To your mind, tools are a literal part of the body

A new study casts light on the (nearly) unique ability of higher order primates to use tools. It turns out it’s quite the elegant mental hack. So far as your mind is concerned, any tools you are using are literally part of your body. Scientists confirmed this by conducting an experiment on monkeys. They observed that the same group of neurons fired off in the same order when monkeys picked up a piece of food, no matter whether they used their hands, pliers, or reverse pliers that required opening the hands to close the pliers’ tip. The firing of the neurons thus had nothing to do with the movements of the fingers themselves when a tool was used, but rather, corresponded to the movement exhibited by the grasping end of the tool. It’s quite an amazing, revolutionary find, and as these things usually go, it makes perfect sense in hindsight.

Imagine swinging a baseball bat. You aren’t concentrated on your hands; once they are grasping the bat you don’t give them a second thought. No, you are concentrated on the sweet spot on the bat. It becomes your fingers by proxy, and the motion of swinging a bat is really just about extending your “hands” to meet an incoming object. That’s why we are so good at hitting baseballs coming in at even 100 mph. It wouldn’t work at all if you had to concentrate on the complex kinematic interactions governing how movements of your hands are translated into movement of the end of the bat. Thankfully, evolution has provided us with such an elegant hack that makes it all work — and a hack that is undoubtedly responsible for modern civilization, as well.

When I read this article I immediately started thinking about videogames. There’s a break-in period when confronted with a novel controller or control method before its use becomes natural. Before that happens, you’re still consciously thinking about pressing every button, rather than focusing on the effects those actions will have within the game. For instance, I played Guitar Hero for the first time over the New Year’s holiday. At the beginning I was playing easy level songs with only a modicum of success. But as I grew more familiar with the controller, as it became an extension of my body, I got better with it, and by the end, I was tackling medium level difficulty songs. Give me a few more hours with it and I’d be on hard.

My most familiar controller format has to be the standard for PC first person shooters: W,A,S,D (or rarely E,S,D,F) for movement and the mouse for looking and aiming. I’ve been playing games using that for so long it has become second nature to me. I’m not even focusing on my fingers at all. When I’m moving around in Team Fortress 2 I frequently detect spies trying to backstab me simply because I run into them. There’s no lag time at all between trying to move backwards and realizing I’m running into something, then within a fraction of a second I’m spinning wildly in place and firing my weapon before I even see the enemy. And the virtual gun on-screen has become an extension of my hand. That’s the amazing part of all this that I wish the experiment had covered. Not only does the tool become a part of your body as far as the mind is concerned, the tool doesn’t even have to be real at all. It can be entirely virtual. And why shouldn’t it? The cognitive hack thankfully doesn’t discriminate, so it will continue serving us well for decades to come as virtual reality becomes an ever larger part of our life.

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