The Complexity and Reasoning of Keeping 3D Hands and Fingers

Pages: 20-29
Year: 2020
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Structure, Function, Integration Journal – Vol. 48 – Nº 1

Volume: 48
This article comes from the author’s experience of a trauma to her hands and arm. This inspired her to study in depth the shoulder girdle to the tips of the fingers. She discusses the fingers and how three-dimensional (3D), multiplanar movement is necessary for a fully functioning hand and arm.

By Valerie Berg, Rolfing® Instructor, Rolf Movement® Practitioner

what if you lost your hand? I did!

This morning, before you  even  got  out of bed, most likely your fingers grasped the edge of the sheet to move it or you scratched your face, your arm. Maybe you reached over and hugged someone next to you. You might have grasped your phone to see the time or used your thumbs to send a quick  text  or  scroll  the news thinking something might be different this morning!

Every morning the ritual of our fingers and hands requires precision touch and power grasping. We need flexion, extension, abduction, adduction, and rotation in all the joints of the fingers; we need to grasp with the hands to hold the toothbrush, to turn on the light, and to wipe ourselves! Our wrists need ulnar freedom and our elbows need radial rotation, pronation, and supination. Before we leave the house, something might need to be peeled, opened, cleaned up, or picked up. The strength we find in our fingers and hands require all planes of motion to be functioning in the intrinsic myofascial structures as well as the extrinsic reaching up into the arms and shoulders.

The exquisite movement of the radial joint at the elbow and the  freedom  of  the ulnar joint at the wrist allows a huge number of choices for movement that converge to move the shoulder up and back down. The interlocking dependency of all these movements allows us to interact with the  world  with  some  kind of agency and confidence that we have control over material life. The orchestra of the movements in the hands, arms, and shoulder girdle is a miracle in action.

Learning from Injury

I didn’t know I would spend a year intensely studying the anatomy, the functioning,  the evolution, and the embryology of the relationships of my hands to my scapulae and humeri. I had become infatuated  with my hands and fingers having been   a swimmer, dancer, and a Rolfer™; my arms have always been my tools but mostly taken for granted. They responded to my demands.

In one moment, my hands and my arms became the focus of my life for two years. I was knocked down by my own rolling car, it crushed my left humerus and broke the fingers in my right hand. Not a good outcome for a Rolfer, or for any human being, our hands need to manipulate our world almost every waking second.

Arms were never given much attention in my training thirty-three years ago. For a long time, I didn’t teach them well since    I didn’t really study and figure them out.

It felt easy to leave them out except for the occasional shoulder injury, rotator cuff story, or arthritis in the hands. There was always more to teach in the Ten Series than arms and hands, and yet there were my arms and hands doing the work. I don’t remember anyone ever teaching  me the exquisite anatomy of the fingers. What would we be without our  hands  and our complex fingers? What is so quintessential for humans as our hands? (See Figure 1).

The answer must at some level, be  that the hand is a visible connection between us; it is a signature for who we are and what we can attain. Our ability to grasp, to build and to make thoughts real lies inside this complex of bones nerves and vessels. (Shubin 2008, 29)

I Cannot Find my Hand

That accident left my humerus crushed into what felt like a liquid mass under a car that I sensed as a human-eating monster ready to kill me. I went to  scratch  my face at one point a week later and I had lost proprioception of where my  hand  had gone in space. I thought my hand knew what to do by itself and find my face. My arm, my humerus, was no longer connected to itself or any proprioception.  I couldn’t locate my hand in space! I had to rely on my eyes and my other hand to guide it to my face.

This led me to an incredible fascination, an obsessive one actually, to understand how I move through my ‘wings’ from my shoulder to my fingers. The hand is the chief organ of the fifth sense: touch. Together with the eye, it is our main way of contacting  the  environment  around us. Without it, a sense of vulnerability, dependence, and helplessness can prevail. Hands are a source of communication and expression of our ideas; they are a part of our way of being.

Figure 1: Expressing who we are through our hands. Photo credit: Alex Woods on Unsplash

The Orthopedic Surgeon Said “Gravity will heal you!”

My fellow Rolfers, this is what I heard the night of the accident in the emergency room, the on-call orthopedic  surgeon said these words to me: “I know a few doctors have said they will put pins and plates in your arm, but if you are willing  to try something I would like you to heal with gravity.” Yes! He really said that. All I had to do was sit up with my upper body on a slight angle for two to three months

The orchestra of the movements in the

hands, arms, and shoulder girdle

is a miracle in action.

and have nothing under my elbow ever.

I would have a sling and a tight sock around the upper arm but no cast and nothing else. “Just let it hang in gravity and the body will heal itself,” said this surgeon. Music to my ears. He continued saying, “The gold standard in the literature is to treat without surgery.  But there is  the impatience of American culture and impatience of American people. Typically, the thinking of American and first-world people is that, fix me and I can get back to what I’m doing faster. I want that even if it’s not the best.” Our profession has this pressure as well, to fix quickly and to satisfy the paying client who needs to be back in life fast rather than experience a holistic full-body integration of all systems in collaboration.

As you can see, I got to experience hand and arm healing from the inside. The series of x-rays that tracked my healing progress is shown in Figure 2. This process changed my life and got me thinking deeply about how we heal and the possibilities inherent in all our systems. My bone trauma physician said that it was not very glamorous to treat a broken arm with nothing, but he made it clear to me that he felt it best to rest the arm in gravity. He said “The best recovery is when I can assist in natural healing and take advantage of how the body and bone heals.” It was easy to agree to that logic. Let gravity be my therapist.

The bone would find its way home and come back together, the bone trauma specialist described that the injury site was creating fibrous material out of a hematoma, that would calcify and rejoin broken ends of the bone to create a bond: solid singular bone again. If I moved too much or didn’t stay in gravity, the fibrous material may not calcify and the bone would  then  think it was a joint, surgery would then   be necessary. Whether the bone would find its way home or otherwise the bone would think it was a joint, gravity was the requirement for full recovery.

Figure 2: X-ray of bones over two months from break to healing.

The time that took was quite a journey. The first x-ray on the left of Figure 2 is the day of the accident, the next one is ten days later, and the middle x-ray is seventeen days after accident. The second from the right is a month after the accident, and the image on the far right is two months post crushing. The bone had gone home in ten days in spite of enormous edema, pain, and bone distortion. Gravity brought it back into alignment and ‘home’. It was somewhere in those ten days that I had tried to move and couldn’t find my hand in space. The fibrous formation was clearly still being created.

This experience left me swimming in questions: What did I need in order to find my hand besides my eyes and my other hand? What was the role of fascial relationships in the connection between my arm to my hand? What was lost with the broken bone? What moves my hand besides intention? When I couldn’t find my hand in space, what was missing in that moment?

My bone trauma specialist physician described the lost hand experience as probably  a  neurological   component where the signal wasn’t feeding normal movement. He described that my humerus healing had many other processes intertwined, more than we appreciate. If the bone is not stable, then some of the connecting communications that rely on the bone’s stability struggle to complete

their function. That  struck  me  as  part  of our Rolfing  Structural  Integration  (SI) paradigm, isn’t this what we call ‘integration’? The bone was healing but there was so much more to a functional outcome than the fix of the bone.

The shoulder contributes to movements that not only transport but also orient the hand. (Wilson 1998, 73)

Figure 3:Finger wrappings.

Reading this quote got my full attention. My shoulder had no connectivity below the mid-humeral break. The proximal and distal pieces of my humerus, as you can see in the first x-ray of Figure 2, had no connection. The fascial elements were inflamed as well as the radial nerve. The movement of my shoulder to bring my hand to my face couldn’t find the path.  I did not have a brain injury. So, what happens to our hand movements when our shoulders are restricted, inflamed, and immobilized?

My hand movements were affected by this accident, especially since all the phalangeal bones of my other hand (right hand) were either fractured and broken. The details  were  unclear  regarding  what really happened to  them.  From  this injury I learned the terms proximal interphalangeal (PIP) joints and distal interphalangeal (DIP) joints because mine were mangled.

I have always known that in the hand we need to balance the flexors and extensors. My hands had always just worked without me really thinking about them. Now I could not grasp anything with the broken hand, and I couldn’t find the other hand that belonged with the broken humerus. Both hands had extension and flexion that was extremely limited. Everything had to be relearned. It felt like I had never been consciously aware of what it takes to pick up something small, turn a doorknob, turn a key, scratch myself, or hold something tight. These tasks are possible because of the PIPs and DIPs (see Figure 3); notice where they are and the extra wrappings involved, which have various directions in the myofascia under each joint while the flexor tendons are intact.

Evolution and Embryology of Our Hands

We must consider that hands are a product of human evolution and born from a refined embryological development. We are all familiar with the homunculus map in the sensory and motor cortex in which the human hand and mouth have huge representation in the human brain (see Figure 4). About a quarter of the motor cortex in the  human  brain,  the part of the brain which controls all movement in the body, is devoted to the muscles of the hands. Both the sensory and motor cortex are products of the human’s inherited ancestral abilities and the individual’s lifetime of experiences.

Figure 4: Sensory and motor homunculus.

The hands and fingers of the human animal have evolved within the context of toolmaking, language development, and brain development (Washburn  1960). The modern human brain  is  a  product of the human hand’s sophisticated tool use, this is a visual/manual skill that co- evolved brain development, which also included language acquisition. The hand is a mirror of the brain. As the human hand has been making tools and using tools, the human brain has developed new spatial and proprioceptive pathways.

The skill of the hand lies in the brain and it is here that dexterity or adroitness (or clumsiness) originate. (Wilson 1998, 320)

Our hands manipulate spatial arrangements, assess textural contact, and determine pressure gradients necessary for the hand task. Our human ancestors developed and used tool technologies with their hands, and the more they advanced their hand dexterity, the more the brain enlarged over the millennia to the large neural territory dedicated to the hand and fingers that we have today.

Let us consider the hands and fingers in three dimensions (3D): anterior/posterior, pinky side / thumb side, and base (proximal) and tip (distal). The genetic blueprint for the pinky is different than for the thumb. Each finger has its own destiny and meaning to the body for its unique functional contribution. In utero, the bone has the information that makes a scapula different from a phalange. My left humeral bone that I healed with gravity and time engaged the deep memory from my embryological genetic blueprint. My humerus had  to  remember  a  return to being a long bone. It was between the third and eighth week of  gestation  that  my genetic material directed the bone stem cells to take shape, build structure, and begin to function specifically as a left humerus. Healing brought a cellular return to this creation and restoration of my arm and hand.

My left humeral bone that I healed

with gravity and time engaged the deep memory from

my embryological genetic blueprint.

We can take our interest in the evolution of hands and arms even further back. We can trace the formation of hands and fingers back to fish. In Your Inner Fish (2008), paleontologist  and  anatomy  professor Neil Shubin traces evolutionary  ancestry  of the earliest structures of limbs to a fish called the Tiktaalik. Tiktaalik fish had a shoulder, elbow, and wrist  composed  of the equivalent bones to an upper arm, forearm, and wrist in a human. The fish was specialized and capable for doing a push up! The movement of opening and closing our hands is using joints and bones that first appeared in the fins of fish like Tiktaalik. Think about how these early creatures with bones like our arms, wrists, and hands also had scales and fin webbing.

The complexity of our hands and arms is very old, yet the modern human  animal has so much refinement of  movement. We can rotate our thumb relative to our elbow, essential for our writing, eating, throwing, and Rolfing SI. The ulna was not always separate from the hand. The key movements of the ulna and radius are crucial to our mobility and finesse of finger and hand articulation. The archeological record found there was a change of the radial side of the hand and its articulations with the wrist, allowing us a grasping movement needed by our human ancestors. Ulnar opposition, the movement of human thumb to lateral fingers, is the most functional advancement our hands have made and is not found in fossil remains of other animals yet. All of these evolutionary changes allowed brachiation, the hanging from  trees, from bars, for reaching, for grasping, and bringing something towards ourselves for our use.

Early anthropoids were human-like primates that lived in the trees and had not made the shoulder modifications that permit suspended locomotion in the trees, not  yet  full  brachiation.   Development of brachiation required more  of  the brain’s kinesthetic monitoring and spatial computing power. The key was freeing the attachment of the far end of the ulna that meets the wrist on the small-finger side, this was critical to brachiation and increasing the twisting of the arm.

The ulnar and radial freedom at both proximal and distal ends is crucial to the

Figure 5: Multi-directional ligaments.

multi-planar use of the fingers and hands. Try typing your keyboard as if the ulna and radius do not rotate. I think it locks us up all the way to the temporal bones! Every motion of fine motor control in the hand requires a complex interplay among many parts. The evolutionary adaptation of being able to rotate the radius along a pivot point at the elbow was one that allowed us to use our hands dynamically, rotating them in relation to the elbow. Because of the ulnar deviation, our ring and little-finger metacarpals are more mobile than the others and give us the power hold. A very important rehabilitation of the hand and fingers is to strengthen the lateral arch of the hand, which is where the power comes from in a grasp.

The Hands and Arms in Three Dimensions

When we are looking at our client’s hands and arms, and when we are feeling into our own for work and self-care, it is necessary to consider these structures as 3D multiplanar fingers, palm, and arm (see Figure 5). Notice the various directions of the ligaments: oblique, sagittal, and transverse. All these ligaments have relationships with continuous fascial connects of the whole. They all have the potential for limiting or releasing multiplanar movement in each joint of the finger.

For example, let’s go step by step through the movements necessary to unscrew the lid of a jar:

1)            Flexion of the PIPs,

2)            Abduction and adduction of the phalanges,

3)            Rotation of these joints,

4)            Contraction of the lateral arch of the hand to use the strength needed for friction,

5)            More precision grip with the fingers gingerly turning the lid to remove it,

6)            Being able to use the index finger and thumb like tweezers while the rest of the digits rotate all the way up to the palm, wrist, elbow, and shoulder.

Fingers Possess Their Own Locomotor Independence

Each finger has its own range of motion and planes of movement. Every finger needs to perceive its  own  3D  structure in order to handle objects. For example, hand closure requires adduction of the fingers. The long flexors of the fingers are also adductors in that they not only bend the digit but also produce adduction when the tendons exert the force from its upstream muscle contraction. External rotation of the digits opens the hand. Proximal-initiated contraction moves the finger bones bringing the hand inward and distal-initiated contraction  takes them out. The condyloid joint between the proximal phalanges and the metacarpals allows rotation of the fingers, movement from side to side of the fingers, and at right angles to the plane of flexion and extension. Having broken the proximal joints of my right hand, I learned the importance of these structures intimately when I had trouble grasping and closing my hand.

Working with clients’ hand restrictions (this will of course include their shoulder) begins with finger work. Note which directions they have trouble moving the fingers and hands. In looking at the anatomy of the fingers, one can see the multiple directions of tension transmission within the fascia. Each joint has flexion and extension ability as well as adduction, abduction, and rotation. The fingers operate as if antennae reaching, grasping, endlessly sensing texture, temperature, contact,  and placement. Our fingertips possess the highest concentration of touch receptors and thermoreceptors among all areas of  the human skin; making them extremely sensitive to temperature, pressure, vibration, texture, and moisture.

Clinical Application with Hand Intrinsic / Extrinsic Structures

Fingers do not contain muscles. The muscles that move the finger joints are in the palm and forearm. The long tendons that deliver motion from the forearm muscles are the ones we see moving under the skin at the  medial  wrist  and on the back of the hand. Muscles that govern the fingers can be subdivided  into extrinsic and intrinsic muscles. The extrinsic muscles are the long flexors and extensors. They are called extrinsic because  the  muscle  belly  is   located on the forearm. The intrinsic muscle groups are the thenar and hypothenar muscles (thenar referring to the thumb, hypothenar to the small finger), the dorsal and palmar interossei muscles (between the metacarpal bones), and the lumbrical muscles (see Figures 6 and 7). For these figures, note first the various directions

One could find a pathway to work from the  little finger up to the back of the deltoid and towards the triceps, while the thumb can be traced to the sternum.

of the myofascial elements. Rotations in the fingers from injuries, chronic use in rotated patterns (as found in the work of Rolfing SI), and arthritic wear are patterns that can be helped by working all these fascial elements at the interphalangeal joints. The flexion and extension problems are affected by lumbrical muscles that influence both flexion and extension.

Second, note the transverse metacarpal ligament – I call this the ‘webbing’ of the hand. There is a slip for the flexor tendon going one way and then the webbing of the transverse ligament going across. Opening and releasing the fascia around both of these, and then working indirectly on the volar ligaments to unwind the phalangeal joints, can change the entire way movement can manifest from the shoulders into the hands. Plus, there is an added benefit of usually less pain in the hands and joints. Being able to pronate and supinate the hand relies not only on the wrist but the palmar fascia and these interossei and lumbrical muscles having free range of motion.

The Thumb

The thumb is one of the most common fingers to have complaints of irritation, wearing down, arthritis, scrolling pain from texting, typing, and overuse of general movements using opposition. When strategizing for the thumb, it is really useful to look at the intrinsic versus the extrinsic. There are eight muscles attached to the thumb, four of which originate in the forearm. The remaining ones are in the hand (intrinsic) and again have multiple directions of fascial tissue (see Figure 8). Here is my best advice to my Rolfing SI colleagues regarding thumbs: Note the importance  of  the  third digit for thumb attachments and the carpal attachments.

Also notice how similar the hyothenar attachments are to the carpals. In working with the thumb, allow your contact to emphasize the myofascia around the carpals and the third digit (third finger), this will have helpful results rather than working directly on the thumb joints. Just as when opening up the feet we focus on the mobility of the tarsals and the sole of the foot, the intrinsics of the hand should also be mobilized to relieve the extrinsics in the arm that do more than their share. A big part of teaching new Rolfers is helping them find how to use their hands where they power through the right layer of their own arm and hand fascia while working with their client’s tissue. Overusing the extrinsics in the arm has the potential of locking up our spine due to their fascial relationships. Differentiating fingers from the palm liberates fascial sequences all the way into the neck. Right in this moment as you read this, invite your awareness to feel that your fingers go all the way into your palms, to the carpals; this practice can give a whole new way of perceiving the possible movements of your hands. Play with how that influences your shoulder girdle, spine, and beyond.

Robert Schleip created a fascinating experiment that was presented at the last Fascia Research Congress in Berlin. He created various blocks of material that replicated fascial densities. People were invited in to see if they could feel and differentiate the density of each block with their fingers. Being able to touch fascia without palmar tension, without forearm tension or shoulder tension, is what we do. Finding the intrinsics open and mobile around the carpals and digits allows this function.


These are very interesting muscles, the four lumbricals in each hand that are crucial to finger movement. They link extensor tendons with flexor tendons. The lumbricals arise from the deep flexor and insert on the dorsal extensor hood mechanism, and are special because they have no bony origin. From the origin on a flexor tendon, its fibers dive dorsally and laterally inserting into the extensor hood. So, they both flex and extend, and extend at the interphalangeal joints. Lumbricals on the flexor side flex the joints between metacarpals and phalanges. Then the action extends joints within phalanges as we push with tips of fingers. These are clearly important for our various finger movements in the tissue. They also allow for these new ‘texting’ finger movements!

You can test for extension and flexion restrictions in the hands as follows:

  1. Put the metaphalangeal joint (MP) in passive extension
  2. Passively flex the PIP (proximal interphalangeal joint)
  3. Passively flex the DIP (distal interphalangeal joint)
  4. If they are both tight, then it is interosseous muscle of the palm tightness.
  5. Then put MP in passive flexion and passively flex PIP and DIP
  6. If tight then it’s the extrinsic extensor tightness to work on.

Work with coordination of both the extensors and flexors. Many people are locked in one or the other as in any other part of our body.

Working in the Palm

Watch someone crawl. Look at his/her hands in the same way we look at feet   in walking and a knee bend. Lengthen the arches! Balance the  arches!  Same in the hand (see Figure 9).  As  I  type this on my computer,  I  see  my  hands in an ulnar deviation and my palms in a chronic flexion with the tension in both transverse arches. And of course, we all know how that travels up the arm all the way to our ears!

To be able to conform the hand to a small spherical object or to pick up small pieces of something – this precision grasp we use all day long – the arches of the hand need to be flexible and mobile. Differentiation in the hand arches is essential for the power grasp of exerting the extra strength of the lateral part of the hand onto an object to keep it from falling out of our grasp. The carpals have to have an ability to rotate and respond to the wrist movements for grasping, extension, and flexion. Falling on our hands can freeze up one or two carpals and change the movement of the entire limb.

So how should we see hands when we are doing a body reading of our standing client?

  • How are hands hanging? Curled? Straight?
  • In pronation of the hand, how high up does the movement happen?
  • Can the hand supinate and pronate?
  • Making a fist, can all the fingers fold into the palm?
  • Can the palm allow a precision grip?
  • How does the hand contact the floor or the wall in an open posi- tion? Can the fingers fan out?

These are the essential Rolfing SI questions for seeing your client’s hands. Think of the hand as a specialized end of a crane-like structure, the shoulder girdle, suspended from the neck and chest: can the hand do what is asked of it in all its intricate potential?

When working the tissue, differentiating the fingers in the palmar fascia can change the entire functioning of the arms. Working the webbing of each finger, understanding the superficial to deep layers into the palmar fascia to the capitate at the third metacarpal where thumb and palmar fascia meet are key to this differentiation.

Myofascial Sequencing

In watching our clients move their arms  in the body readings and their daily movement struggles, one could find a pathway to work from the little finger up to the back of the deltoid and towards the triceps, while the thumb  can  be  traced to the sternum. Look into Luigi Stecco’s myofascial sequencing model (2004), he goes into detail on the spiraling nature of the fascial connections from the fingers to the shoulder girdle and spine. Depending on the directional pull and twisting of the fascial sheaths, one can make strategic decisions on where and how to work in the limb or hand. For example, he says that in all vertebrates the moving-backwards sequence, which he  calls  retro  motion, is always located on the ulnar side of the upper limb (Stecco 2004). Each spiraling myofascial sequence begins and ends in one of the fingers. Feeling and sensing through the entire sequence when working on the fingers can deepen the effect of our work beyond the finger itself.

You see, we have small beautiful movements with each segment of the fingers! They are not just sticks at the end of my arms and hands. They are the constant show of the impulses coming from higher up through the multidirectional fascial planes and sequencing to manifest our thoughts and ideas into the physical world. To lose their finesse changes our stability and security in managing our relationships in all realms. Our verticality depends on our limbs. These sequences meet and intersect with the trunk as a way of mediating our movement and our perception of motion. Again, the image of our fingers as antennae comes to me. This multidirectional fascia is structured to perceive motion in very specific ways.

The Psychobiological

Gestures can reveal our emotions. They can communicate what words cannot. Pointing can be a gesture of intentionality. Babies begin using this gesture at around fourteen months and this is one  human  quality  that separates us from the chimpanzee, who does not spontaneously point. The clenching or opening of our hands can communicate a tension between two people or an opening to relationship, respectively. Touching of hands is a profoundly important human experience (see Figure 10).

Our hands are our primary interface with the environment, which is why we need  to wash them  so  much.  With  hands,  we decide on the spatial arrangement between ourselves and objects, and people, all day long. In losing the use of my hands, I became very dependent on others to do the most mundane tasks. I was immediately struck by the immobile wall between my thoughts and my actions. My desire to open something, hold something, was stunted. I could only use my eyes and my thoughts to imagine the movement, but no movement was possible.

Spend five minutes sitting and looking around a room at what movements you want to make with your hands but can’t. My world became almost entirely internal with no external physical engagement. Walking was possible but my balance became tenuous without the reliability of my arms and hands supporting me. The frailty we see in people who have been injured comes from this loss of stable engagement with the material world. Helplessness shrinks us. Each finger has a direction for balance. As you hold this awareness, watch how peoples’ fingers move when they are trying to balance themselves. Being able to fan the fingers has relationships to the humeral joint’s mobility to match the fanning.

Figure 9: Arches of the hand.

Our ability to reach, push, and pull is a decision we make about how we enter the environment. Reaching has an attitude of curiosity, extension into the other and perhaps to be connected to something outside of yourself. Push requires going from inside to outside with a strengthening and stabilizing of the whole structure. Pulling requires a grasp and an acquisition of something. Our body changes its lines of tension in each of these gestures. Social interaction can be uncomfortable, and the shoulder girdle directing our hands  will show that discomfort as we might immobilize the impulse to reach, push, or pull at a person.

Our arms send messages to our brains as a proprioceptive cue. A social psychology experiment found that participants who crossed their arms to attempt to solve complex word jumbles were  more  likely to persevere and eventually succeed (Friendman and Elliot 2008)! At the Dr. Ida Rolf Institute®, touching and how we teach touch in our classes now includes haptic touch. Can we allow the sensation of being touched to come into our hand? Typing now, I can either choose to feel the forearm tension up to my neck, or let my fingers sense the cold hard keyboard coming into my fingers and notice the change in tension in my upper body when I do this. A baby goes from eye to hand to mouth over and over all day. Now we know that the way we use our hands shapes the brain. Tool making was a long evolutionary act involving the hands, the eyes, and the brain in a three-way coordination.

This intimate relationship of the brain to the hands and language makes me ponder what is happening to our brains when I see someone driving while texting. So, holding the phone looking at it, moving the fingers rapidly (new evolutionary movements for our hands), and looking back up to drive. The nature of language is changing to coming from hand movements rather  than our face and larynx, from our hands to a screen we see what people want to say to us. Written language is changing from hand movements of writing to typing and texting. What effect does this have on brain formation, expression in peripheral and central systems? What is the sensory information coming from our texting  to our brain?

There was “a breakthrough in tool-making followed by an increase in the size and complexity of the cerebral hemispheres which in turn followed by further advances in tool making” (Napier 1993, 104).The cognitive power of the  brain  increased with new hand movements. Today hands have taken on completely new tasks, leaving some behind. We are clearly taking an evolutionary step in relation to our hands, brain, and eye coordination. Our relationships change if we are talking with typed words looking at a screen rather  than a person we touch or don’t  touch. The social nervous system doesn’t have to monitor facial expression, eye contact, or sense of touch. “For humans, the hand has a special role and status in the organization of movement and in the evolution of human cognition” (Wilson 1998, 291).

As Rolfers working with transformation and embodiment, we remind our client’s hands and eyes that there are many options of movements and directions that open expression and fascial sequences that change our internal landscape. As a bonus, we will change structural discomfort. The hands have huge range of motion and planes of motion, if you think about it,  these have to occur for everything you do in the upper body is often in the fingers and hands. The shoulder girdle gives our hands the ability to manipulate our world and get what we need to reach and hold onto. Without the arm or the shoulder girdle freedom, the hand is restricted and vice versa. It is similar but not the same as the hip and leg.

The leg is a closed chain, connected to the ground. The hip joint is not like the humeral joint. It is truly a wing we have. It is what we love to watch in a conductor or a cello player or any musician who has to fully occupy his/her arms and hands   to create the sounds that come from delicate and precise movements. We, as Rolfers, need to have the same delicacy and choices to reach different layers of fascia, different nervous systems, and to keep our own ‘wings’ healthy throughout our long lives.

Spread Your Wings All the Way to the Hands and Fingers

You can access your own precise movements of hands and fingertips. I encourage you to understand where and how to work on your own hands, this will enhance how you work with clients’ hands. As Rolfers working with transformation and embodiment, we remind our client’s hands and eyes that there are many options of  movements and directions that open expression and fascial sequences that change internal landscape; as a bonus they will change structural discomfort.

Hopefully this discussion leaves you with a sense of the huge range of motion and planes of motion of the fingers and hands. Ease of hand and finger movement has  to occur for everything you do in the upper body, which I learned so directly  by injuring my left arm and right hand in the same event. As Rolfers we first think about how the shoulder girdle gives our hands the ability to manipulate our world and get what we need to reach and hold onto. Also, we should include that without the arm or the shoulder-girdle freedom, the hand is restricted.

The reclaiming of my own hands took very intentional work in various ways of touching and strengthening the fingers,  I worked with the various grasps and holding.  Sensing  the  relationship  of  the humeral joint and scapula to the elbow and into the hand has made my work, my touch, and the healing of the injuries more meaningful and complete. The bone had healed after a very short time but the fascial relationships and the coordination of movements had to be worked for over a year. The bone coming home would not have been enough to restore full function; receiving Rolfing work gave me the fascial connectivity needed. The effect of our work post-injury and in reconnecting function through all systems cannot be underestimated.

Valerie Berg has been a Certified Rolfer since 1988, a Certified Advanced Rolfer since 2000, and a member of the Dr. Ida Rolf Institute faculty since 2003. She is also a Rolf Movement practitioner and has been influenced by her history as a modern dancer, by Hubert Godard, and by yoga. She worked in Guatemala for five years doing Rolfing sessions during that country’s civil war and, thus, pursued Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing® trauma training afterward. She has been practicing in New Mexico for thirty-two years and alternates that with working in San Diego, California. Tango, kayaking, sculling, and yoga keep her moving and interested in the vitality of our bodies continuing through the years. The joy of movement for the human body is what brought her to be a Rolfer and now continues to be what can be brought to anyone of any age through Rolfing SI.


Friedman, R. and A.J. Elliot 2008. “The Effect of Arm Crossing on Persistence and Performance.” European Journal of Social Psychology 38:449–461.

Shubin, N. 2008. Your Inner Fish. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Stecco, L. 2004. Fascial Manipulations for Musculoskeletal Pain. Italy: Piccin Nuova Libraria.

Washburn, S.L. 1960. “Tools and HumanEvolution.” Scientific American 203(3):62–75.

Wilson, F.R. 1998. The Hand. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

The Complexity and Reasoning of Keeping 3D Hands and Fingers[:]

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