“The hand is the window on to the mind.” ~ Immanuel Kant
"Of all our limbs,” explains Professor Richard Sennett, “the hands make the most varied movements, movements that can be controlled at will. Science has sought to show how these motions, plus the hand’s different ways of gripping and the sense of touch, affect the ways we think.” Sennett expounds at length on this topic in his book, The Craftsman, and teaches sociology at New York University and The London School of Economics and Political Science.
He explains that making things by hand engages the brain in special ways. The furniture maker, the musician, the glassblower or any other person engaged mindfully in arts and crafts needs to first “localize,” or look at just what is there—a piece of wood, a musical instrument or melted glass. The second step is to question—“What can I do with this?” The third is to open up—figure out how to create something unique.
“To deploy these capabilities, the brain needs to process visual, aural, tactile and language-symbol information simultaneously,” says Sennett.
Working pleasurably with the hands also helps to enhance brain chemistry according to author Kelly Lambert, Ph.D., a psychology professor and lead researcher with the Lambert Behavioral Neuroscience Laboratory at Randolph-Macon College, in Ashland, Virginia.
Lambert, author of Lifting Depression: A Neuroscientist’s Approach to Activating Your Brain’s Healing Power, makes the case for hands-on crafts like gardening, cooking and knitting as antidotes to depression. In a “Reconsidering Crafts” segment on Wisconsin Public Radio, she remarked: “We’re still carrying around a brain that appreciates working in the dirt and planting and hunting and preparing food.”
Using both hands to do something enjoyable, like knitting a scarf, entails engaging in a repetitive motion that produces calming serotonin. Lambert adds that counting stitches distracts us from other worries or concerns, and knitting something that we find pleasing and seeing the process through to completion activates what she refers to as the effort-driven reward circuit in the brain. This further prompts the release of the feel-good brain chemicals dopamine, serotonin and endorphins, she adds.