The secret music of hands

Recently I have been studying the way people move their hands – especially when they talk, but even when they are just being idle. The way we touch things, the shapes and patterns our hands make when we are nervous or relaxed.

I started looking at hands because I am making interactive computer graphic puppets, and I want them to be able to gesture in natural and emotionally expressive ways. On a lower level it’s easy – I count 23 essential “moving parts”, if you think of your hand as a mechanical device: four each for fingers and thumb, two for wrist fwd/back and left/right, and one more for hand fold (bring heel of thumb and pinkie closer). Also, of course, all the movements your arms make to move your hands about in space.

But when you look at how we used that machine, it gets a little harder to say what is going on. People seem to make all kinds of little movements with their hands that reflect something that’s going on in their heads, but it is not clear what. Tiny fluttering motions with the fingers, grasping and ungrasping at nothing, small circles and darts through the air. And of course people are continually touching objects or parts of their own body. This kind of thing is going on all the time, as though the hand is talking to itself in a secret language.

Which may be exactly what’s going on. There is plenty of empirical evidence, studied by many scientists such as Mike Tomasello, Joanna Blake and Janette Wallis, that we humans share this tendency with other great apes, and also evidence which suggests – not only from direct observation, but also from the electrical activity in brains during talking and gesturing – that much of the human capacity for language itself evolved from structures in the brain originally utilized for gesture and manipulation of things with hands and fingers.

The more you really look at how hands move, the more you realize that their movement is quite rich and more beautiful – an entire landscape of expressiveness that parallels the one of words and faces to which we generally pay more attention.

I love that there is this entire parallel world of communication going on between people, beneath the level of our conscious awareness. Just as flickers of emotion can cross our face, unintentionally signaling to somebody else an emotion of joy or distress, so the hands are continually filling the space between us with subtle signals about what is really going on in our minds.

Just as we have these magnificently expressive faces, so we have hands, and I do believe that we get great pleasure from these hand movements, and develop emotional connections with each other through them, even though our culture (with the notable exception of deaf people and trained actors) generally pays little conscious attention to most of what is being said between wrist and fingertip.

Much of that communication seems to be to be not so much like speech as it is like music, as though each of us is continually humming a melody, a tune that plays in our heads and appears in the world as gesture. Below the level of our awareness, we are always listening to the tune each other plays, through a kind of music of hands.

2 Responses to “The secret music of hands”

  1. Jeroen says:

    Nice obervations about gestures. Gotta few of my own you might like.

  2. Lisa says:

    When I lived in Italy, I found that I had to learn not just Italian and the various local variations, but also the sign language that Italians are so well known for. I was surprised to find just how rich and expressive (and specific!) it was – far more so than you’d guess from the very few hand gestures that came over to the states with Italian immigrant families.

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