Professor Heinz Wolff was always a keen supporter of ergonomics. He joined the CIEHF in 1965 and was made an Honorary Fellow in 1991. He continued to support the discipline throughout his career and wrote an article for The Ergonomist magazine earlier this year. It was published in the May/June 2017 issue as follows.

Are manual and mental dexterity linked?

The things children are taught and the way in which they are taught changes with the times. Heinz Wolff argues that education now neglects manual skills and this comes at a cost, as he believes manual and mental dexterity are inextricably linked.

Next to the brain, the hand is one of the most amazing parts of the human body. The hand can take a sledgehammer to break up a piece of concrete, and seconds later it can thread a needle or pick up a pin, without having to change any of the actuators. It also sends information back to the brain. Small differences in the texture of a surface can be detected, the pressure required to accomplish an effect, is again achieved without any change in the ‘sensor’. I believe that the development of homo sapiens runs parallel with tool making, which in turn is learnt by endless cycles of information between the eye, hand and brain.

The representation on the cerebral cortex of the hand, and of course the arm, which has to position the hand and keep it steady to enable micro-manipulations to be achieved, is nearly as large as the hand itself.  This underlines its importance to the human species. I firmly believe that manual dexterity, much of which is acquired in the early years of life, must be connected to mental dexterity, if only to plan and understand what the micro-manipulative activity requires next.

The education of children within the modern family and at primary school, now neglects manual dexterity, being more governed by keyboard-operated teaching devices and toys. I understand that in some parts of the United States cursive writing is no longer taught. If my assumption of the connection between manual dexterity and mental dexterity is valid, then we are handicapping children who, if not taught these skills and become interested in being skilful, will not develop dexterous minds.

The literature is thin; there are countless papers associating educational difficulties with poor manual dexterity but there are very few, I have found, where the opposite outcome is tested. Do children taught and encouraged to be dexterous do better in STEM subjects for instance (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), in comparison with those where this facet of education and development has been neglected? There are occasional references like this one: Interestingly, a recent study from Harvard University ranked Finland as the number one country in the world for childhood education. As American children become less active and spend more hours each day in front of a screen, it appears that their cerebral and cerebellar function is declining. There is growing evidence of the link between improved motor skills, dexterity, and cognition. “Achievement Growth: International and US State Trends in Student Performance” .

Do you strongly agree or disagree with this proposition?


A piece will follow with more details about Professor Wolff's contribution to ergonomics.