Knitting and the Triune Brain
There they are, knitting needles and yarn, materials that bear within their design a whole history of humanity. Who thought to create smooth sticks so that a choreography of yarn could be developed that produced items for survival? Who thought to twist plant or animal fibers into yarn and rope?
But today, although that history might be long past, the hands seek to move, to make, to connect. Perhaps in our digital world, it is even more important to consider the gifts of knitting and of using our hands.
We live in a world that limits our human impulses for motion, movement, and invention. We live in brains that respond accordingly. Looking at the triune brain model, we can see how knitting helps develop key areas of our humanity that might be missing in modern life.
Our reptilian brain processes are responsible for those things that keep us alive: breathing and our heart beating regularly. The name of the game is survival.
Picking up a pair of knitting needles relaxes you. There are no threats. Your breathing and heart rate soften and regulate. You are making perhaps a hat or a sweater to wear, to clothe your body, to care for yourself or someone else. This is survival at its most basic level. Knitting is a rhythmic activity that mirrors the rhythm of body processes.
Reptilian brain projects: simple hat, mittens, top-down sweater
The limbic system is called to action by stress of some kind. This puts your system into fight, flight, or freeze. In a knee-jerk evaluation of danger, it expresses high emotion or immediate reaction to danger. If there has been trauma in the past, the limbic system will regard situations as dangerous that are not dangerous. These are called trauma triggers.
The limbic system houses our feelings of stress, fear, emotional pain, and anxiety.
Because the limbic system is so quick to respond and heightened, it can be used to great advantage. Anxiety in a person who's experienced trauma is an awakening. In the midst of the emotional response, a quick thinking also arises that uses intuition to solve problems.
Knitting inherently educates the limbic system because it is not dangerous, but it will cause stress. Learning a new stitch or following a pattern causes feelings of frustration, fear of not being able to "get" it, anger at yourself or the project. It might cause you to throw down your needles and tangle your yarn. It is the basis of what is known among knitters as "frogging", which is where you take out a project in which you may have invested scores of hours. The limbic system holds the details of the project and reacts when things don't go your way.
Outside of fight-or-flight, our emotions also guide us to activities that are pleasurable. We work through a knitting problem because knitting FEELS good. It feels good to settle into a project, to soothe ourselves, and to produce something creative. It feels good to give to people out of the love of our hearts, and to create our own style through knitting projects.
To use knitting to train your Limbic system, knit a February Baby Sweater by Elizabeth Zimmerman. Read all of her books, too. Your emotions will be completely regulated by the time you wave through that satisfying feather-and-fan pattern and read her engaging and humorous stories.
The neocortex holds the processes we thing of as higher: memory, invention, imagination, abstract thought. Part of the neocortex is the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of your brain that is deliberate and slow in its processing. It is like the wise old man that carefully considers all pieces of a problem before deciding on a course of action.
This is the part of the brain that is most nourished by knitting. Knitting requires you to hold in mind a goal; let's say, a sweater. There is a whole picture of a sweater you must continually imagine...calling on memory, limbic regulation, and abstract thought to hold on to that image. Then, stitch by deliberate stitch, you construct your sweater, bringing to life your image. This is the heart of creativity and invention, and flexing that muscle allows you to have the capacity to create new models elsewhere. It allows you to accept the teaching of others as well, for if your survival is taken care of, and your emotional state is not reacting to environmental threats, you are able to learn. Human development through the ages has rested on this ability to create and accept new models. From survival to emotional regulation to the advancement of humanity, knitting has it all.
For prefrontal cortex stitching, knit intarsia or better yet, lace. There is a complete trust one enters into when complicated imagining is called upon. If a mistake is made, you can correct it by taking it out and starting again. Patience and perseverance are required, for as each row varies, it starts to make sense as part of a beautiful whole.
Kind of like life.