Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Knitting as an Effort-Based Reward System

I’ve heard many knitters say that they use their hobby/craft as a type of therapy. I often joke that yarn is cheaper than Prozac, though I’m not so sure about that now. Fewer side effects, certainly! I have recently read a book called Lifting Depression by Kelly Lambert, who proposes the idea that our current social context is contributing to an increased incidence of depression because we don’t use our hands enough. She supports this idea by describing how the motor system has evolved to specialize in fine motor and sensory processing for the hands, first as our primary form of communication and then as the main tool for the tasks of daily living. She believes that a person can avoid depression by managing stress effectively and by establishing regular, daily effort-based reward experiences. So what is effort-based reward?

The idea is that completing a task that requires some effort, especially tasks that use the hands, provides a person with a sense of accomplishment. The regular experience of such accomplishment encourages the person to continue the behavior. The continued behavior strengthens circuits in the brain that counteract the processes that lead to negative mood states.

She gives a personal example of recovering from a bout of depression that was prompted by the death of her mother. She didn’t feel better until she rediscovered the joys of vacuuming. Her experience was that the manual labor led to the very obvious improvement in the appearance of her surroundings, a clear reward for her efforts. She was DOING something, taking control of her immediate situation (dirty house) and making a noticeable difference (clean house). Her experience was in keeping with the findings of her research program in which she explores the impact of stress on behavior in rats.

I find this idea very appealing. I have often noted that if I feel stressed at work the best remedy is to get in the lab and clean the glassware, or clear off the lab bench, or wash some rat cages. I realize as I’m performing these tasks that I should be leaving it for a work-study student, but I just feel like doing the work myself. I also find doing the dishes and laundry at home appealing (sometimes). Mostly, though, this idea relates to my long-standing focus on all things fiber.

Lambert actually uses knitting multiple times in her book as an example of an effort-based reward activity. This makes total sense. It involves fine motor control and sensation of the hands. The results of one’s efforts are easy to see, even when you are just learning. It is easy to learn and can be performed in many contexts.

I like to think that we can enjoy the conveniences of modern living (I’m in no hurry to use a washboard or to raise my own cows; sheep maybe…) and still use our brains as they were intended by incorporating effort-based rewarding behavior into our routines. So, next time you get a twinge of guilt for choosing to knit instead of applying harsh chemicals to your kitchen floor, remember that you need to flex the muscle between your ears: keep knitting!

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