Lots of people think of traditional hand crafts as old-fashioned, outdated activities that only spinster aunts and tottering grandmothers should be doing. We have machines to do that kind of thing now, why would we waste our precious time with it?
Well, it turns out there’s a couple of really good reasons. And the research suggests we should all be taking up sewing – not just to make much-needed protective face masks or gowns for our healthcare workers, but also for our own mental health.
The part of our brain that controls our hands actually takes up most of the real estate in our motor control area. It also sits right next to our brain’s pleasure center, with direct lines to our limbic system (our emotional circuitry) and prefrontal cortex (our logical reasoning center). These areas communicate constantly in everyday life to control our responses to situational stimuli.
Neuroscientist Kelly Lambert has found that this “accumbens-striatal-cortical network” works as a rewards circuit. Turning on our physical motor control and our deliberate thought process at the same time in order to make something causes a huge wash of happy-making brain chemicals, a profound sense of satisfaction, and (bonus!) reduced feelings of stress.
It’s hard to deny there is something immensely gratifying about using our hands to make something. Lambert believes this is an evolutionary adaptation. Before the invention of takeout and electricity, gathering food and building a safe shelter took a lot of physical energy and attention. The best way to motivate humans to make that effort and keep themselves alive was to give a big psychological payoff for that kind of work.
Lambert’s fascinating book “Lifting Depression” details the way our brains react to handwork, and the research findings that people who regularly perform manual tasks tend to have less depression, better focus, and more resilience than those who don’t. Achieving something with our hands gives us a sense of control and meaning that purely mental work doesn’t.
Lambert’s book points out that the modern tendency to outsource the menial tasks that are still required in our daily lives (like cleaning our houses or cooking) correlates with increased rates of depression and lower life satisfaction. She also notes the success of the Montessori and Waldorf educational systems – both of which emphasize physical learning activities – at producing children with better emotional well-being than kids who didn’t get to spend a lot of time working and learning with their hands. According to Lambert, these research findings are too consistent to be coincidental.
You’ve heard the old saying, “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” Seems like our ancestors actually were on to something there.