This morning I spent a few hours working in the lab to optimize some histology procedures for a new project. Sometimes lab work can be boring—multiple steps, each separated by just a few minutes, leave limited time to do anything else productive, and ample time for self-reflection. I have often enjoyed these opportunities, to do something “mindless” in the lab as a way to get away from the more-taxing aspects of my work. During an interminable two-minute interval this morning I remembered a study that was covered in the media a few years ago. Researchers at the University of Virginia and Harvard University conducted a series of studies and found that people find it unpleasant to be alone with their thoughts. If there was anything else to do, they would opt for that, even if it was something painful. It described how people would rather shock themselves than to sit and do nothing! The original paper in Science is here.
While I don’t find being idle very appealing, I do welcome the chance to engage in mindless tasks that allow some mind wandering. I can relax completely while knitting something that doesn’t demand too much focus, and I have often found that I figure things out during those mind wandering sessions. I remember to do something, or the path forward in a difficult situation reveals itself. Of course, too much mindless knitting can get boring, so it’s nice to have another project on hand that requires more focus. I wonder if people abandon knitting altogether because they choose only one project that doesn’t serve their varying states of mind? Maybe it’s best to have a project that has both components? Making Hitchhiker made me realize that it was the ideal project: one that includes alternating mindless and focused sections. The jagged edge of Hitchhiker is formed by binding off a few stitches at the beginning of the row every so often, but the rows in between are just garter stitch. That little jolt of interesting knitting every 8 rows is so appealing!
I took a shawl design class at RISD last year and learned how to work with various shawl shapes. It was so cool to learn the basic structures, and then to imagine how to impose a design into them. My favorite shape turns out to be the asymmetrical triangle, as in Hitchhiker. It starts out with very short rows, so you can experience any design features of the shawl early on. Then the rows get longer and longer, and suddenly, it’s done. Very appealing! I finished one shawl during the 6-week class, a crescent with a few Shetland lace panels. I like that shape, but found myself immersed in designing an asymmetrical triangle shawl that was inspired by Hitchhiker’s intermittent ease and excitement.
I’ve named the shawl Switching Modes, based on this idea of engaging two mind states: one that is task-focused and the other that is “mindless”. Cognitive scientists are studying these mind states and have called the mindless one “default mode processing” and cognitive neuroscientists have been exploring the brain circuitry that seems to support it, the default mode network. I first learned about the default mode network as it relates to the benefits of meditation, but more recently I’ve been thinking about its role in the experience of knitting. This led me to another literature on the relationship between default mode processing and creativity. More on that later…
Switching Modes is a relatively easy shawl to make and the pattern is on Ravelry here. The “mindless” component of Switching Modes is eight rows of stockinette stitch in a neutral color. The “task-focused” component is two rows of knitting in a vibrant, dynamic color, which is highlighted by ten stitches that dangle off the edge. The colorful yarn helps keep your attention, and the neutral background brings out the beauty of color changing yarns. It only requires about 100 yards of the contrast yarn, which might be great for the small quantities you have of a beautiful handspun or what remains of a pair of socks that you made. The asymmetrical shape is produced by knitting on the bias (increasing one stitch at one end, decreasing one at the other) while also increasing one stitch every other row on one end. These simple elements help to keep the project interesting, which is especially important at the beginning of the shawl. Once you’ve completed about five repeats of the 10-row pattern, the design itself is no longer a mystery, and the task-focused component distinguishes itself from the mindless rows of stockinette.
I mention in the pattern that default mode processing might relate to mental health. The ability to control one’s mind state and to stay focused on a task is generally considered to be beneficial. It’s also been recognized that symptoms of anxiety and depression can include excessive self-reflection. In anxiety, it can be a problem to focus too much on one’s actions and on how one is perceived by others, and in depression there is a tendency to ruminate about one’s failings. These self-referential thoughts are the product of default mode processing, and when that goes awry, it might produce symptoms of anxiety or depression. I find this link especially intriguing and plan to investigate it further.