Saturday, January 9, 2010

Listening to my amygdala

I was recently reminded to heed the danger signals when a project is not going well.

Few hat patterns have caught my attention as much as Mary Ann Stephens' Polar Chullo. I am a big fan of Fair Isle knitting and I have a HUGE stash of fingering weight yarn--the chullo is a perfect project.

As I cast on 192 stitches (foregoing the flaps) I thought "that's a lot of stitches". The smallest circular needles I could find that were not already being used in my abundance of partially started projects were #2s and the patterns calls for #1s. Well, it's Fair Isle and tight is tight, so it wouldn't make much difference. These needles were 16 inches long, so the work was very bunched up. You see where this is going. I did, too, but I didn't LISTEN.

Here is a picture of the 30-inch hat band.
I have learned that my color choices look fine, that it would look better if the stitches were tighter, and that a 16-inch circular needle is too short. So, I have ordered a special pair of addi turbo size #0 20-inch needles.

Before I reached this Zen state of "it's the process, it's all good", I had an episode of rage. I got my indignant self on Ravelry to commiserate with everyone else who had a 30-inch hat band. Instead I saw 21 or so gorgeous hats, a bunch of colorways that were spectacular, and not a single mention of 10-inch distortions in hat band size. I was reminded that there are some amazing knitters out there. I was not feeling like one of them, and I got rather sad.

Not one to stay sad for long (it did last longer than the typical result of a knitting project gone awry), I pulled out of the episode by using some positive reappraisal: "at least you stopped before you completed the entire hat" and "now you know it's worth trying with a smaller needle size". I also reminded myself that my hat will look just as good as some of the ones on Ravelry.

The danger signals were coming from my amygdala, where past disappointments of failed knitting projects are stored in my brain. This brain area is part of a primitive circuit that coordinates a defensive response in the face of danger. A big bear jumps onto your hiking path, so your amygdala gets signals from your eyes and nose (big stinky dangerous thing) and also from your cortex (brown bear, more scared of you than you of him, but be careful anyway) and sends signals to your brainstem and hypothalamus to coordinate the appropriate response (increased heart rate, sweaty palms, courage to make yourself look bigger by jumping up and down, arms waving). This response begins subconsciously, before the cortex has time to interpret the details. Good thing, because sometimes thinking takes too long.

It might be good to get more in tune with the early signals from the amygdala. It's usually very accurate about detecting danger, like when 192 stitches on #2 needles seems like too much. It would be better to listen early on, before it becomes all too clear that disaster has struck.