Reflections on A Knitting Brain

I was excited when I found out the Yarn Harlot would be coming to Conifer.  I was even more excited when I checked my calendar and figured out that I could go hear her talk, “This is Your Brain on Knitting.”  See, in all my years of knitting, I’ve never managed to hear a talk, go to a show, or take a class.  That’s probably because my knitting years have coincided with my child-rearing years, which coincided with my going-to-law-school years and then my lawyer-as-day-job years.  What with work and family obligations, I consider myself fortunate to have the time to knit at all. (Finding time to write about it could be a whole new blog post, but I’m digressing already.)

So, I forthwith paid for my seat and blocked out the family calendar, warning all my menfolk that I would  be indisposed on that particular Saturday afternoon.  The designated weekend came around.  On Saturday morning, I woke up early to give myself time to go for my morning walk and then cram my housework into a half-day.  I put dinner in the crock pot, made ice cream for that evening’s dessert, did a few minor knitting tasks, and then packed my knitting bag with the project most conducive to the occasion — my rainbow scarf.  Then, I drove off into the foothills for the afternoon.

The Yarn Harlot is one of my favorite knitting writers.  By turns, she’s witty, thought-provoking, informative, and poignant.  Never dull.  While I’ve heard her voice in my head for years now, as I’ve read her books and blog posts, I was curious how she’d speak and how her voice that spoke in my head when I read her works would compare with the real author standing right there, talking to us.  As I drove up the canyon to Conifer, I wondered how the talk would go, and what is this business about the brain and knitting, anyway?

The good people from Knit Knook, a yarn shop in Conifer, sponsored the Yarn Harlot’s visit.  The event was well-organized and was held at the Stage Door Theatre, near the shop.  There wasn’t a bad seat in the venue, and almost all seats were taken.  They had books for sale and passed out water to those who wanted it, which is helpful in particular for those not used to our altitude.

YH talking

The Yarn Harlot did not disappoint — her talk was engaging and informative.  She discussed how the brain and body are affected by knitting, including neurotransmitter balance, hormonal effects, and changes in brain waves.  I found it fascinating and relatable to my own experiences.  The topic was doubly interesting to me because I do have some background in neuropsychology and neuroanatomy.  Some thoughts:

Knitting helps balance mood-stabilizing neurotransmitters

The repetitive act of knitting helps balance mood-stabilizing neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine.  I’ve experienced this stabilizing effect on a near-daily basis for years, and in particular, when I am able to knit for long periods of time.

I try to take about two weeks off at Christmas for a mini-sabbatical. About two Christmases ago, I performed an experiment on myself.  My family obligations that year (or lack thereof) afforded me an unusual amount of time to knit.  I decided that I’d allow myself to knit as much as I wanted during that sabbatical, with the only restrictions being that I needed to allow time for basic household chores and holiday obligations.  The result?  I knitted about three to five hours per day.  The biggest effect?  I was genuinely calm and happy.  The chronic insomnia and anxiety that tend to plague me lifted.  It was as if I were taking a drug — a really effective one with no side effects other than the increased production of useful knitted items.

When I returned to work in January, I knew that I’d not be able to knit for that many hours per day.  But I also knew how knitting could make me feel, so after that experience, I’ve attempted to prioritize it, making a little more time for it on the weekends and making a point of knitting for at least a few minutes each evening.  It’s like a small dose of medicine.

Knitting and the meditative state

Knitting, like meditation, can produce a state of relaxed awareness, evidenced by the production of theta waves in the brain.  I have meditated on occasion, but I knit far more often than I meditate.  I was glad to hear that knitting can produce the same sorts of effects on the brain as conventional meditation.  After all, I’d rather have a knitting object to show for my time spent sitting.  I do try to get into that state of relaxed awareness, sort of a vacation from the constant problem-solving and worry that goes on in my mind.  For instance, at work, sometimes I’ll be faced with a complex problem, and someone will inevitably want a snap decision.  “No,” I’ll reply.  “I need to think on it a bit and perhaps we can chat in the morning.”  What I really want to say is, “No, I need to knit on it tonight, which is the best way for me to give you a well thought-out answer.”  Of course, I can’t say that to most people.

Putting myself into that state of relaxed awareness can sometimes enable me to come up with creative, thoughtful solutions to problems that I might not otherwise have considered if I didn’t quiet the constant din of my thoughts through knitting.

Knitting and happiness

Knitting helps regulate stress, promoting the relaxation response.  For me, at least, this leads to a feeling of happiness and contentment.  When I look back on the times when I’ve been happy and content, they often involve knitting or some other meditative actions, such as gardening or walking.  For example, we just returned from a road trip into Utah and Arizona.  I have lots of fond memories about that trip — we saw awe-inspiring rock formations, ate a lot of good meals, and spent time together as a family.  But my favorite memory?  Sitting outside our hotel room on the small patio at sunset, with a view of Capitol Reef National Park, knitting on a shawl until it was too dark to see.

Perhaps the best part of her talk?  The amount of knitting I was able to accomplish in about two hours:

Rainbow Scarf - YH

I made a lot of progress on the rainbow scarf.  Gee, tangible progress on a useful item plus mitigating the effects of stressors in my life.  What’s not to like about knitting?

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