Crafting for your brain

Knitting is good for more than just handmade scarves and baby hats.
Published April 9, 2017

Arts and crafts get a bad rap, often being deemed for either old ladies or little kids. Well, it appears our grandmothers were on to something.

According to Vanessa Hill, the brain behind YouTube channel BrainCraft, “research shows that activities like playing a musical instrument, craft, and solving crossword puzzles can make people feel more calm, happy and less stressed.”

Indeed, a 2009 study examined patients recovering from the eating disorder anorexia nervosa. The researchers noted that this recovery is “often confounded by intrusive, anxious preoccupations with control of eating, weight and shape.” Essentially, people in anorexia nervosa recovery are often plagued with worrying thought patterns, which are “distressing and represent a potential barrier to psychological change.”

The researchers set out to determine whether the visuospatial task of knitting could affect their anxiety. The results? Seventy-four per cent of the 38 study subjects reported knitting “lessened the intensity of their fears and thoughts and cleared their minds of eating disorder preoccupations.” Similarly, 74 per cent said knitting “had a calming and therapeutic effect.”

Another study, published in 2011 in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, looked at the connection between engaging in cognitive activities and having mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which is the “intermediate stage between the cognitive changes of normal aging and those of dementia.” The study determined “computer activities; craft activities, such as knitting, quilting, etc.; playing games; and reading books were associated with decreased odds of having MCI.”

So what is it that gives knitting and general crafting their brain-affecting magic?

According to Australia-based neuroscientist Dr. Sarah McKay’s blog, the inherent qualities of yarn craft – mental challenges, mindfulness and social connection – help keep our brains fit by giving us creative and mental problems to solve, increasing our attention span and developing our fine motor dexterity and hand-eye coordination.

“One of the best things to come out of writing this blog has been the unexpected opportunities that have come my way to spread the word about neuroscience and brain health in fun, creative ways,” writes McKay, who helped establish Neural Knitworks in Sydney, Australia. The creative initiative invites knitters of all skill levels to knit together at knit-in events, creating colourful textile neurons that will become part of a travelling art exhibit.

It seems there really is more to these pastimes than meets the eye. We hear from experts across the board that the key to a healthy and happy life is that buzzword: mindfulness. It’s how we stay present, how we express gratitude, and how we become more self-aware. Crafting is just one way – though a pretty fun way – to tap into that mindfulness. Give it a try! You might just find your new favourite hobby.