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Nature and Nurture

Masterful surgeons and ingenious inventors may be born with a talent for using or creating tools. Yet even the clumsiest among us can use hundreds of relatively complex tools, from telephones to toothbrushes. Our ability to use tools and our innovative creation of new tools and technologies emerge from our unique brains and from the dexterity of our hands. Yet any one human can only accomplish so much. By learning and building on past technologies we have created a culture of continual change.

A Culture of Tools

While the human body and brain make our amazing feats of tool use possible, we also rely on the cultural transmission of ideas. Without culture, each new generation would be forced to re-invent the wheel, and any other tools it needed. And because human cultures allow people to specialize in different arenas of technology, such as engine design or telecommunications, we can develop innovations in many areas at the same time.

Your brain making dinner

Your brain enables you to perform complex tasks requiring multiple tools and techniques--for example, planning and cooking a four-course dinner. Each tool, such as a pan, and each process, such as sautéing, is represented among your brain's millions of electrochemical circuits. To plan the meal your brain juggles dozens of these circuits at once. To help you cook, your brain recruits circuits that coordinate the body and the many physical tasks involved.


© James W. Lewis

Human brain showing regions active in tool use

Your Tool-Using Brain

Scientists are still learning how the brain helps us use tools. Here are some areas known to be involved in tool-using tasks.



Planning and preparing hand and arm tool movements


Planning tool tasks, naming tools and tasks


Damage can cause a person to forget name of a tool


Damage leaves a person unable to use a tool, although still able to identify its function.



Knowing where the body is during an action


Damage can leave a person unable to identify sound of a familiar tool

How It Works: Hand control

The left side of your body, including your left hand, is controlled by the right side of your brain, and vice versa. Ninety percent of people are right-handed. So it makes sense that the left brain, which controls the right hand, has most of the brain circuits for planning and coordinating tool use.

In left-handed people, some tool-using brain functions are shifted to the right side. But lefties also rely on crosstalk between the brain's two halves.

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