Tooling Around

Tool use is extremely important to humans.  Much research has suggested a complex neural underpinning of tool-using behavior: it involves real-time 3D mapping of objects, extreme tactile sensitivity, planning ahead, and, well, patience.

Like language, humans have a special knack for tool-making.  And, also like language, this knack is represented in specialized neural circuits.  “Tool circuits” would presumably be designed for manipulating objects in meaningful, complicated, and even artful ways.  Research published earlier this year in Psychological Science revealed that individuals who are born blind may have the neural architecture in place for tool manipulation, even though they have never seen a tool.  When a sighted individual thinks about a tool, say a hammer, circuits in the left parietal cortex light up, and these same circuits fail to light up when the imagined object is not tool-like (i.e. a bed, a dog, etc).  Interestingly, individuals who have never actually seen tools show this same pattern of activation.

This research suggests that our neural representations are not shaped only by experience.  Tools have been vital for our species for so long –  evolution has likely built into our brains the necessary architecture to treat tools with special attention, whether we can actually use them or not.

About the author

Sam McDougle

SAM MCDOUGLE is a Ph.D. candidate in Psychology and Neuroscience at Princeton University. His writing has appeared in Vice and The Atlantic.

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