Learning and remembering information depends on what actions people perform while they are learning, researchers said.
Participants in the study were asked to analyze a set of complex geometric patterns in a series of images. Half the subjects did so while holding their hands alongside the images, while the other half held their hands in their laps.
Results showed that it was harder for people to recognize the commonalities among identical but differently colored patterns if they held them in their hands, suggesting that information near the hands is processed at a deeper level of detail.
This orientation to detail, in turn, hampers people's ability to consider the similarities that exist among slightly different objects.
Meanwhile, researchers found that those who held their hands in their laps were better at noticing similarities and consistencies among those objects.
According to the James Brockmole and post-doctoral fellow Christopher Davoli, from the University of Notre Dame, these results have evolutionary roots.
"Near the body, and especially near the hands, attention to detail is crucial because subtle differences among objects can differentiate the harmful from the benign," Brockmole said.
"We needed to recognize which berries were poisonous and which were not; what snakes will bite and which will not. On the other hand, people can think about objects that are farther away from the body in more categorical terms since details are less important," he added.
The results of the study could also have implications for education, particularly since many educators are moving information from computer screens back into students' hands with iPads, which also raises questions of how educators depict visual concepts.
The study will be published in the journal Memory and Cognition.