Secrets in Your Hand

Could Science Be Catching Up with Ancient Wisdom?

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Did you know that the length of your fingers can predict your social behavior, scholastic ability, and sexual orientation? Would you believe that an analysis of your palms can diagnose genetic disorders, medical conditions, and even estimate the length of your life? It’s true. What was once considered fortune telling is increasingly becoming mainstream science.

The evidence lending credence to the ancient art of palmistry comes from research in a variety of fields. The study of finger and palmar ridge patterns, known as dermatoglyphics, has identified correlations between handprints and numerous genetic disorders, including colorblindness, congenital heart disease, primary glaucoma, and Down’s syndrome. A study involving autopsies by doctors at the Bristol Royal Infirmary has revealed “a highly significant association” between the palmar crease, traditionally known as the Life Line, and longevity. Furthermore, numerous studies conducted by the neuroscience and psychology departments of universities around the world have shown correlations between digit ratio and personality traits.

The difference in length between the index and ring fingers, known as the 2D:4D ratio, has attracted the most attention from researchers. A study conducted by neuroscientists at the University of Alberta found that men with low ratios, that is to say, longer ring fingers than index fingers, exhibit more aggressive and risk-taking behavior. Studies conducted at the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford found that this ratio predicts success among financial traders, and correlates with increased sexual promiscuity. Psychologists at the University of Western Australia and Berkeley, California, discovered that the same ratio in women’s hands corresponds to an improved sense of direction, and appears more frequently in lesbians. In yet another study, psychologists at the University of Bath showed that low 2D:4D ratios in both sexes correlates with higher SAT scores in math, while the opposite ratio, in which the index finger is longer than the ring finger, correlates with higher literacy scores.

The researchers explain that the commonality between all of these traits is prenatal exposure to high levels of sex hormones that affect development in the fetus. Elevated levels of testosterone in utero cause ring fingers to grow longer than index fingers, which makes this ratio more common in men. Testosterone amplifies sensation-seeking and aggressive behavior. It also promotes development in the part of the brain responsible for spatial perception and mathematical ability. Conversely, elevated levels of estrogen produce longer index fingers than ring fingers, making this ratio more common in women. Estrogen amplifies nurturing behavior and promotes development in the part of the brain responsible for perceptual speed and verbal fluency. This explains why slight variances in finger length can point to significant physical, emotional, and psychological differences between individuals.

Science has just begun to discover the secrets hidden in the hand. Yet, palm readers have long known that the ring finger, aptly called “Apollo’s finger,” correlates with popularity, sex appeal, and risky behavior. In fact, when it is proportionately longer than the others, they often refer to it as the “gambler’s finger.” A good palmist would also know that a long index finger, known as “Jupiter’s finger,” indicates heightened capacity for empathy, superior verbal ability, and a tendency to verbosity. Although palmistry is often associated with soothsaying swindlers and crystal balls, it turns out there’s truth in the old folklore.


An Ancient Science

It’s no coincidence that, even without the benefit of hormone tests, palm readers of old arrived at the same findings as modern doctors. The practice of examining the hand began as a diagnostic method of Indian medicine during the Vedic period (circa 1500–500 BCE). The Vedics noted that, despite the uniqueness of every hand, similarities were evident in some. They began correlating features of the hand with specific conditions and characteristics of the owner. A long thumb was associated with superior intelligence and leadership qualities; short fingers with a fast metabolism and quick wit; broken lines with poor health and acute crises. These discoveries led to the use of hand analysis in Ayurveda, the traditional medicine of India, where it is still employed today.

It didn’t take long for the Vedic system of hand analysis to spread via the Silk Road to the rest of the ancient world. Written records date its introduction to China during the Zhou Dynasty, between 1122–770 BCE. From there, the practice spread to Korea, Japan, and Tibet. Knowledge of palmistry reached the Middle East by the sixth century BCE, as evidenced in the Bible. The Book of Job 37:7 proclaims, “God caused signs or seals on the hands of every man, that all men might know their works.” Proverbs 3:16 reads, “Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor.” These passages show that palmistry was well known at the time.

Historical contacts between India and Greece suggest the practice of palmistry was known to the ancient Greeks, though no written records remain. However, it was only introduced to the rest of Europe in the Medieval Period, through contact with Moorish traders and Crusaders returning from the Middle East. By the Renaissance, palmistry had become so widespread that Shakespeare alluded to it in no less than five of his plays. He references it most plainly in the Two Noble Kinsmen, where the jailer’s daughter says to the schoolmaster, “Gerald, give me your hand. I can tell your fortune.”

The Catholic Church, however, condemned palm reading, associating it with witchcraft. Under persecution, palm readers went underground for the next three centuries, and the old knowledge was nearly forgotten.


Hand Analysis Today

The Gypsies, or Roma, who originate from northern India, reintroduced hand analysis to the West. The Church’s stifling grip on European intellectual exploration had gradually loosened by the nineteenth century, when a Gypsy woman taught the art to a Frenchman named Captain C. S. D’Arpentigny. The young army officer enthusiastically embraced the Indian diagnostic method and started a modern revival in 1839 with his book, La Chirognomie, the study of the hand—or, as it is called today, chirology.

Chirology is a hybrid of East and West, ancient and modern. It adopts the empirical evidence of science while keeping the time-tested knowledge of the Vedics. Scientific study is shedding some much-needed light on palmistry, which has been taught primarily through oral tradition since its inception and translated into many different languages throughout its long history. There are many interpretations of the original knowledge and no definitive authorities on the subject. New findings can confirm earlier discoveries and enrich traditional assumptions with contemporary explanations. They can also weed out the myths and misconceptions that have inevitably taken root in this arcane field.

Arguably, the key to palmistry’s continued success lies in the holistic perspective of Ayurveda, which views every part as a reflection of the whole. The hands mirror the macrocosm of the individual, just as the individual reflects the macrocosm of the planet. Much like the Earth’s ecosystem, the human biosphere is seen as a complex system of relationships between the elements and seasons; except in this case, the elements are replaced by anatomical organs and the seasons by physiological cycles. Any imbalance between them leads to disorder and disease. Physical, emotional, and psychological conditions are all symptomatic of the internal weather. Treatment is a matter of restoring balance between the seasons and their corresponding elements. This paradigm, known as the ‘Five Element system,’ became the basis of almost all Asian medicine, including Chinese acupuncture.

Even when they arrive at overlapping conclusions, East and West have fundamentally different ways of understanding the same phenomena. Science attributes the ratio between the ring and index fingers to prenatal exposure to testosterone and estrogen, whereas the Five Element theory would say it reflects the balance between the elements of Water and Air. This explanation may sound simplistic at first, but each element encompasses an extensive network of correspondences. Water, reflected in the ring finger, corresponds to the urinary and reproductive systems. Air, reflected in the index finger, corresponds to the respiratory and immune systems. This element (known as Wood in Chinese) also governs the liver, which is thought to directly affect the female reproductive system. In addition to the fingers, however, the fingernails, palms, and back of the hands are also examined in an analysis. The proportions, shape, color, texture, tone, lines, and other markings all provide detailed information that will contribute to a specific diagnosis.

Beyond the physiological correlations, each element is also associated with a distinct temperament, which becomes apparent when that element is predominant in the individual’s makeup. For example, Air types are typically emotionally detached, objective, and intellectual. Known for their innovative and adventurous spirits, they often chose professions in science, technology, media, academics, and activism. Yet, despite their above- average intelligence, they are easily carried away by radical ideas and unrealistic dreams. When stressed, they become impractical, impatient, and alienated. For balance, Air types need the stability of Earth to keep them grounded and the discipline of Ether (also known as Metal) to set realistic limits for themselves.

Water types, in contrast, are more sensitive, emotional, and sexual. Exceptionally social, artistic, and intuitive, they often work as artists, designers, personal assistants, psychotherapists, and psychics. But, despite their remarkable insights, they easily lose their clarity and inspiration in the face of adversity. When stressed, they become anxious, phobic, and dependent. For balance, Water types need the stimulation of Fire to draw them out of their inner worlds and the firmness of Earth to contain and channel their emotions in constructive ways.

Every pair of hands presents a unique portrait of a life. However, in most people’s hands, one element stands out as dominant, classifying them as one of five types: Earth, Fire, Water, Air/Wood, Ether/Metal. Although these terms can sound antiquated to modern ears, the elements are archetypes. Found in every culture, past and present, they are the familiar faces of human nature. We instinctively recognize them because they resonate on a physical, emotional, and psychological level. Understanding where these dimensions intersect allows for a multifaceted therapeutic approach that treats body, mind, and spirit as one. In a culture that tends to compartmentalize these things, this integrative approach may be the primary advantage of the holistic perspective.


Our Changing Hands—Past, Present, and Future

Contrary to popular perception, hand analysis is not deterministic because the hand is not static. Though the size and shape stays more or less the same, the color, texture, and tone can change from week to week, depending on fluctuating physiological and emotional states. Also, although the ridges of the palms are fully developed at birth and only change in the case of disease, the lines continue to develop throughout the course of life. They can deepen or fade, become longer, shorter, or even branch out in new directions. Chirologists believe the nervous system functions like a living telegraph, imprinting our experiences into our palms through the constant cascade of nerve impulses triggered by our impressions, urges, actions, and reactions. The lines trace the paths of our development, gradually drawing the maps of our lives with every progression, regression, and interruption.

Though we each possess inherent inclinations, which can become more ingrained over time, we also have freedom of choice. We can break out of old ruts to forge new paths, or deepen existing grooves by retreading our steps. Yet, our choices are often limited by a lack of awareness of our patterns and potentials. Like many other diagnostic methods, chirology is based on pattern recognition. Hand analysis offers a means to identify personal strengths, weaknesses, talents, and tendencies. Used as a tool for self-knowledge, it can help us to make more informed choices. However, a chirologist is no more a fortuneteller than a meteorologist is a prophet.

The practice of hand analysis has endured for over three thousand years despite the witch-hunters, charlatans, and skeptics. Now, the contribution of science to this ancient body of knowledge could ensure that it will not only survive but also continue to evolve. Perhaps, in the future, doctors, psychologists, and counselors of all kinds will read palms as a standard practice.


Erin Rose studied hand analysis in the Middle East. Send e-mail to Erin at:

By Erin Rose