Looking at hands 5: Hand-Directed Behaviour:- additional
Some further reflections on the hand symbol behaviour.
The human hand's major function (see our discussions on n.r.a.
and t.r.a., regarding symbolism of body parts, here the hand), are to
create, grasp, manipulate and control objects. (To have something or
someone in the palm of your hand.)
Even if the hand doesn't actually create an object, as the child sees
something and reaches out and grasps it, an experience, a sensation
(tactile) is created, by his action, and so primitively he has created
the tactile object. This would appear to involve a confusion between an
independently existing object and the sensation which it may produce in
a sentient creature.
As for the status of the hand, as a symbol or sign representing the face,
it could be of an iconic type or a holding classifier type, using the
terminology of sign language. As for the latter might we imagine
holding the back of a person's head and looking at her face? It seems
likely that what we have is a combination of the holding classifier
type of symbolism and the iconic one. In n.r.a. an object is grasped,
the hand is rotated and the palm turned to the face so that the object
can be seen, so in the case of this sort of natural sign/mime the same
is done without the actual object.
We must also consider the factor of the distance between hand and face.
In the emotional behaviours with our children the hand is brought very
close to the face, (recall the expression 'in your face'.) The real
face and symbolised face (the hand) are within each other's territorial
zone, the personal space, reserved for encounters within relationships
which are highly emotionally charged, either extremely positive, loving
and intimate, on the one hand, or extremely negative and hostile on the
other. What is supposed to be, or is, happening is 'up close and
personal'. There is ultimately zero distance between hand and face, so
that physical, oral, interaction and contact can take place, either
positive of mouthing, kissing, or negative of chewing or biting.
So there are these two dimensions:-
These two dimensions interact to form strengths, or intensities of
experience so that a very positively valenced object, or symbol of
this, very close to the person makes a very intense positive
experience, and similarly for a very negatively valenced object or
symbol of this. Far away, the experience, positive or negative, is much
It would seem that the relationship between the current provoking real
interpersonal exchange, (between child and parent figure or carer), and
the positive or negative hand directed behaviour, is that where the
first is a trigger for the second i.e. the fantasy behaviour (positive
or negative) is not in proportion to the intensity (plus or minus), of
the real incident which produces it. Moreover it is believed that the
current event triggers a symbolic re-enactment of positive or negative
behaviour, of attitudes or behaviours or feelings to the parent. So the
behaviour is a transference phenomenon, in psychoanalytic terms. The
current event in the current relationship is similar to this primal
event in the primal relationship and so in a sense reminds the child
of this earlier one, the child's reaction to the current situation is
coloured by the nature of the earlier relationship.
Another hypothesis to be entertained is that the behaviour is a fantasy
enactment of something which may be described as an Oedipal - Elektra
To check this one might ask these questions
1. Do strong/frequent occurrences of the behaviour happen more in
individuals functioning at this 'stage' ?
2. Do negative experiences with same sex parents (or parent figures)
produce stronger or more frequent negative hand reactions than with
opposite sex parents (or parent figures)? Do positive experiences with
opposite sex parents (or parent figures) produce stronger or more
consistent positive hand reactions than with same sex parents (or
Another question to be answered is whether such responses occur at
home, with real parents, whether or not the child is or has ever been
at a boarding school. Is there anything in the boarding school
situation itself which has any bearing on the behaviour?
Does felt rejection by parents, with a child at boarding school, have a
bearing on the behaviour?
These points might be relevant to the question as to why the
retaliatory behaviour of the child is only symbolic.
If the behaviour is seen at home with real parents one might employ the
usual hypothesis that the child refrains from real negative behaviour
to the frustrator because of fear of retaliation, from the parent
concerned, and refrain from real positive behaviour, because of fear of
retaliation from the other parent. (So we could use the situation where
this other parent was not present?)
If the behaviour was seen more often with a child at boarding school
one could entertain the hypothesis that the child symbolises the
parent, because this is the one he is really thinking of, and this
person is not present with the child.
Of course, as said elsewhere, we note that, as befits the level of the
children who we have seen display this type of behaviour, both the
positive and negative reactions to the hand, as the symbolic parent,
are of an oral nature, in the first oral receptive, (mouthing , kissing
and sucking), in the second oral aggressive (biting, chewing, and
It appears clear that the kind of symbolism seen in these hand directed
behaviours (looking, affectionate or hostile actions) is of a 'higher'
type than that involved in our t.r.a. and is of a similar type to that
seen in mime and, or sign. The motive in our children however may be
less communicative than it is fantasy satisfaction of a frustrated
drive (of sensuous desire or hostility), this fantasy being propped up
and supported by external symbolic objects (the hands).
We might discuss the relationships between
a. the type of symbolism seen in t.r.a.
b. the symbolism seen in our hand - directed behaviour
c. the symbolism seen in cases of conversion hysteria.
We will use old accounts of c. since really the cases described in the
old literature I think are practically never seen today. If we do this,
take the case of a person whose job or duty involves essential use of a
body part or organ. A hysteric may solve the conflict between his felt
duty or obligation to do his job and a need not to do it, (e.g. from
fear of the dangers associated with it), by a functional loss of
capacity to use the organ. So in wartime the soldier developed
paralysis of his arms so he could not use his rifle, or paralysis of
his legs so that he could not go into action.
( A more conscious action might be to shoot himself in the foot, either
fully consciously and deliberately, or with some degree of persuading
himself it was an accident.)
We might compare this with our case of an m.l.d. boy who was conflicted
in the area of school work. He felt pressured by his parents to achieve
academically, (his mother even talked about him going to University !)
As well as being in the m.l.d. category he had very poor eyesight which
required him to use glasses. A possible way out was shown in his
statement to his teacher about the possibility he might break his
glasses. A more sophisticated response would involve damage presented
as accidental, to threaten this event seems to rule out the possibility
that it could be accidental. But the character of the response is
similar of course. To prevent the act, one might destroy the objects
involved in the act. In more serious pathological cases it might be the
body organs themselves which are targeted rather than the mechanical
aids to their effective use, e.g. spectacles for the eyes.
Similarities are seen in the fact of the unsophistication of the type
of person involved here, and in the fact that it is the psychological
concept of the body part and its function which is important, not the
actual neurology involved. The hysterical case is happening at a low
level of consciousness, unlike the case here, this is another
In around March 2005 a friend of my son, who for some time worked in a
psychiatric hospital, after being informed of the rough outlines of my
theories of h.r.b., and h.d.b. told me of a patient he had encountered
who had the delusion that he had an eye in the palm of his right hand.
At the same time the same person also reminded me of the expression,
common in young female blacks of the US a few years ago, "Talk to the
hand", if they were not interested in what another person had to say to
them, if they felt that the other person was slighting them in some
way. At the same time as uttering this phrase the person would thrust
out her hand to the other person, its palm towards them, and turn her
face away from the other person. In the film 'Ali G indahouse', in one
scene Ali says to a person before him, "Speak to the hand, 'cos the
face, it ain't listening!", and as he says this puts his ' 5 ' hand up
to the other person's face and turns his face away. The meaning is that
he didn't want to listen to someone who might be insulting, or
threatening him, or communicating in some other kind of negative way
Another observation from everyday, normal life is the following. A
Quaker lady talks on a T.V. program about the purpose of the one hour
group silences. She talks about "facing yourself", and when saying this
she holds her flat, ( ' B ' ), hand up before her face, fingers pointing up,
and the palm facing towards her.
This is an oral-aggressive attack on the hand, using the teeth, a
very primitive form of aggression.
Note further that the hand is the quintessential or archetypal mode, and therefore
symbol, of a person's action and effect on his environment, physical and-or social,
for good or evil.
(So even if the effect on his surroundings was brought about by verbal means rather than
manual ones, the hand might still be able to function as a symbol of the agent of the effect).
Both the biting mouth, and the hand are of course parts of the same person. So here we have
a dramatic representation of a conflict between two parts of the same person.
The meaning is:- "I hate what I have done, what I have caused, it's my fault, (or my hand's
fault, to the primitive mind), so I will attack and punish this, by biting it."
As a gesture the attack will be minor and token in force, and the hand not really
damaged, but sometimes the attack is 'real'. The latter is seen in some s.l.d. children,
as we have seen, when they are frustrated. Such children's hands are often badly scarred
and calloused as a result of years of abusing their hands in this way.
As a gesture this can be seen in comic ads like the one on British TV of a few years ago.
Rowan Atkinson plays a man who has unintentionally humiliated his boss, so that it looks as if
he might soon be looking for another job, or at least is facing demotion or reprimand.
When he realises what he has done and that his boss is aware that he is the culprit,
he bites his hand
(We might note that, while the above cases bite their hands as an expression of their anger
over the conduct of their hand, the obsessive-compulsive neurotic washes his hands, to try
to remove the guilt occasioned by his evil acts)
We have said that in h.d.b., and h.r.b. the child's hand is a symbol of
a parent's, or parent figure's, face.
If the hand is a symbol, then we must ask of what type of symbol it is?
(a) Is it a consciously used symbol like a person pointing to a
schematic symbol of a tree to mean one specific member of this class,
(or the class itself), or a person making the B.S.L. sign for tree?
(b) Is it an 'unconscious' symbol such as occurs in dreams, the sort
described by the psychoanalysts? These are often concerned with sex,
according to Freud, (but of course Jung has a much wider interpretation
of the field of symbols).
(c) Is it something in between, maybe like play acting, or
Here there is more conscious purpose, but the symbol is of a pretty
primitive class, like (b).
In a daydream one satisfies a need in phantasy, one that one is unable
to do in reality.
Possibility (c) is is probably a good model for our h.d.b.. The specific type of
daydream where one gets revenge for some hurt that one has suffered at
the hands of another, is a very close model. In our case the aggrieved
person is a child, and the injurer is a parent, or parent figure, often
one of the opposite sex to that of the child. Finally the most exact
model would be one where this phantasy is played out partly internally,
'in the head', but partly externally, with an external object as a
symbol for the injuring parent. In our case the symbol is the child's
hand and what is symbolised is a parent. A parallel case is the
oft-quoted displaced aggression scenario where, after being reprimanded
by the boss, one kicks the cat, or punches a punch-ball and imagines
it's the boss's face.
A related, and possibly more interesting parallel is with the magician
who fashions a tiny likeness of a person from wax, and perhaps adds to
it something belonging to them, e.g. makes its hair from the person's
actual hair. The practitioner then might stick pins into the poppet, or
heat and melt it. This is sympathetic magic, the attacker believing
that his symbolic actions on the doll actually injure the person
represented, in the corresponding part of his or her body. In the same
way, when the child bites her hand, she may actually feel she is
attacking the person represented, the parent. The mental processes
involved here are obviously of the primitive type only found today in
the dreaming adult, the psychotic, and the very young child*
Another example from the distant past is from Ancient Egypt. There
a faithful likeness in stone of a deceased person was seen as a safe
and durable vehicle for the soul to ride down the thousands of years
into eternity, (especially if it also had the names of the
person inscribed on it). Here the symbol was much more than a symbol,
it became the thing represented. In what must be the ultimate
expression of foul and wicked revenge an evil-wisher might inflict
the final and perpetual state of non-existence, even in the form of the
soul, by destroying the statues and obliterating the names.
Does the child react to his hand, exactly as if it were his mother's
face, or teat? Or just act as if it were?
Possibly the object is only a part symbol and to be compared with
the C.S., which evokes the C.R., which is only a part, the preparatory
response component, of the U.C.R to the U.C.S.
As for (b) we know that the values of much fewer attributes are
considered as a basis for the estimation of similarity, symbol value,
or even identity in dreams, than in normal waking life. Examples are
the pencil, pen etc being a penis, and the vase, flower-pot being a
vagina or womb. Other examples, less sexual are window = eyes,
door = mouth, sun = father or mother, tree = person, and so on. As we
said before the strength of drive will determine the degree of
remoteness of the actual likeness and the somewhat inappropriate
over-generalisation of the concept, e.g. a hungry man sees references
to food everywhere!
The hand symbolism seems to be of this type, so, as far as the hand is
concerned, what is the basis for the symbolism?
In what possible way is a child's hand like the face of a parent?
To me it looks like (c) is near to the right model for h.d.b. But we must say
that there are various types of symbolism seen in a sign language, and
they are not all of a purely arbitrary, and conscious and conventional
type. Some seem to be based on quite primitive processes. See our
comment on the a.s.l. sign for 'cross', 'grumpy' at the end of the web
page 'Body Parts as Symbolic Objects 3'.
This then makes the relationship between the three type discussed above
not as clear cut as might be thought, and the differences between them
not as great. If we look at h.d.b. from the point of view of a sign
language, e.g. B.S.L. we can ask, of the types of sign, which type,
(or types), might be a model for our h.d.b.?
The type of B.S.L. sign we will discuss are:-
A. Handling classifiers
For example, the closed fist, A, can represent the gripping of a narrow
cylindical object, and so represent the object itself.
B. Size and Shape Specifier
For example flat objects can be represented by flat handshapes such as
'B', 'H', and so on.
C. Tracing size and shape classifier
For example the 'G' handshape can trace the outline of a square, room,
D. Touch classifiers
For example the tips of the fingers of the '5' hand can represent
playing a piano, using a keyboard or reading Braille.
Some of these are not clearly separable, e.g.
One might also argue that the separation between conscious and
unconscious is not particularly valuable, and also it must be
said that in the above scheme we have not placed 'lower' forms of
communication like t.r.a., where the actual object is grasped.
Which one, or ones, of these could be a model for our h.d.b.?
We can see D as a possibility, if the handshape in h.d.b., or in
h.r.b., represents the young child or baby feeling his mother's
face, an activity commonly seen in young children.
Although close to the best model, it must be said that (c) might be a
little too conscious to be an exact fit. For the child glaring
at his hand the hand is no cold, conscious, arbitrary symbol, as in
many signs. There might be a degree of suspension of disbelief
that the hand is the parent's face in the drama he plays out with his
hand but this may not be particularly conscious.
The intensity of the affect directed towards the hand, implies that it
is no formal, conventional, arbitrary, highly conscious symbol but
that, at least temporarily, it is the parent's face.
The behaviour has aspects both of the conscious and rational, and
of the unconscious and irrational.
The symbols it uses, as in dreams, are private but universal. They are
not used for the purpose of communication with others, but for the
personal and private satisfaction of frustrated need drives.
The child, might, at some deeper level of his mind, see his hand
as the mother's face, but at a higher, more conscious level
knows that it is really his hand. Likewise the magician who
sticks pins into a wax poppet knows that the image is not identical
with the person represented, as it might be in a dream.
For the magician a further stage of thought occurs, which is a belief
that his actions cause a like effect on the person represented,
e.g. if he pierces the 'heart' of the doll, the person represented
will have chest pains, and maybe even suffer a heart attack. If we
again relate this to the child we might look closely at the picture
and text on page 111 of the elementary book on M. Klein cited below.
This theory of sympathetic magic might be supported and the belief
reinforced by accidental, coincidental, occurrences. For example if
Megs sticks pins into the farmer's wife's image as a way of trying
to eliminate a rival in love, and the woman falls ill, but only with
a bad cold, this part reinforcement might be quite encouraging for
the practicioner of the art.
In t.r.a., a person's hand grips a beer glass, and an outsider sees
this; at a rather more sophisticated level, a signer (or mime), makes
this hand shape, (without the actual object), and again an outsider
sees this. In these cases there is communication, (maybe deliberate),
between two people, in the visual channel, = 'beer glass', or
'beer', or 'drinking beer' etc.
In the touching type of sign, (D), e.g. thumb tip contact with a door
bell/buzzer/chimes push button, playing the piano, reading Braille etc
again the hand shape and movement are borne visually to another and so
the meaning is given.
All these external visual hand shapes and movements are associated, of
course, with kinaesthetic, proprioceptive sensations, but these
in themselves, cannot of course be used to communicate directly with
Tracing, (C), could be a part of h.r.b. if the child traces the shape
of his mother's face, but the visual shapes and changes in the shapes
are not very clear and so can't be used for public communication.
What of tactile, textural, surface qualities such as those gained from
feeling a piece of sandpaper? There is no visible distinctive character
to the hand shapes and movements and so these sensations cannot be
communicated to the outsider. So also the child's feeling of the
softness and warmth of the mother's face, or breast, is private and
personal. Such feelings could be associated with the organ which is an
important element in producing such sensations, (the hand), and so
the hand might become a 'symbol' of the other important object involved
in producing these sensations, the maternal face, or breast, but
this must remain a private 'symbol' as there is not a clear hand shape
or movement which can visually communicate such feeling to the outsider.
We say that there is a slightness, and an unconscious, 'paleological',
type of relation in dream links, where only one attribute may be used,
and the similarity of the values of two objects w.r.t. this single
attribute employed to represent identity. But this might be seen as
being as true for sign - after all whiskers is only one attribute,
it does not make your hands, in this shape and movement, actually a
But in sign the individual sign is conscious, and the signer, and the
person signed to, (hopefully), does not really think that the hand is
now really a cat, just a symbol of it. (The child who is signed to
will not rush up to the hand, say "Ohhh!", stroke it and give it a
saucer of milk!). The speaker who says "cat" does not think that the
sound 'cat' is a cat, or that the word 'cat' is a cat.
(If this did occur it would be a case of word magic, and one
would have questions about the mental state of the person concerned.)
Let us clarify the following points:-
(a) The child looks with love or hate at the
palm of his hand.
(b) He may kiss the palm, especially the thenar
eminence, the fleshy part of the palm at the base of the thumb.
(c) But he sucks the thumb, or bites the thenar
eminence, the fleshy part of the palm at the base of the thumb.
In (a) the palm represents the parent's face.
In (c) the thumb and thenar eminence represent the mother's
nipple and breast
In (b) the symbolism is not entirely clear; it might involve
both (a) and (c).
So there are two things symbolised, but both are parts of a
parent, (or parent figure?), especially the mother.
*See the works of Melanie Klein, a famous psychoanalyst best known for her
work with children, e.g.
Melanie Klein for Beginners, Hinshelwood et al, Icon Books, 1997, page 111
© 2004 John and Ian Locking
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