How did humans evolve to use everyday tools?

In the green countryside of Wales is an old house called Nant-Cloyd Hall. This luxurious two-story building, which was built 400 years ago, hosted a garden party one night in December 1873. At that party, an inventor and soldier named Walter C. Wingfield, who had served in China during the Second Opium War, took the opportunity to introduce a new game to the guests. He called his game sphairistike, which roughly equates to “the art of playing with a ball”.

Wingfield’s innovation, inspired by the ball game used by aristocrats in their homes for centuries, was to take the game outside and replace the leather ball with a bouncy rubber ball. Wingfield succeeded in patenting his game. He published two books to promote the game and offered special game equipment for sale. In the first year, Wingfield sold a thousand sets, which quickly spread throughout the British Empire and beyond. Three years later, in 1877, the first lawn tennis championship tournament was held at Wimbledon.

Chip Colwell, archaeologist at the website Smithsonian Magazine Although the original game of tennis is rarely recognized as a product of human evolution, the ability to hit a bouncing ball with a racket is evidence of an ancient symbiosis between man and tool, he writes.

When you first pick up a tennis racket, you may not be able to hit the ball that is thrown at you very well, but with time and more practice, you will feel that the racket has become an extension of your hand. Roger Federer, one of the greatest tennis players in the world, said: “My racket is an extension of my hand and it does all kinds of magic for me.”

In 2017, researchers from the University of Genoa in Italy published a study in which they examined how tennis players perceive the space around their bodies when holding a racket. Participants once held their tennis racket and then a racket they had never used before.

Participants were asked to verbally respond to a small electric current delivered to their hand and a sound played by a speaker placed in their hand or at the end of their racket. The purpose of the experiment was to measure the subjects’ reaction time to vibrations and sounds. When the subjects were holding their own racket, they reacted much faster.

Such experience is not limited to tennis rackets, but includes any tool that humans make and become proficient in using, such as brooms, spoons, fishing rods, needles, saws, pencils, musical instruments, computer mice, artificial limbs, wheelchairs. and other cases. But how does this happen?

The first theory focuses on the infancy stage and a map known as the “sensory-body map”. Human babies are great explorers. We touch and feel everything, and in doing so we learn what belongs where. These explorations follow the topography of the body and our relationship with objects, the way the body interacts with the space and objects around us.

According to this theory, in the neocortex of the human infant’s brain there is something called a somatosensory map. This body atlas tells the child where the skin ends and the world begins. However, unlike most maps, this map is not static.

As we use and then release objects, the map changes permanently. So, when a child wipes his nose, then scribbles with his pen, then uses a wooden mallet to hammer in a nail, the map of his body and tools is being rewritten over and over again.

Roger Federer, the Swiss tennis player, has called the tennis racket an extension of his hand

According to another theory that explains how objects become part of our bodies, objects become part of an overall system called the “human-object dynamic system.” Therefore, the brain perceives tools as real parts of our body.

When a person is on a bicycle and pedals, the person and the bicycle become part of the “person-bicycle machine”. The same experience is repeated when the driver sits behind the wheel of the car. Another example is a blind person who uses a cane. By tapping and touching, the blind person does not feel the cane itself, but rather the objects that are sensed by the cane.

Some paleoanthropologists have suggested that ancestral hominins had relatively developed and integrated visuospatial and sensory-motor systems. Thus, long before the exponential growth of the hominid brain began and they began to make stone tools, there was a primitive brain architecture for creating sensory-body maps. When tools were invented, our brain hijacked areas reserved for other purposes to help us experience the magic of extending our bodies with tools like tennis rackets, bicycles, cars, and canes.

The integration of the tool with the body can be well seen in the “plastic hand illusion” experiment. In this experiment, a person sits at a table in front of a box with two compartments. The first compartment has a transparent cover, under which there is a fake plastic left hand. The second compartment has an opaque cover under which the person places their actual left hand. The fake left hand is placed where the mind thinks the real hand should be.

The box is open facing the researcher who sits in front of the subject. The researcher gently strokes the real fingers while visibly stroking the plastic hand. After a few minutes, the subject’s mind combines the visual information with the tactile information and feels that the rubber hand is his real hand. When the researcher grabs a nearby hammer and hits the plastic hand, the person’s scream shows how real the feeling can be.

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The integration of tools with our bodies also works in another way: tools extend our bodies and do something our bodies could not otherwise do.

Imagine a violinist who enjoys his lunch with a chopstick, then practices all afternoon, leaves the studio, pulls his car out of the parking lot, and predicts what angle to turn the vehicle so that the side mirrors will look at the cars. Parked on the side, do not hit. The chopsticks made his fingers 13 cm longer, the violin bow made his hand 73 cm longer, and the car extended his body by another 4 meters.

Ultimately, we can perceive tools as an extension of our limbs, as the experiences of the body and the perceptions of the mind work together to rapidly interpret the signals from the tools we use. When autumn comes and you pick up the leaves on the ground, you will notice without looking whether the rake of the leaf picker is on the grass or on the sand.

In one study, subjects hit objects with a rod, while at the same time brain activity and rod vibrations were measured. The researchers found that the rod vibrated for about 100 milliseconds on average. But the sensorimotor cortex often reacted within 20 milliseconds. In other words, long before the rod stopped vibrating, the body’s tactile sensors had sent signals to the brain about the tool.

Another study that looked at how professional athletes in China visualize their equipment found similar findings. A 24-year-old tennis player told researchers: “The tennis racket is an extension of my hands.” “I judge the power and spin of the ball by the vibrations of the ball when it hits the racquet, and then I can return it.”

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