Book Review: A handy guide to human behavior

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By Vikas Datta

Title: Hands: What We Do with Them – and Why; Author: Darian Leader; Publisher: Penguin Random House UK; Pages: 128; Price: Rs 499

If you think the current trend of people, publicly and privately, paying ferocious attention to their smartphones or other hand-held devices and furiously typing, clicking or scrolling away is technology making a travesty of human nature, you may well be wrong. For these habits may represent its crucial part’s latest preoccupation.

While the “radical effect” of the internet, the smartphone and the PC is said to be “on who we are and how we relate to each other” and whatever we make of the changes, psychoanalyst Darian Leader notes that experts stress that these are changes which have made the world a “different place” and the digital era is “incontestably new”.

“But what if we were to see this chapter in human history through a slightly different lens? What if, rather than focusing on the new promises or discontents of contemporary civilisation, we see today’s changes as first and foremost changes in what human beings do with their hands?” he poses.

For while the digital age “may have transformed many aspects of our experience, but its most obvious yet neglected feature is that it allows people to keep their hands busy in a variety of unprecedented ways”.

Leader, in this slim but more than a handful of a book, contends that the body part that most defines us humans is not our advanced brain but rather our restless upper pair of limbs. Thus, a considerable amount of our history and habits can be related to what we can do — or cannot do — with our hands and why we must keep them busy.

This, he says, brings us to examine the reasons for this “strange necessity” — to know why idle hands are deemed dangerous, how their roles for infants changes as they grow, what links hands to the mouth, and what happens when we are restrained.

“The anxious, irritable and even desperate states we might then experience show that keeping the hands busy is not a matter of whimsy or leisure, but touches on something at the heart” of what our existence embodies.

And to ascertain this something, Leader goes on to draw from popular culture (especially films, mostly horror and science fiction but also classics like “Dr Zhivago”), language, religion, social and art history, psychoanalysis, modern technology, clinical research, the pathology of violence and more to find the what, why, and how.

In this process, we come to know why zombies and monsters (like Frankenstein) are shown walking with outstretched arms, why newborns grip an adult finger so tightly that they can dangle unsupported from it, the reason for prayers beads in various religions (Leader misses out Hinduism), why nicotine patches may not help smokers, the constant preoccupation (for some of us) with texting, tapping and scrolling and our behaviour on public transport.

And as Leader is a founding member of the Centre for Freudian Research and Analysis, people will expect sex to figure somewhere and they will not be wrong — or fully right. For he only tackles one aspect, which involves the hand.

He recalls when friends and others asked him what he was working on during the preparation of this book, “my reply that it was to be an essay about hands produced the almost invariable response, ‘Oh! A book about masturbation!'”. He dryly notes that “the association appeared to be so intractable that it seemed foolish not to at least devote a chapter to this”.

His observations on hands and their motivations and manifestations break new ground and it will suffice to say that you will never look at fairy tales, from those of the Grimm Brothers to Arabian Nights to J.R.R. Tolkien, the same way again.

His chapter on violence seems a bit out of place, but Leader brings his argument a full circle as he closes on the compulsive use of technological devices what we (and their makers) must know about them.

More of a long essay than a book, it brings to fore to the issue that, despite all our technical prowess, we are still to plumb the mysteries of our mind and body, which can be more complex than anything we invent. (IANS)



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