This Is Your Brain on Knitting


Story at-a-glance -

  • Crafting allows you to forget about your worries, obligations, and even physical pains. This phenomenon, called “flow,” is a key reason why crafting is phenomenal for your mental and emotional health
  • Engaging in “purposeful and meaningful activities” stimulates your neurological system, counters the effects of stress-related diseases, reduces the risk of dementia, and enhances health and well-being
  • Research has shown a strong relationship between knitting frequency and feeling calm and happy. Those who reported frequent knitting also reported higher cognitive functioning
  • For the most benefits, find an activity that is mentally stimulating and purposeful for you. It should be an activity that requires your undivided attention and gives you great satisfaction

By Dr. Mercola

More than half of US households craft at least once a year,1 but for some it becomes a daily pastime. If you're an avid crafter – knitting, quilting, scrapbooking, etc. – you've probably lost yourself in a project on more than one occasion.

This tendency to become so absorbed in your craft that you're able to forget about your worries, obligations, and even physical pains is called "flow" – and it's a key reason why crafting may be phenomenal for your mental and emotional health.

Getting Creative Boosts Brain Health, Happiness

Crafts such as knitting and crocheting are no longer viewed as a pastime for the elderly. In fact, they're popular among all age groups, from 18 year olds to those over 65.

People in their 20s and 30s are actually taking up knitting in droves, and not because there's a shortage of baby blankets and hats. The number one reason why people are drawn to this hobby, according to a survey by the Craft Yarn Council, is because it's a wonderful creative outlet.2

Creating is beneficial for a number of reasons, one being that it allows you to become fully immersed in the moment to the extent that your worries fade away. This "flow," according to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is the secret to happiness. As he stated during a TED talk:3

"When we are involved in (creativity), we feel that we are living more fully than during the rest of life… You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger."

Not to mention, crafting likely offers many of the same health benefits to your brain that have been associated with brain games and crossword puzzles, which are known to boost memory and cognitive function.

One study revealed that craft activities such as quilting and knitting were associated with decreased odds of having mild cognitive impairment.4 Another study, published earlier this year, found that taking part in "cognitively demanding" activities was also beneficial.

This would include learning to quilt or take digital photography, which researchers found enhance memory function in older adults.5 Here again the benefits seem to depend on the task being mentally absorbing, which allows you to experience flow.

Crafting May Offer Meditation-Like Benefits

Some experts equate the benefits of crafting-induced "flow" with those of meditation. Indeed, when you're absorbed in a craft, it can induce your body's relaxation response, just like meditation can.

This is a physical state of deep rest that changes physical and emotional responses to stress, decreasing heart rate, blood pressure, rate of breathing, and muscle tension. Even beneficial changes to gene expression have been revealed as a result of the relaxation response.

Meditation acts as a form of "mental exercise" that can help regulate your attention and emotions, while improving well-being, and there's evidence that crafting may do the same.

One study found that engaging in "purposeful and meaningful activities" stimulates your neurological system, counters the effects of stress-related diseases, reduces the risk of dementia, and enhances health and well-being.6 This applied not only to meditation but also to:

  • Arts and crafts
  • Music
  • Drawing
  • Reading
  • Home repairs
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Crafting May Be a Natural Antidepressant

A significant number of knitters and crocheters do so because it offers stress relief,7 and this isn't only due to prompting flow or triggering your relaxation response. Crafting also activates your brain's reward centers to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that's sometimes described as a "natural antidepressant."

In fact, one study found a strong relationship between knitting frequency and feeling calm and happy.8 Those who reported frequent knitting also reported higher cognitive functioning, while knitting in a group was associated with greater perceived happiness and improved social contact and communication with others, the latter of which is also linked to improved mood and brain health. The researchers were so impressed with the findings they noted:

"Knitting has significant psychological and social benefits, which can contribute to wellbeing and quality of life. As a skilled and creative occupation, it has therapeutic potential…"

Engaging in a Hobby You Love Might Fight Brain Degeneration

Research into brain plasticity has proven that your brain continues to make new neurons throughout life in response to mental activity, which means that cognitive function can be improved, regardless of your age, and cognitive decline can be reversed.

However, if you don't sufficiently challenge your brain with new, surprising information, it eventually begins to deteriorate. In my interview with Dr. Michael Merzenich, professor emeritus at the University of California who has pioneered research in brain plasticity (also called neuroplasticity) for more than 30 years, he explained:

"Generally, by the third or fourth decade in life, you're in decline. One of the things that happens across this period is that you go from a period of the acquisition of abilities to largely using those abilities that have been acquired earlier in life.

By that I mean to say, the fundamental skills that you apply in your profession or in your everyday life are things you master, and you're doing them without thought.

To a large extent, you're operating most of your day without really being consciously engaged in the things you're doing... I've gone without really thinking very much about the physical acts of driving. I'm substantially disengaged.

This has been contributed to substantially by modern culture. Modern culture is all about taking out surprises... to basically reduce the stimulation in a sense on one level, so that we could engage ourselves in sort of an abstract level of operations.

We're no longer interested in the details of things. We're no longer interested in resolving the details of what we see or hear or feel, and our brains slowly deteriorate."

What research into brain plasticity shows us, however, is that by providing your brain with appropriate stimulus, you can counteract this degeneration. Again, a key factor necessary for improving brain function or reversing functional decline is the seriousness of purpose with which you engage in a task. I

n other words, the task must be important to you, or somehow meaningful or interesting — it must hold your attention. Rote memorization of nonsensical or unimportant items will not stimulate your brain to create new neurons, for instance, but learning how to play a musical instrument that you've always dreamed of playing will.

Crafting and Other Hobbies Give Adults Much-Needed Playtime

Unstructured playtime is essential for kids to build their imagination, relieve stress, and simply be kids. But when's the last time you took time for play? Regular playtime for adults, doing hobbies that you enjoy, is actually quite beneficial and even necessary for optimal well-being. Making time for play offers:9

  • Stress relief: Taking a break from your worries feels good, and if you laugh while you do it, you'll also relax your muscles, optimize your blood flow, and even boost your immune system.
  • Better physical health: Back pain, fatigue, sleep troubles, and indigestion often disappear when you make more time for play.
  • Increased self-esteem and productivity: When you take time for fun, it makes you feel good about yourself and about your life in general. Playing during your free time also boosts creativity and enhances your problem-solving skills, which, in turn, may make you perform better at work.
  • Social support: Engaging in hobbies with friends and family helps you to strengthen relationships and enhance the social support in your life.

If Crafting Is Not Your Thing, Find a Hobby That Is

While I've been focusing on the health benefits of crafting, please realize that similar benefits can be gained from other hobbies as well. This might include knitting, quilting, or scrapbooking… or it might not. Other examples include:

Building model ships, aircraft, railroads, or rocketsGardeningSewingCooking
DrawingPaintingSculptingMusic (playing an instrument, singing, and writing songs)
Soap makingWoodworkingPhotographyStained glass or glass blowing
Jewelry makingQuillingDigital artsOrigami

The key is to find an activity that is mentally stimulating for you. Ideally, this should be something that requires your undivided attention and gives you great satisfaction… it should be an activity that you look forward to doing. After you've figured out which hobbies you most enjoy, the next step is prioritizing the time to do them. You needn't devote hours each day (unless you want to) – even 15 minutes here and half an hour there is likely to offer you great rewards for your mental health and happiness.