why string figures
One of the distinguishing characteristics of the human animal is the sophisticated use of the hands to “manipulate” tools and objects. The opposable thumb has evolved to permit precision and power in using the hands to “handle” objects, and to form esthetically pleasing art. Instrumental music and art are “hand” activities.
Humankind is also playful, and one should expect that hands participate in play. And they do— in many ways. One of the least appreciated “hand play” activities in modern society is the forming of string figures with the hands and a circle of string.
I believe strongly that one of the first of humankind’s many inventions was string. It was twisted fiber, such as grass, made into or twine, or rope, or often humans would use narrow strips of sinew from animals, which were often braided. Hair, either animal or human was also so used. This string was a ubiquitous tool for the hand animal that became modern homo sapiens. There are no records of this invention as there are for flint cutters and rock tools that do not disintegrate. The invention of string must be “assumed to have been” an early one.
A string was used to tie things up, and to tie things together, and to weave into cloth for many uses. It was also used to fashion an ingenious toy, a circle of string. The fact that a string was fashioned into a circle brought with it the magic of what a circle represented, and not just a circle: It became a three dimensional circle called a torus by mathematicians. This long, skinny donut could be flexed on itself to make an unending series of patterns and complex interweavings.
Just as different human groups had and have different languages and diets, different human groups had and have different games and music. However, they all have games and they all have music, and they all have string figures.
This is not generally appreciated today since string figures were primarily a pre-literate activity and, like many such things, were subverted by the rush to modern technology and literacy. They are left as vestigial, simple activities of children who re-capitulate in their growth and learning the change and progress made by the human species in its march to the complex present.
This is not to say that forming string figures is a childish or a simple activity. It can be exceedingly complex and will yield a lifetime of invention and joy if it is indulged in with a proper framework of understanding and development.
Let’s go to that circle of string we were talking about. And let’s imagine what is tied up in its being.
My son, when he was two years old, was given a circle of string to play with and the first thing that he did was to play train. He pulled the circle with one hand while holding it in the other by two fingers. This caused the string to slowly slide through the loose hold of the two fingers and never to stop as long as the string was alternately grasped and pulled in the same direction. My son took several weeks before he completely tired of this simple game. I have since seen the same activity crop up again and again with young children when they are presented with a circle of string and not told what to do with it.
They will also tie their hands up in funny ways and squeal with delight at being ensnared after twisting their hands while holding the strings. They will show you the simple geometries formed on the skin of their hands when they do this “silly” thing. They will have fun with such a toy as their own circle of string.
If you are patient and help them master simple hand’s dances which form figures, they will all succeed in learning how to form the ones you show them, and they will quickly learn how to form
their own inventions if given a procedural way of investigating newness and making new patterns.
The intense interest level of all the children I have introduced to string figures insures a successful learning. This is a unique opportunity to shape a young person’s feelings about their intellectual abilities and about their capacity to learn. This opportunity should not be wasted nor underestimated.
The hands are hard wired to a large portion of the intellectual part of the brain. The tool-using aspect of the evolution of modern homo sapiens underlies this aspect of the brain’s organization. The hands are windows to the higher intellectual potential of the individual, and are especially so in the three dimensional aspect of the mind’s ability to model. The dimensionality of an expressive geometry, for example, is manifest in the signing of the deaf.
I was given the rare opportunity to teach a teenage blind student a few years ago. He had come to me because he couldn’t seem to understand his trigonometry lessons. He had been able to keep up in his math despite his handicap before, but there then seemed to be an insurmountable barrier to his progress. He also couldn’t tie his own shoes, or get around by himself outside a protected environment like the school. He couldn’t ride the subway or walk anywhere or do anything without being taken by someone.
It was a very rewarding experience for me to tackle the problem of his learning string figures. I found how non-intuitive such considerations as “over” and “under”, “in front of” and “behind”, and “rotation away” and “rotation toward” truly were. I was reduced to forcing his fingers to perform the maneuvers I “described” so the tactile flow of the hand’s dance could be experienced, and the feel of the strings on the fingers become the readout or playing out of the performance. It also became necessary to “see” the final figure with the tongue and the face rubbing against the displayed figure.
But the lessons were learned and even the most complex figures were mastered, using the system I had devised. He was then able to continue his mathematical learning successfully because he could envision (abstract) mathematical patterns. He attributed this to the sense of three dimensional space felt by his hands with the string. He became much more self-confident and in very short order learned to be independent and to get around by himself, walk the streets of New York, ride the subway. He became self-actuating. He could finally take care of himself.
What this experience taught me was how important manipulating objects with the hands is to the development of a three-dimensional understanding of the physical world. The abstractions necessary for three-dimensional imaginings are inextricably bound up (for most people I should think) in the tactile understanding that the use of the hands will bring.
This capacity to abstract is at the heart of language for the human animal. There are several languages which any individual learns to use in “thinking about” various parts of reality or imagined situations. The English language actually has myriads of sub-units that are particularized for certain knowledge bases. This “framework” of communicating complex interactions within the knowledge base is the vehicle for learning and experiencing within the English-speaking world. We are delimited by our imaginable parts that we decipher from the whirl of actuality around us. We encapsulate our elaborate inventions in a cocoon of words. The certitude and fixedness of the language description brings finality to the complex thoughts we share with our selves or with others.
There are of course other modalities of language such as music and dance, video and the arts of portraiture and sculpture to name just a few. They also tap into other intrinsic organizing complexes that are concomitant with the human condition. All peoples sing and dance and tell stories. All peoples make things with their hands and play string figures and musical instruments. All peoples have discriminating dress customs and manners of class interaction that is called culture. And all these modalities of abstract communication within a framework of shared understanding are what we learn to appreciate and to become proficient in.
The hands were also inextricably involved with our healing practices from the dawn of humankind. The “touch” of care is often the most important aspect of healing. The communication of “care” by touching with hands calms an individual and tells him or her that they will become better and return to a “normal” existence. It is an absolute crime that the hands are not more valued in all children’s development of understanding and caring so that the eventual adult that all children will become can participate fully in the explosive possibilities of the creativity of the human species.
But the hands usually aren’t valued equally with the more “intellectual” pursuits of reading and writing, literature and history, math and science. The vehicles (the languages used) for these studies are not physically based (except as penmanship or typing). They are not carefully thought out introductions to the hand’s dance of thought, the forming of four dimensional vector resultants which even simple string figures amount to. This effort of mine to bring string figures to the children of the world is my gift to them, my making it possible for them to develop this essential side of their being, the very essence of their “taking hold” of their destinies.
I would like to say here that I learned more about string figures from the students I taught than they learned from me. They all learned what I am trying to explain, but many ran right past me and began to show me what they had found. I became more the amanuensis of the group than the teacher. I tended to try to notate and codify so the students could use a little system in their searching, and a substantial number of my students were my teacher in string figures, and they loved to spread their thoughts to the others.