Friday, December 19, 2014

This Is Your Brain On Knitting (Or Woodworking, or Electronics or....)



Last year, I took up knitting. I had never knitted before, and I figured it would be good for me to learn a new thing.  I also figured that it was an opportunity for me to engage socially, in a new area.  After I had been in the group a couple of weeks, I arrived home with the beginnings of a new project (needles, yarn and a pattern of sorts).  When that happened, my son saw me and joked to the effect that I needed to take up a new hobby every few months. Actually, what he said was,  “Do you really NEED another hobby???”

The short answer to that question is yes. The truth is that while he was joking, there are advantages to crafting type activities in general-on many levels. In this context, I am not just talking about artsy type craft.  I‘m referring to what my daughter the occupational therapist would all a “cognitively demanding activity”.  These might include knitting and quilting-or learning computer skills, intensive home repair skills, photography or any one of a host of activities.  The important thing about these kinds of activities is that they are mentally engaging (often to the exclusion of anything else). while at the same time generally requiring physical skill, concentration, and for lack of a better word, manual dexterity (using all those large and small muscle groups the child development experts always used to talk about).

We all know about the advantages of puzzles or brain games, but these kinds of activities in retirement can affect us in many more ways for a variety of reasons.  As hobbyists, we generally are both looking to take on a different project that requires different and sometimes more difficult skills, or new skills in different areas.  In other words, we are always raising the bar. If we become bored with a specific hobby, we generally feel the need to search out a new one-which increases the level all over again. I love to read, and I do both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times Sunday puzzle each week. But at this point I generally read at the same level (unless I am involved in a difficult college course), and while some weekends I want to turn the newspaper into confetti, the general difficulty of that puzzle remains the same. 

It can be easy to “lose oneself” in a hobby. When that happens, the rest of the brain is at rest. People can forget pain, stress and worries simply from the intense concentration on the single activity. My previously mentioned family member says that the current phraseology is “flow”, where some of us might perhaps refer to that state as the “Zen”.  I remember thinking when I first began to knit that probably would do that exclusively at my social group, but could not imagine knitting alone. Not only do I now knit alone, but I knit without television or music and am never bored. The concentration and effort allow me to lose myself, and in effect clear my brain.

The final advantage of hands on hobbies has to do with anti-aging and cognition. A 2011 study in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry showed a direct correlation between crafting and improved cognitive function-even among those who were already experiencing mild impairment. The study showed these kinds of activities had an very large effect, while other activities (socialization, travel, even music) often had no noticeable effect. This is not to say those other life activities don’t have value, and are not desirable, just that they had less effect as “brain food” for lack of a better description.

A more recent, 2014 study is more specific. This group showed that engaging in and learning new skills that activated working memory, episodic memory, and reasoning over a period of 3 months would enhance cognitive function in older adults. The specific participants in this study did learned quilting and digital photography (or both).

Many of us enter retirement with a single hobby or passion, or with our minds on a specific hobby.  The truth is the more hobbies you try, the happier you will probably be (and your brain will be).  Remember, this research is not about the end result, it’s about the doing, engaging, and enjoying. So if you’re interested in learning how to cook (sculpt, play an instrument, build a model rocket), as the ad says, just do it.  Don’t stop because you’re less than perfect or will never be an expert.  Stop if you are bored-and then move on to the next thing.

As for me, I’ve made a commitment to myself to try a new hands-on skill every three months.   So far my list includes metalworking, digital photography (I’m amazed by the photos some bloggers take and aspire to those heights), bread making, and beginning woodworking.  I’ll let you know how it goes! 
 
Now go forth and play!!

19 comments:

  1. I am a quilter and honestly when I am engaged in hand quilting, I know most of my brain is at rest. I have told my husband, only half jokingly, that quilting is cheaper than a therapist and achieves the same result!. Enjoy your new hobbies!

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    1. I agree, I'm so involved in the quilting or knitting that everything else falls aside!

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  2. Hobbies keep us young and I think you have said that perfectly.

    God bless.

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  3. LOVE THIS ,Barb! I always have a lot of projects going on and I am almost always in the middle of trying "something new" too.. recently I took a DRAWING 101 class at our Community College ,free for seniors.I was not so good at it but boy did it give my brain and hand/eye coordination a work out! It was fun.I won't continue to pursue it, but I am glad I took the class and learned more art appreciation.I MAY take a watercolorl class in the Spring.

    In the meantime, I have a huge craft room and me and a girlfriend (are we still "Girl"friends if we are 61 and 66,respectively?? LOL) -- spent two blissful days making our collage art calendars.. two days of play and creativity in the midst of a crazy season! Relaxing and joyful!!

    I just retired last year, do not UNDERSTAND the word "boredom!!"

    I spend a lot of time reading, novels and non fiction,I try to read a political or history book every month-- in addition to the fun reading. I read Tarot cards and Astrology charts, I am working on increasing my fitness level so I can do harder hikes this spring. I love to cook and bake.Am WORKING ON getting us to a mostly plant based diet.. love researching recipes and food blogs. I follow your blog and Bob Lowry.

    Other interests include Aromatherapy, Spirituality, decorating, hosting pot lucks, cooking classes,volunteering with Meals on Wheels, creative writing, some travel, mostly local for now, cats! I need some! Lost my last girl a year ago--am ready for a new cat family! I believe what you say is true--the more hobbies we try out the more vibrant we remain..

    Why not ?????

    HAPPY HOLIDAYS TO YOU AND YOURS,Barbara,thanks for taking time to share iwht us.

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  4. I really need to up my reading. I keep saying I'll join a book club but I have yet to do so..............need to get some reading beyond my police procedural habit!

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  5. I really liked how you listed the benefits of hobbies. I have felt these benefits but never verbalized them. It's clear that my hobbies of reading, knitting, spinning yarn, and photography have kept my brain going during my 10 years of semi-retirement. Thanks for this post!

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  6. Excellent piece . . . and I say this as someone who has always hated doing crafts. I still remember third and fourth grade art class, trying to make something out of paper or clay, or paint a picture. I was always the clumsiest person in the whole school! However ... a took up a new sport in retirement (table tennis), as well as blogging, and I read a book a week; and last summer I took a week-long photography class and I'm trying to keep that going. So . . . do I get part credit?

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  7. Barb, I really believe we are kindred spirits! I, too am an early retiree, and I have now had to make a typed up list to keep track of all of my different projects, in differing stages of completion! It's not that I never finish things, it's just that I often start something else in the meantime! I'm either mentally very healthy and relaxed, or a total scatterbrain! I guess time will tell! Thanks for a great post. Included in my list of resolutions is to always have at least one project going!

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    1. I am sooo, not organized enough to keep lists of unfinished projects. I do have a quilt rack with quilt tops in progress to remind me.

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  8. My mother, who was mentally sharp until her last day, was an avid reader and quilter and crocheted and embroidered, so I totally agree with what you say. I'm the same way ... more projects than I have time to finish ... and I'm always thinking about one more. I'm actually considering a crochet or knitting group ... could use some social interaction these days.

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    1. I really love my knitting group. We knit for three or four hours in the large chairs in my independent bookstore and on occasion hit happy hour afterwards. It's great!

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  9. This is exactly how I feel about piano. I get lost in it for hours! (At the expense of blogging, unfortunately!)

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  10. It's not a craft, but genealogy does it for me. I'll look at the clock after I've been exploring a site and three hours have gone by. Love it!

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  11. Love your post! As a recently retired blogger of sorts I have always loved to write and took up digital photography before I retired. I am now getting into water color painting and enjoy the socializing in the group (all ages!) as well as zoning out working on my own at home. I have also been a sewer all my life (grew up in a sewing family) and may branch out in that area when water colors lose their shine. I have not been into crafts since I used to use it to escape my young children once in awhile! Thanks for reminding me to martial on!

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