A massage therapist’s hands are his most important tools. They convey strokes and tapotement, holding and kneading. And for reiki practitioners, the hands are the catalyst for energetic flow.

New research from the University of Notre Dame shows a new purpose for human hands: learning.

The research indicates that people’s ability to learn and remember information depends on what they do with their hands while they are learning, according to a university press release. People holding objects they’re learning about process detail and notice differences among objects more effectively, while keeping the hands away from the objects help people notice similarities and consistencies among those things.

“Participants in the study were asked to analyze a set of complex geometric patterns in a series of images,” the press release noted. “Half the subjects did so while holding their hands alongside the images, while the other half held their hands in their laps.”

Results showed that it was harder for people to recognize the commonalities among identical but differently colored patterns if they held them in their hands, suggesting that information near the hands is processed at a deeper level of detail. This orientation to detail, in turn, hampers people’s ability to consider the similarities that exist among slightly different objects.

According to the researchers, these results have evolutionary roots, in that near the body and in the hands, attention to subtle differences among objects can differentiate the harmful from the benign.

The study will be published in an upcoming issue of Memory and Cognition.

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