Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
Friday, July 2, 2010
You know when you are totally stressed out you can’t follow a complex pattern, but instead seek out a simple, mindless project to work on? This could happen because the stress makes you more likely to use your striatum, which governs habitual behavior. Stress makes function more difficult for the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision making and following a sequence of events that are not habitual. While the striatum is activated when behavior is ongoing and doesn’t require paying attention, the prefrontal cortex is active when something new is being learned with a particular goal to be achieved.
I’ve been getting more and more interested in this effect of stress because we are doing research on obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is characterized by dysfunction of the prefrontal cortex and the striatum. People who have been diagnosed with OCD report that their experience is more intense when they are feeling stressed. There’s also evidence in rats that diminished activity in the prefrontal cortex is associated with stress-induced changes in behavior. And, one group has shown that rats will revert to habitual behavior that is governed by the striatum when they have been exposed to stress, when they would normally be using their prefrontal cortex to help them figure things out.
It seems I can’t knit without feeling rather geeky, so I’ve been viewing my projects on the PFC-Striatum continuum, with mindless projects at the striatum end and complex projects at the PFC end of the spectrum. Projects are rated by how much attention they require (can I bring the project to group knitting and drink wine, or does it require silence and high doses of caffeine?). Here is an example of striatum-dependent knitting:
The scarf in the middle shows how Noro yarn does all the work, while I mindlessly knit one row after the other. I may have used my PFC a little bit in the beginning, when I had to follow the pattern on the first 4 rows, but now it’s all striatum. The other 2 scarves pictured are similarly striatum-dependent. The rose-colored one is 31 stitches of spaced checks, June 9 on one of those perpetual calendars. The curly one is from Scarf Style, called Ruffles and designed by Amanda Blair Brown. The scarf pictured at the top is called Triangle Scarf and is from Norah Gaughan's Knitting Nature. This would be closer to the PFC end of the spectrum.
At the other end of the spectrum, maybe even a bit beyond the extreme PFC boundary of the continuum, is Kelmscott:
This is what I have accomplished so far of the left front. The pattern changes on every row (no “wrong side rest” on this one), requiring constant attention to the pattern chart, like the few rows pictured here:
I only tore out the first few rows about 10 times before I discovered what I was doing wrong (the chart is knit in the opposite direction on the wrong side, which the directions made clear but I did not get it at first). I can manage about 5 rows before I need to put it away and do something more striatum-dependent. I don’t even attempt it if I’m feeling stressed or tired.
Here’s what makes Kelmscott so PFC dependent:
1. Each row is different, requiring close attention to the chart. While the individual stitches are easy, their sequence is not. The dorsolateral portion of the prefrontal cortex makes following the pattern possible, by allowing me to know where I am in the pattern (which row, right side or wrong, which stitch was just completed) and directing my motor system to follow the sequence of movements needed to do the different stitches. Stress would reduce the ability of the dorsolateral PFC to do its job, so I would be losing my place and making mistakes.
2. Kelmscott is going to take forever to finish, so what keeps me going, 5 rows at a time? My orbital frontal cortex allows me to balance the immediate and delayed rewards of the project so that I can stay motivated by keeping in mind the long-term benefits of what I am doing. So, while I might opt for a mindless project that produces quick results when I am stressed out, I am able to be more patient and work on the delayed-reward project when things are more under control. (I do gain some satisfaction when I make it through a row without having to tink back to the beginning).
I’ve been wondering if knitting Kelmscott could be used to strengthen my PFC? If this brain area is less active when stress perception is high, maybe increasing its activity could counteract the impact of stress. It has been shown to do this in rats (but not while they were knitting…). Am I doing myself a disservice by picking up the easy mindless project when I should really be getting the PFC revved up?
Next time: how I used my anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) to abandon Cable-down Raglan.
I found this yarn at Webs a few years ago. It’s Berroco Ultra Alpaca, a blend of wool and alpaca, in a color that I love but probably should not wear. I am now on the 4th project with this yarn, having abandoned the first 3 after making considerable progress toward their completion. Attempt 3 (pictured left) went farther than 1 or 2, and I still decided to ditch it and make Attempt 4.
Attempt 3 is Cable-down Raglan, designed by Stefanie Japel and found in the Spring 2007 issue of Interweave Knits. Attempts 1 and 2 were my own creations, but after they went pear-shaped I decided to follow a pattern. I thought it was nice how this design “follows the rules” per Stacy and Clinton, (linked in case you are living under a rock and don’t get that reference—please join us soon!) but it did not follow the same rules on me that it appears to have followed on the model pictured in the magazine. No, I believe that the model and I have different rules. I was also not pleased with how the cables looked a bit sloppy, like maybe I needed to use a smaller needle (granted, the picture does not support this concern). After Cable-down Raglan sat for about a year in this 1-sleeve-to-go state, I am now ready to tear it apart and use the yarn for Attempt 4. This decision was weighed carefully (and avoided for an extended period), and I believe it required a great deal of activity in my anterior cingulate cortex. This is a portion of the prefrontal cortex that allows one to recognize conflicts and make decisions when there are options to consider. Do I finish Cable-down Raglan and see if I like it after I’ve worn it a few times, or do I abandon it now and use the yarn for something I might actually wear? The conflict is that so much work has already been done (work that required my dorsolateral PFC, even), but it looks terrible on me. My extensive experience of completing items that look terrible has helped tip the balance toward Attempt 4.
Attempt 4 is Diminishing Rib Cardigan designed by Andrea Pomerantz (fellow science geek knitter; see her blog here) from the Spring 2009 issue of Interweave Knits. I’ve decided that the only way to make this color work for me is to keep it very simple. This pattern is considerably less PFC-dependent than was Attempt 3. You can see the modeled version here.
I've made it to the arm-holes with yarn I had not used yet, but now it is necessary to start taking yarn from the sweater in the picture...I'll share my progress soon.