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Head versus hands knowledge


I had a realisation a while ago that I didn’t value my “hand knowledge” enough

We live in a culture which values and glorifies “head knowledge” over any of kinds of knowledge. Intellectual knowledge, academic knowledge, whatever you call it. This is the type of knowledge you get from getting a degree, from getting formal education ,from reading books etc. And it also happens to be the type of knowledge upon which we, as a society, place the highest value.

For years, I also thought about it in this way-that it was the only type of knowledge worth having, that I had to read papers, and cram my head full with facts and figures. I thought I had to know “everything”- that if I didn’t, I was incompetent. It wasn’t actually spoken, but it was implied as a rule during my years as a biology and PhD student. Because I was new, I was given the “little grasshopper” treatment by my supervisor and by the scientists in my lab, and also the message that I didn’t know enough. This feeling stayed with me for years. So much so that when I was speaking at conferences, it wasn’t delivering my talk that filled me with anxiety, but the questions asked at the end of my talk: what if I couldn’t answer them?

Yet there was always another kind of knowledge, even in the field of biological research: I did a lot of practical work in the lab, and to become good at it, I had to learn with my hands, with my body. This wasn’t an intellectual process. And yet, again not spoken, it was implied that this knowledge was less valuable, because that the people in the lab who only did the benchwork where less highly considered than the ones working at their computers too. I remember really enjoying that aspect of my work in my years as a student and as a postdoc, because it gave me a good balance of using my hands and using my head. I would have loathed spending all my time at the computer at the time. Instead, I loved spending time at the bench, using my hands, it felt very similar in a way to cooking. I guess I always had that need for that balance in me. But I wasn’t conscious of it, or didn’t put words on it-that realisation came much later.

The intellectual knowledge came easily to me, so I didn’t value it. We don’t tend to think much of what we can do effortlessly.

It is only after I quit science to become a birthworker that I realised I had the same hang up in my early days in my new career as I did in my early days as a scientist. The little grasshopper feeling came back. So when I started teaching physical skills in my antenatal classes, and also the closing the bones massage. I felt particularly uncomfortable when massage therapists and bodyworkers turned up to learn from me -I felt a bit like a fraud, like a home cook showing a Michelin Star chef their favourite dish-who was I to teach them anything, and what were they going to think about it? I guess I just didn’t think much of my hand knowledge at that time.

Interestingly, they all gave extremely positive feedback.

Now I realise that I just assumed I was crap at doing stuff with my body-because this isn’t what I had been trained to do, but also because the way I learnt it was completely different from my scientific training. The rebozo techniques, the birth positions, the massage, the breathing and relaxation techniques, I learnt them by either teaching myself or from other people  through an informal, apprenticeship type of approach. It wasn’t ratified by a university degree, heck sometimes there wasn’t even a certificate to prove I had learnt stuff.  So surely it couldn’t be good?

Only we as a species are mostly kinaesthetic learners-we learn by doing, rather than by listening or watching. Research is clear about that- attending a lecture yields a learning retention rate of 5% whereas practise yields 75%.

It took a couple of conversation with my massage therapist friend, Stephanie, and my osteopath friend Teddy for me to start shifting my thinking-within a short time I practised the closing the bones massage on them both-they both liked it a lot and praised it and my ability to do the technique. Only then did I start to reflect on the idea that maybe I was actually ok at doing this hand stuff.  I also realised I hadn’t reflected on it much until then-that I had just assumed I wasn’t particularly good at it.

The crunch came when I told Stephanie that head knowledge came easily to me and hand knowledge didn’t. Stephanie told me she was the opposite. I had a light bulb moment: I had been dismissing my new skills because of how I looked at them through the filter of what I considered to be valuable knowledge.

Only then did I start thinking that I could do good things with my hands.


The shift from scientist to birthworker gave me an very interesting insight on my scientific years. As I trained to become a doula, I learnt a lot about signposting and being non judgemental and positive in my interactions with others. I changed the way I was answering questions as conferences-when asked something I didn’t know about, instead of feeling defensive and uncomfortable, I acknowledged the pertinence of the question and threw it back to the audience-this caused such a positive shift in energy in the room!

When faced with something we don’t know we can react in either of two ways: defensiveness, or admission of lack of knowledge followed by an expression of wonder. Defensiveness (I’ve never heard about this-therefore it isn’t true), is a fear response. It is a reflection of the recipient feeling incompetent, often followed by dismissing the point of view that is being put forward. Amazement, or wonder, on the other hand, is a love response. “I’ve never heard about this-how interesting” . Guess which of the two attitude fosters connection?

Today in my work as a doula, I sadly observe many medical professionals behaving in the defensive way described above. I understand that this is the product of education and culture but I wish for more enlightenment and desire for connection.

This brings me to the third kind of knowledge-that my change of career has taught me much about: heart knowledge. This is more difficult to explain and capture, but I guess some of the concept above illustrate it-connection is key. Heart knowledge is deep knowing. It is compassion, love and connection. I would say head knowledge comes first, then body, then heart, heart being the deepest of the three.

It is said that knowledge is like the layers of an onion. In my work as a doula I have been humbled to move on from stuff I knew in my head, to stuff I knew in my body, to stuff I knew in my heart. That is what the essence of what the work of a doula is. Heart knowledge.

True, connected support isn’t about head knowledge, it isn’t about the facts (though this is sometimes important too), and it isn’t about how good you are at giving a massage. It is about how present you are, how you are holding her, with your heart wide open.



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