I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the meditative properties of knitting. And it turns out I’m not the only one.
I already knew that studies had shown that meditation can alter the brain. A study on mindfulness in 2011 showed that the amygdala in particular (an area connected with emotional processing, and part of the limbic system) is positively affected by daily meditative practice. So people don’t just feel better, their brain actually changes in a positive way if they complete on average 27 minutes of mindfulness a day over an eight week period. (See here for more details.)
So this got me wondering whether knitting, generally accepted to be a meditative process – for some, at least – could also alter the brain in a positive way.
This article in the New York times in February seemed to be exploring a similar question, and reviews evidence that knitting, particularly in groups, has been linked to a reduction in distress that comes in many forms, such as eating disorders, depression and anxiety, and chronic pain. In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that knitting can reduce the impact of dementia processes in the elderly, even when compared to other creative activities, such as enjoying music, quilting or digital photography (Click here for more on that one).
So, what about knitting makes it more effective when it comes to all of these distressing conditions?
I’m not sure anybody knows the answer to this yet. There are a number of factors to consider… For me, as someone trained in EMDR (Eye Movement De-sensitisation and Reprocessing), an information processing treatment for people who are suffering from a range of mental health conditions, most notably, difficulties following traumatic experiences, it’s interesting that knitting is a bilateral skill; it uses both sides of the body in a coordinated way. EMDR is based on an similar process, it encourages the use of both sides of the body (e.g. moving the eyes from side to side) while thinking about the traumatic memory. EMDR has resulted in changes to the brain, including – you guessed it – in the limbic system (more details here).
Some people argue that the meditative qualities of an activity are enhanced by the idea of “flow” – allowing conscious thought to drift away from the mind and refocusing on the meditation. In EMDR and other therapeutic approaches, the task is to focus on the distress in a way that feels safe to the person, so they can process their feelings or events in a way that is helpful to them.
So the way that I see it, knitting, whether you’re entirely focused on the experience, the knitting process, or whether your mind wanders to experiences that you are still making sense of or processing, has the potential to be a healing process. The fact that knitting involves bilateral movement is, according to the EMDR literature, likely only to enhance the healing process. And more than that, knitting usually results in a finished product, an outcome, an achievement… and that is good for the soul, right? Whether different parts of the brain are affected by the inner experience of the knitter while they knit, is a question that has not, as far as I can tell, been explored yet. But if this research is proposed in the future, I would be willing to contribute, and I’m sure I wouldn’t be alone.
And it seems that I’m not the only one to be exploring the link between knitting and the brain, but the scans aren’t the only pretty pictures… Check out the work of Radiologist Brooke Roberts (here), who uses brain scans as inspiration for her beautiful knitting patterns. What inspiration we can find inside our own heads!
So, I’m closer to understanding why I feel restless and on occasion downright grumpy if I haven’t managed to knit on any given day. How many more reasons do we need, if just 27 minutes a day can change your brain in such a positive way…?