Smart hand, amazing body

The hand is the cutting edge of the mind.

Jacob Bronowski


Quick, answer this question:

What’s the most amazing object in this picture?

Actually, it’s no contest.

It’s not even close.

If you said the iPhone, you’re wrong by several hundred million years and several hundred million neurons. The hand, with its vast history, neuromuscular sophistication and unlimited potential, beats the iPhone, well, hands-down.

In fact, there is more computing power in your little finger than there ever was in Steve Job’s most ambitious dream. Technophiliacs like to say that the modern smartphone has more computing power that the original Apollo moon rocket. But that comparison misses the point, which is that we, as a culture, are being seduced by flashing lights and in the process, missing out on the most exquisite, astonishing, incredible power that lies within our very bodies.

The phone does have some things going for it, of course. It can connect us in new ways and guide us through vast thickets of information. And of course, it can give us gobs and gobs of amusement. But those feats pale in comparison to what the body offers. The hand, even when untrained, is capable of incredible feats of strength, sensitivity and adaptability. It can lift heavy weights, play a musical instrument or caress a lover. It can wield a tool and paint a picture. It can be both expressive and receptive. It can tell a story with a gesture. If injured, it can usually heal itself.

Unfortunately, our 24-hour familiarity with the body lulls us to sleep and so we fail to appreciate its wonders. The mind stops paying attention to that which is experiences often. And so, the disconnect: Here we are, inhabiting this most fantastic, miraculous, intricate and mysterious organism, and yet, we pay scarcely any attention to it at all. Instead, our attention is captured by any passing novelty; if its got flashing lights on it, so much the better.

This failure of attention lies right at the heart of our public health and lifestyle disease epidemic. It’s not so much that we’re eating disgusting amounts of carbage and sitting on our butts for decades on end. The fundamental problem is our failure to be awed by the incredible nature of our own bodies. It’s a failure of attention and imagination.

I’m amazed at how often I hear people exclaim “I love my smart phone.” In fact, many people now report falling asleep every night with their phone in hand. And in the morning, their very first action is to check the phone. This, of course, is not only creepily kinky, it also reveals a confusion of priorities and a failure to appreciate the truly remarkable power that is right there at the end of your arm.

In contrast, I have never heard anyone remark “I love my hand.” Or any body part for that matter. In fact, most people are more inclined to say the inverse: “I hate my (fill in the body part here)” We love our devices, but we loathe ourselves. How disturbing that we’re more likely to love a technological device than the very organism that is our life, an astonishing creation with a multi-billion year heritage, an organism that is almost without limit in what it can create.

The “smart” phone is a genuine hazard to healthy human life. Its disembodied connectivity destroys the physical, whole-body experience of authentic communication and rapport. We’re all familiar with the term “junk foods,” those edible food-like substances that taste so good but wreak so much havoc with our bodies. Similarly, the time has come to start talking about “junk communication.” The parallels are striking: In each case what we see are highly-refined gee-whiz products displacing ancient processes that have proven their value over immense periods of time.

In the world of human communication, the gold standard is face-to-face conversation, complete with posture, gestures, tone of voice, timing and context. This is a rich, highly textured experience that carries many layers of meaning. When we converse in the traditional, ancestral manner, our bodies are intimately involved in the process, constantly sending and receiving signals below the threshold of consciousness. The actual exchange of words is only a small fraction of the total exchange.

But with texting and similar forms of junk communication, we strip away the non-verbals, just as a junk food manufacturer strips away vital fiber and nutritional ingredients from natural food. In the process, we create an exchange that loses much of its meaning and its humanity. And, we often create destructive misunderstandings.

By abandoning our bodies in favor of flashing lights, we are running an unprecedented, uncontrolled and highly dubious experiment on ourselves and our culture. The body is gorgeous and successful; it is, if you must, a proven technology. Yes, the body is subject to injury and illness and its behaviors are often open to question. But our wholesale embrace of all things digital is a radical departure from our origins; it is very much a shot in the dark.

One might suppose that advocates for the body–our health, fitness and medical professionals–would be howling in protest at this wholesale eclipse of human physicality. But no, we too are clicking, tapping and dragging, stumbling across the street with our heads down, swerving down the road in our cars and ignoring one another in person, always with one eye on the flashing light. We too have become thoroughly seduced, leaving the body behind as if it were simply some kind of out-dated technology, resigning it to the trash heap of history, just like our out-dated TV’s, computers and fax machines.

If we really truly groked the astonishing nature of the human body, our entire lives would be transformed. Every moment would be a chance for amazement. The mere act of breathing, with its neurological, mechanical, chemical, psychological and spiritual dimensions, would simply blow us away. There would be no need for distraction and amusement.

So let’s put things back into perspective:

The proper response to the sight of a smartphone is mild curiosity.

The proper response to the experience of a human body is astonishment, amazement and intense, sustained interest. This is where the wonder lies. This is where health begins.