Monday, March 31, 2008

Crafting Can Save Your Brain

Recap: as part of's Healthy Body, Healthy Mind, Healthy Wallet series, I've been talking about recycling and thrifty ways to feed our art/craft habits while pointing out the benefits of doing so. I've discussed the money-making recyclers at Etsy, the communities where recycling habits regularly happen and some of the interesting discussion there. I took you on a tour of unusual craft/art/hobby supplies places. So what's left? Maybe the most important element of all. How DIY crafting can save your brain.

Let's start with Wired magazine's Clive Thompson, who wrote a telling article about attempting to mashup a new clock: He kept screwing up his soldering joints.
Why am I so inept? I used to do projects like this all the time when I was a kid. But in high school, I was carefully diverted from shop class when the administration decided I was college-bound. I stopped working with my hands and have barely touched a tool since. As it turns out, this isn't a problem just for me — it's a problem for America. We've lost our Everyman ability to build, maintain, and repair the devices we rely on every day. And that's making it harder to solve the country's nastiest problems, like oil dependence, climate change, and global competitiveness.
Quick survey here: Did your parents own a toolbox? A sewing basket? Do you? Do you use them? Do you know how to use a hammer, pliers, drill? Sew on a button? Hem jeans? Replace a zipper? or like Thompson, solder a wire? When something breaks or is damaged, do you return it to functionality by yourself, have someone fix it for you, or simply throw it away and replace it? We've moved from a society of do-ers to a society of buy-ers; from making-do to getting-new. It's hurting us financially, it's hurting us environmentally, and here's a little secret: it's hurting us mentally.
Neuroscientists have shown that working with your hands exercises different parts of your cerebrum than sitting and cogitating.
Try to remember the day someone taught you to knit a scarf, sew a straight line, solder a wire, tool a leather key fob, color inside the lines. Any simple task that involved using your hands to perform a task. You watched what you were doing closely. You thought HARD about each step, sometimes coming up with little sayings to make it easier to remember. It took all your concentration simply to perform the task; we could not imagine being able to complete it without such concentration.

While we were fussing and concentrating and learning, our brains were doing something magical. They were making new connections. As we struggled to perform a simple task, we were growing more brain.
Stronger brain.
Better brain.
And we never knew it.

Think about those tasks we learned that you still perform. If you're a knitter, can you knit and walk at the same time? (many can and do). Imagine the strong brain connections that were formed as you learning those tasks. Unfortunately, as those connections are formed and become "routine" the brain needs to spend less energy (and fewer connections) to help us accomplish these tasks.

For each of us, continuing to learn new things, to solve new puzzles, and to remember old tasks that we've let our muscles and brain forget are important tools in saving our minds. For individuals like me, who face the threat of a debilitating brain disease (such as Alzheimer's or MS), this continued learning is one of the pathways of hope for a healthy foturee.

So next time something in your life isn't as perfect as it might have been on day one, instead of thinking "time to replace with a newer model", grab that rusty sewing basket or tool box and get your DIY groove going. Your brain will thank you.

Some resources for getting your DIY groove on:

Make both the blog and magazine
CRAFT Make's "little sister'.. again a blog and a magazine. The HowTo wiki page is priceless!
Ikea Hacker Start with the brilliance that is IKEA design and improve it!
eHow How To Do Just About Everything
Helping Handmade Classes to teach you the basics in all types of crafting. Their first classes are just beginning.

I also blog at: Deb's Daily Distractions and BlogHer on Mondays and Saturdays.

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