Knitting on the brain

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…?

 

A week of Fridays.

I tend to have pretty random conversations with my friends. Sometimes, they turn into useful life experiments. I’ve noticed my self saying, “Well, let’s give it a go and see” a lot more lately, and it often leads to something exciting. (I’m aware I sound a bit geeky, but bear with me).

I can’t even remember the conversation that led to it, but somehow the idea of having a week of Fridays came up. “I’m going to give that a go”, I thought.

So, every morning, I got up and wished people a happy Friday via various social media. I got ready for work thinking, “At least it’s the weekend when I get home, I’m looking forward to that “phew” feeling.” At work, I’d give myself a little more time between tasks, take a breath, take stock and relax my shoulders, “It’s nearly the weekend,” I’d tell myself, “why get stressed about things?” My work productivity probably reduced slightly, I have to admit, but that felt like I was treating myself and giving myself permission to go a bit slower, and what I did was still good enough. In fact, I felt kinder. I felt like I had more time for people; I felt more like I cared about my work and the people I work with.

I would get home and have a glass of wine, no guilt, no over-thinking. I even had a second dinner one evening – it was Friday, after all. I celebrated the fact that it was the weekend every evening, congratulated myself for little things that had happened during the day and relaxed. There was a lot more “Why not?” thinking going around inside my head and it was pretty darn liberating.

One evening, a friend asked whether we could meet at the pub, go out for food and bring along some other friends. Usually, my little voice of conscience would have said, “Haven’t you got things you should be doing?” but that evening I simply agreed and set off. And what a fabulous evening it was, not thinking about having to work the next day.

It’s not like I was deluded; I was fully aware that each day of the week was not, in fact, a Friday. But choosing to forget that, choosing to change my thinking, my outlook, had a fabulous effect on my mood, my body and my interactions with other people. Someone asked me how I was and instead of my usual “Not too bad”, I announced, “I’m good, thanks”. His reply? “Oh, good!” I like to think that I gave him a bit of my Friday feeling. Why not pass in on, eh?

And then there was the Friday of Fridays.

It was a manic day at work and I was exhausted when I got home, but I’m fortunate in having good friends and I was encouraged to go out and have fun. There’s nothing quite like imitating the artwork in a pub full of people and having photographic evidence to show for it. The “Why not?” refrain that had carried me through the week was definitely present. And, do you know what? People joined in. The bar man kindly provided a prop and people found us amusing. We weren’t drunk, we weren’t lairy. We were entertaining, it was that Friday feeling. And there it was again, rubbing off on people.

Anyway, you get the picture. It was one of the most enjoyable life experiments I’ve done in a while.

I was happily praising myself for the idea and the fact that I’d put it into practice when a friend of mine, to demonstrate that she now understood my slightly odd Friday wishes, sent me an e-card with the quotation:

“Make each day of the week feel like Friday and your life will take on new enthusiasm” – Byron Pulsifer.

Who knew? Someone had thought of it before me. In fact, Joel Osteen appears to have made a lot of money out of the idea (apparently, he wrote a book called “Every day a Friday”).

Maybe I should write a reply, a sequel of sorts, a personal account of my week of Fridays. Then again, it’s Friday. I’m not sure I can be bothered.

There’s a first time for everything…

I wasn’t really sure where to start, so I thought a cheesy quote might help.

“When we love, we always strive to become better than we are. When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too.”  – Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

I wanted to start a blog because it seemed like a good way to make connections with people. I’m a big fan of making connections. Sometimes they don’t go anywhere, sometimes they go some way and then disappear, sometimes they lie dormant for years and then revive themselves in quite astonishing ways. And sometimes they take you somewhere that surprises you, somewhere that feels good and makes you and other people smile. I like these times. I like astonishing times too, but I particularly like the sense of gradual and consistent movement towards smiling and happiness.

I had intended, at first, for this to be a blog about crafts. Just crafts. Crochet and knitting, to be precise. But I’ve begun to realise, thanks to some very important conversations with some equally important people, that there’s more to it than that. Blogs aren’t just about things, are they? They’re about people, or aspects of people. They’re about the aspects of bloggers and readers that they have in common, and that takes us back to connections.

At the very least, there is a link between creativity and happiness. It’s one I’m exploring all the time. There’s also something about happiness and love, of people, of hobbies, and as Coelho says, striving to become better than we are, through these things, enhancing ourselves and our lives through our love of people and passion for certain aspects of our lives.

And it’s these things, these connections, that I intend to explore in this blog. I expect the majority of entries will be about all things crafty. After all, it’s a massive part of my life and something that other people are interested in knowing more about. But you might also catch me on an occasional jaunt into philosophical territory, contemplating life, love and the world. I’m not really sure where this journey will take me (or us?), but I’ve been encouraged to broaden my horizons and that seems pretty exciting to me, albeit a little scary. And that brings me to my second cheesy quotation of the post:

“Do one thing every day that scares you.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

I guess this is mine for today.