I think this is incredibly fascinating.
Jacque Wilson’s article is called “This is Your Brain on Knitting,” but the observations extend beyond just knitting, of course.
Crafting can help those who suffer from anxiety, depression or chronic pain, experts say. It may also ease stress, increase happiness and protect the brain from damage caused by aging. […]
Our nervous system is only capable of processing a certain amount of information at a time, [psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi ] explains. That’s why you can’t listen and understand two people who are talking to you at once. So when someone starts creating, his existence outside that activity becomes “temporarily suspended.”
“He doesn’t have enough attention left over to monitor how his body feels, or his problems at home. He can’t feel if he’s hungry or tired. His body disappears.”
The effects of flow are similar to those of meditation, says occupational therapist Victoria Schindler. Science has shown meditation can, among other things, reduce stress and fight inflammation.
Our bodies are in a constant state of stress because our brain can’t tell the difference between an upcoming meeting with the boss and an upcoming bear attack, Schindler says. The repetitive motions of knitting, for example, activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which quiets that “fight or flight” response.
And this is why I’ve become so appreciative of fibre arts in the last few years. When I’m spinning or knitting, I’m focusing on something not-me. I distract my brain from observing how achy my muscles are, the pain in my joints, the effort it takes to think through a problem. Writing is hard on my brain (no, I know everyone says that, but it’s particularly hard for me, because I’m thinking through a fibro fog), and cello asks a lot of my back and hands, which aren’t always up to the task. I used to meditate a lot, but it started causing anxiety (ironic, that) because I couldn’t quell the “I should be doing something productive now instead of just sitting here” feeling. (Fibro has done a real number on my sense of self-worth as relates to productivity, let me tell you. Do I accept that my output is necessarily lower? Yes. Do I not worry about it? I worry about it all the time.)
The hardest thing about knitting is the decision paralysis that grips me while starting a new project. I can’t just grab a nice yarn and start something randomly; I have to calculate yardage and ask myself if I’ll actually use the finished product (or if I know someone who can/will), think over the yarn’s construction and figure out if it’s appropriate for the item, and so forth. And then I have to grapple with the whole “but what if I do it wrong?” panic. Once I’ve started, things settle down, but even working through those questions comes very close to fight-or-flight for me. It’s not limited to knitting, either; it’s the same with fibre. There is a lovely braid of dyed Polwarth/silk blend that Ceri bought for me. Is it gorgeous? Yes! Will I love spinning it? Yes! Have I spun it? No, because what if I spin it wrong somehow? What if I make pretty yarn that is utterly unusable for anything I might ever want to make? What if I chain-ply it and decide after it’s done that I should have done a traditional three-ply, or even a two-ply?
The entire article is interesting to read and makes several observations about crafting in general and its connection to dopamine release, the use of leisure activities/crafting in therapy, and the benefits of stimulating several areas of the brain simultaneously.
In general, this is what a lot of crafters — knitters, weavers, painters, miniature railroaders, people who build RC aircraft — already know on a subconscious level. It’s calming, it makes you feel good when you complete something, and it’s an easy way to give your brain a break. It’s just interesting to read about it in more scientific terms, and to see what therapists and doctors have to say about it.