Humans Using Tools
May 6, 2021 11:56 AM   Subscribe

I am trying to recall some research on humans, and maybe apes, using tools. I read this few years ago, and I'm not sure if I came across this in an academic paper, or just read a few sentences about it on some science website. I think the information had a scientific basis. The gist was that when humans use tools the tool becomes incorporated into our minds image of our body, which is why we can use tools so dang well.

A specific example I remember was driving a car — when you're driving, the whole car sorta becomes an extension of your body in that you can understand where it is in relation to the world around it to a surprising extent.

Is this a real concept or principal in the scientific community? Did I come up with this in some kind of fevered dream? Any material on this idea, if it exists, would be greatly appreciated!
posted by TurnKey to Science & Nature (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
A bit of a long shot, but the comic artist Scott McCloud used the car example to describe the concept as 'closure' in one of his books - like when you're rear ended, you shout "Hey, he hit me!" you don't shout "Hey, his vehicle hit my vehicle!".
posted by Think_Long at 12:04 PM on May 6, 2021

Sounds like the extended mind thesis.
posted by catquas at 12:18 PM on May 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

Actually on second look, maybe something more like this article.
posted by catquas at 12:22 PM on May 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This is a classical neuroscience thing and you can try learning more about the term "body schema" , "an unconscious but constantly updated brain map of positions, body shape and posture" (Thomas Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel - you might like it!). When you use a tool, the tool gets incorporated into that schema. (A digging stick, a computer mouse or, yes, a car).

Body schema was coined 1911 by Henry Head and Gordon Holmes, British neurologists.

There is a lot of Macaque research, among others by Atsoshi Iriki ("Tools for the Body Schema" and "Coding of Modified Body Schema During Tool Use"). You might also like reading about the Rubber Hand Experiment (by Botvinick and Cohen).

I definitely remember reading about the car example (just as an example, not experiment) in a neuroscience book, but can't for the life of me remember which one.
posted by Omnomnom at 12:25 PM on May 6, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: "Body-brain mapping" plus "tool use" might also be a useful search term.

Like here:
"Functional Brain Mapping of Monkey Tool Use"
posted by Omnomnom at 12:41 PM on May 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

This is a fascinating question! It also made me curious about how objects + people might be thought of from a theoretical perspective, which then sent me down the rabbit hole of whether assemblage theory is ever used for these kinds of questions. I found this article on police body cameras:

"Conceptualizing the assemblage as a social machine, Deleuze and Guattari (1983, 1987) argue that, for a social machine to operate as a whole, it needs both technical machines and human components as its constituents. Given that organizations need and co-evolve with material components like digital technologies, desktop, application, and computer network etc., the capabilities of technical machines and humans are inseparably interconnected and work together like small and large cogwheels in a social machine. [...] This conceptualization captures the essence of a police department as an organization comprised of heterogeneous social (human) and machine (material) components that function together as a whole for the fulfilment of a defined mission." (Sesay et al., 2016)

This doesn't answer your question directly in that it wasn't research on whether people can/do this, but it looks there is also some interesting work being done out there on the larger conceptual merger of people and objects.
posted by past unusual at 1:09 PM on May 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

Not answering this question directly either, but like Scott McCloud the Dutch writer Rudy Kousbroek described getting stuck once in a low parking garage driving a Citroen HY van*, as "Ik heb pijn aan mijn dak", my roof is hurting. It's in an article about consciousness, but I'd have to re-read it (and find that book first) as I can't recall the term he used to describe the concept.

* the prototypical French 1950/1960s van, with the corrugated panelling.
posted by Stoneshop at 1:29 PM on May 6, 2021

I knew I would find assemblage theory in here if I opened up the tab. Unfortunately a lot of the work on assemblage theory is fairly illegible and takes a lot of excavating to understand and make use of (in my humble opinion as someone who teaches this at the doctoral level). Latour's actor-network theory is also probably useful here but it's similarly annoying in its density. It positions both people and technological artifacts as actors (thereby reducing them and collapsing their binary distinctions) in networks that are constructed and deconstructed over time and via communicative interaction between actors. “You are different with a gun in hand; the gun is different with you holding it” (Latour, Pandora's Hope). New things are made possible only by the merging of technical and human actors and their communication with one another. The gun is not an extension of the man in as much as the gunman is a new kind of actor that is only made possible when the man and the gun meet. The terms sociotechnical systems and technical mediation might also be good for googling.

Your question also makes me wonder if you are thinking about cognitive constructivism and the mental models that we make of the world when we interact with technology, but that is much less weird or interesting.
posted by twelve cent archie at 3:13 PM on May 6, 2021 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you for the great responses! Omnomnom got exactly what I was looking for with "body schema." Also really love that this brought up assemblage theory and actor-network theory. Those are very interesting indeed but not exactly what I was looking for here.
posted by TurnKey at 5:31 PM on May 6, 2021

This paper came out in the Journal of Neuroscience this week and it might really interest you: Hand-selective visual regions represent how to grasp 3D tools: brain decoding during real actions

And here's the press release. "Humans have used tools for millions of years, but this research is the first to show that actions such grasping a knife by its handle for cutting are represented by brain areas that also represent images of human hands, our primary 'tool' for interacting with the world."
posted by twelve cent archie at 8:44 PM on May 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

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