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Crafts, Knitting, lifestyle, Well-being

Knit Yourself a Better Brain: How Can Crafting Improve Our Cognitive Skills?

For Päivi Kankaro, crafters are more than just creative hobbyists – they are problem-solvers. She explains what happens in our brains as we knit.

Whereas knitting itself can be done with fairly simple materials – all you need is some yarn and needles – the act of knitting is far more multifaceted than it first seems. Knitting engages several of the brain’s lobes, stimulating the connections between nerve cells necessary for our cognitive skills, such as reading, learning, problem-solving, and paying attention. And the more we age, the more we should keep those connections active. So, how does it all work?

Anyone who has ever completed a knitting project knows how good it feels to create something with your own hands. To be able to make something tangible and useful gives us an immense sense of pride and accomplishment. Beginners might start with an easy project, solving small challenges along the way, and gradually, as they learn, move on to more demanding projects that come with bigger issues to solve. As our skills develop, our self-esteem grows – usually alongside our yarn stash.

Because of this tenacity, crafters always seem to me to be more than just creative hobbyists. I see them as problem-solvers. Having worked in the arts and crafts industry for years, I know there are few people as eager and good at solving issues as crafters. Crafting improves self-efficacy, and as psychologists believe, self-efficacy is the key to how we approach new challenges and overcome disappointments in life. So, unravelling and redoing a knitting project several times is not a sign of failure, it’s a sign of resilience.

This kind of resilience can be beneficial for anyone, and, consequently, knitting has been used as a therapeutic method to boost people’s confidence, in addition to lowering anxiety. For example, in an interesting study from 2009, involving 38 women admitted with anorexia to a specialised unit, 74 percent of them reported less fear and preoccupation with their eating disorder after having knitted for more than an hour every day for three weeks. Knitting gave them a sense of pride, satisfaction, and accomplishment. That’s quite remarkable, considering how cost-effective this type of therapy form can be.

In other studies, knitting has been proven to help people with pain relief, as the engagement with a craft can distract us from uncomfortable feelings. The rhythmic, repetitive motions of knitting could enhance the release of serotonin, the feel-good hormone that can work as a natural painkiller. And, as researchers have found, the brain can’t concentrate on two engaging things at the same time. So, if you’re occupying the mind sufficiently with a knitting project, your brain won’t be able to interpret the pain-inducing signals.

For similar reasons, knitting can also be beneficial for people fighting addictions. I remember reading an article about a truck driver who quit smoking by picking up the needles during breaks on his long trips. Whenever he could, he kept his hands busy, and mind engaged, by knitting. So, by now, we must all be agreeing on the benefits of knitting. But what actually happens in our brains as we knit?

For a long time, neuroscientists believed that the brain was a static organ, and that once it was fully developed in our early adulthood, all we could do was lose its capabilities. But more recently research has shown that our brains are actually more flexible than we thought, and that the brain can adapt to its environment, even in older age. This concept is called neuroplasticity: the brain's ability to form new connections and pathways and change how its circuits are wired.

Knitting improves motor functions and cognitive skills by engaging several of the brain’s lobes. As you knit, you are using various areas of the brain involving functions such as planning, paying attention, processing sensory and visual information, storing memories and coordinating precision and timing of movement. Accessing all these areas stimulates the connections between your nerve cells and keeps those connections quick and efficient.

We can strengthen and create new neural pathways by learning new skills and movements. And as we age, the more we should keep those pathways active. Research has shown that knitting, and other similar crafts, can slow down the loss of cognitive ability by as much as 50 percent. One study found that people between 50 and 65 years of age who began knitting at an earlier age and continued knitting later in life had a decreased risk of dementia. As knitting requires memory and attention span, functions especially affected by dementia, activating these functions will keep them stimulated.

Knitting can also provide benefits for people with some kinds of cognitive damage. As I was writing this article, a customer reached out to me via email asking for advice for a knitting project she was working on. As a coincidental aside, she mentioned that she had suffered from cerebral haemorrhage due to an aneurysm, creating issues in her cognitive skills. She said that knitting had been the best kind of rehabilitation in her journey to recovery.

Now, as you might guess, I’m not a neuroscientist, nor do I really have the authority or expertise to explain all the functions of the brain. However, I have a huge interest in the ways we could integrate crafts into people’s everyday lives as the benefits, and the return on investment, are certainly noteworthy. Knitting might not be a miracle cure for dementia, or save us from our ailments, but it sure provides great benefits in the long term; not to mention, it’s a fun way to spend your time. So, maybe it’s time we begin a global knitting movement for the wellbeing of our brains? As crafters, we sure are resourceful enough to make that happen!

Text: Päivi Kankaro
Illustration: Sanni Wessman

This feature was first published in Laine issue 11.