Reap the mind health benefits of yarn craft

By Jenny Whiting

Neural Knitworks exhibition

Neural Knitworks is a giant textle brain on show at Hazelhurst Regional Art gallery made from hundreds of donated, handmade, textile neurons.

With the first Neural Knitworks exhibition featuring a giant textile brain installation now installed at Hazelhurst Regional Gallery, founding member of the project team Dr Jenny Whiting reflects on the mind health benefits of yarn craft.

Knitting and crochet are amazingly versatile forms of yarn craft. They can be used to create simple practical garments for your family or they can be developed into intricate three-dimensional artforms worked in yarn, fabric and even wire.

The amazing Neural Knitworks project has made me analyse the different aspects of what happens when I crochet and why I enjoy it. I've also found out more about the science behind some of the brain health benefits it brings.

People knit and crochet for many reasons but a lot of common themes emerge. It's relaxing, calming, soothing and meditative. It helps relieve stress, and express creativity. It leads to better concentration and helps clarify thinking. Indeed, Albert Einstein is said to have knitted to "calm his mind and clear his thinking".

The tactile nature of the yarn and the repetitive nature of the process can also be important and so, of course, is the sense of achievement you get when you have created a product at the end of it. If, as with Neural Knitworks, you are working on a community project, there is the added sense of contributing to a wonderful and worthwhile artwork that reaches out to a wide audience.

When I think more about what I personally get from crocheting a long list of positive attributes comes to mind. As well as the relaxation and meditative effects, I find that the creative aspects loom large. I work mainly from my stash of diverse yarn and love the contemplation of considering what to make, how the colours and yarn textures will go together, getting and recognising the inspiration when it comes. There is definitely problem solving involved in planning, working out patterns and yarn requirements.

Another love that I combine with crochet is upcycling, taking something unwanted and making it into something better. There's the challenge of working within the constraints of what I have and the knowledge that I am putting things to good use rather than wasting them. The feeling of self-sufficiency and achievement in being able to make useful things for myself and share them with others is also fundamental.

So what has all this got to do with brain health? I think that the best practical way to think about having a healthy brain is if we generally feel happy and function effectively. Many factors can impact on our brain health, from hormones and everyday stresses and events to illness, accident and of course, aging. How we handle these assaults can be a measure of our brain health.

There are lots of anecdotal examples of uplifting human stories about crafting increasing wellbeing. There are people with spinal injuries and stroke who have found knitting or crochet to be a wonderful part of their rehabilitation. People who have suffered tragic losses or are suffering from depression have found that these crafts help to bring them back to start functioning normally again. People with anxiety disorders can find that knitting helps them handle social situations. Post traumatic stress disorder is another one where these yarn crafts can bring significant benefits. One soldier in a war zone used crochet to stop the horrors of war constantly overcrowding her mind.

When 3545 knitters were surveyed and their responses analysed, responses showed that knitting also had a positive impact on cognitive ability and it played a part in knitters' coping strategies in difficult times. When knitting is done in a group there was also the added benefits of affirmation, confidence and common purpose - all elements that help to build friendship and foster good mental health.

So what does the science tell us? Something must be happening in our brains when we crochet.
The relaxation, calmness, clarity and the rhythmic action of repeated stitching are highly reminiscent of meditation practices and forms of meditation have been studied for their effects on the brain.

An interesting paper came out earlier this year on meditation and its effect on brain activity. Researchers used functional MRI of the brain and found that structured meditation, where there was a certain degree of focus but thoughts were allowed to come and go freely, activated the areas of the brain that are good for generating a sense of calm, improved emotional processing and better decision making.

I spoke to one of the paper's authors, Associate Profesor Jim Lagopoulos from the Brain and Mind Research Institute at University of Sydney, to talk about how its findings could be related to yarn craft. He considered that as long as these activities have a structured basis they are likely to fulfil the effective meditation criteria and would be very likely to have the same effects. I put it to him that it would be very interesting if he were to do a study of knitters to get that evidence directly - I'm sure he wouldn't be short of volunteers!

Try your hand at the Neural Knitworks no knit, knitting and crochet patterns and visit the exhibition on show at the Hazelhurst Regional Gallery until 16 September.

Dr Jenny Whiting was once a biomedical researcher and spent years in labs studying the molecular biology of embryonic development. She has worked at the Wellcome Trust in the UK and is now a science communicator for the Australian Microscopy & Microanalysis Research Facility. Jenny learned to crochet when she was 10 years old and loves the relaxation and creative expression it brings.