Knit one, purl one, think more | Moment's Notice

By Maria A. Montalvo | Dec 21, 2018

I am learning how to knit.

More precisely, my friend Heidi is teaching me how to knit.

For someone like me, who has never had a hand/brain-coordinating hobby before, this is an interesting foray into the unknown. Knitting takes a kind of unconscious action similar to cooking or riding a bicycle or painting.

I do yard work from time to time, and love to cook. I certainly type a lot. But I have always felt like I rely far more on my brain than connecting to my physical self. (I had a Vespa for a few years, but honestly, my mind would wander when I was on it, and no one wants that.)

Connecting the mind specifically to one part of the body, the hands, has garnered research attention in the last few years, and scientists are seeing that our brains function better when we engage our hands in activity.

As humans, we began our existence and evolved using our hands to keep us alive, through hunting, gathering and farming. When our physical selves move or are active, we impact the neurochemistry of our brain.

A repetitive movement increases certain neurochemicals that allows more of our brains to focus on a challenging effort by our hands. Unfortunately, where action was part of our lives in the past, our lives and jobs today require more social and analytical skills, with the need for physical skills dramatically decreasing in the past century.

In 1999, a neurologist named Frank Wilson wrote a book called “The Hand” after he challenged himself to learn to play the piano. The book tells how our brains and our hands evolved together to allow us to learn to use tools and further impacted our bodies by having us start to walk erect in order to free our hands up to do more.

By evolving this way, we became a species with a clear advantage to others.

And it is not just our brain functioning that is impacted, but also our emotional processing. As we limit our daily activity to pressing keys on a keyboard or buttons on a screen, we lose a sense of control over our environment, and our stress levels increase because we are not physically engaging in it.

This has been proven in rats in laboratories that are kept from doing any physical activity – their stress hormones go through the roof – and science is positing that we are likely creating the same response in ourselves.

We are literally not firing up formerly evolved parts of our brains.

As a writer, I use my keyboard too much. Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, F. Scott Fitzgerald – they all wrote or write in longhand, so did Hemingway and Kafka. They were unwilling to give up the mindfulness of using their hands to write, even though they later used a typewriter or computer.

We have all seen the studies that prove that writing, rather than typing, allows us to remember and process information better (and if you have not, do look them up – kids need paper and pencils, along with laptops in schools).

Doctors used to prescribe knitting to women who suffered from anxiety (or were perceived to be suffering from anxiety, but that is another topic for another day) as a mechanism to create calm. In modern times, we do less and less with our hands and very little manual labor that actually contributes to our survival.

Perhaps scientists will find that the small portion of the brain engaged in checking social media and playing video games can overcome this, but in the meantime, I am going to keep trying to learn how to knit.


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