking.

The expression, “the work at hand” is common in English, and I expect also in many other languages (though I haven’t looked at others except French and Italian). We seldom think about why we associate “work” with “hands,” or refer to intellectual work using this same expression, even though our mind isn’t engaged in manual labor. In past blogs I have  talked about the need for more education in hand skills and craftsmanship, but even that topic isn’t relevant to the present discussion.

The reason that humans use expressions that associate abstract thinking with “manual” or hand-centered activity is that our brains evolved long ago to monitor and control the  body, and never lost that vital connection. Mirror neurons, discovered in the 1990s, fire when we are looking at another human who is doing some kind of manual task such as stirring a pot of stew–the motor neurons in our brain that control the hand, arm, and wrist fire as if we, too, are doing the stirring. All of this is unconscious, of course.

There is in fact so much unconscious processing going on in our brains during waking hours that we seldom stop to reflect on what is going on behind the scenes. Neuroscientists have been looking on the other side of the curtain for the past decade or so, and now have some startling news about “grounded cognition” that are just reaching a popular audience. For them, the work at hand involves mapping functional areas of the brain in order to understand emotions, memory, behavior, perception, mental illnesses, and many other things that we all care about. There’s a real urgency to their research, though our government doesn’t seem to think so.

I want to remind my readers that brain science is, at this moment, more important than rocket science, economics, political science, or even physical sciences. Because if we don’t understand our brains, our work to improve the quality of life on Earth will not advance far enough to save us from the unconscious behaviors that have led us to the mess we’re in–all those nagging problems we confront every day. Let’s work on that.

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