Sunday, January 8, 2012

Fair Isle Knitting: the ideal prefrontal cortex exercise

Oogy and I have decided that our focus this year is on stranded color knitting.  I've been a big fan of Fair Isle knitting for many years.  One of my fondest memories of the grad school years is spending several hours sitting on the floor in the shetland wool aisle at Shuttles, Spindles and Skeins in Boulder, Colorado.  I was with my buddy Julie and we were picking out yarn to make some Alice Starmore sweaters.  We kept poor Maggie running back and forth to check how many skeins of this or that she had in stock.  I made Rona, and Julie made Roscalie Cardigan, both from the In the Hebrides collection.  It must have been around 1995 or 96.  I didn't follow the pattern exactly, making my sweater a lot shorter and using plain ribbing instead of the fancy edging that Starmore called for.  Here is a picture of the sweater: 

Here's another project I did several years later--I used border patterns from Starmore's Book of Fair Isle Knitting to make this vest, using the fancy border that I was supposed to use on Rona.

Here are some swatches I am making in preparation for the next fair isle project, using Knit Pick's Palette:

So what does fair isle knitting have to do with the brain?  The basic structure of this type of knitting is the use of only 2 colors on any given row, with color changes every few rows to create the subtle variations that are so appealing in this knitting style.  It has a complicated appearance, but it is actually very simple, with a pattern that is repeated many times to complete the row.  For example, I used border pattern #159 from Mary Jane Mucklestone's 200 Fair Isle Motifs in the middle of the second swatch pictured above.

In a sweater the sequence of 16 stitches in the pattern would get repeated 21 times.  This is where the brain comes in.  The prefrontal cortex, which serves as the brain's executive processor, makes decisions and plans for the future.  It also houses our "working" memory, our ability to use new and remembered information to perform a task.  The dorsolateral portion of the prefrontal cortex serves as a template for spatial information.  It has neurons that will get active when something is happening in a particular place, and the same neurons will keep firing so that we can keep in mind what is supposed to happen in that place after a delay of a few seconds.  So, as row 1 in the border pattern is worked, the sequence of 1 Turmeric, 2 Bark, 5 Turmeric, 2 Bark, 3 Turmeric, 1 Bark, 3 Turmeric, 2 Bark...gets tracked by the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and after a few repeats I can work the row without consulting the pattern, until all 21 repeats are done.  The spatial map in my dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is keeping the pattern in focus and directing the motor cortex to control the muscles in my fingers, allowing me to choose Tumeric or Bark, as appropriate.  Then, the pattern repeat, and maybe one or both colors, changes.  This taps into another function of the prefrontal cortex: it allows for flexible behavior that responds to changing demands of the environment.  Someone with damage to this brain area would be able to follow the pattern, but once it was established, it would be difficult for this person to shift to a different pattern.  But when the prefrontal cortex is functioning well, it is possible to replace the working memory for row 1 with the pattern for row 2.  Three hundred and thirty-six stitches later, things change again and the working memory is replaced for another row.

A different part of the prefrontal cortex is important for making decisions.  Should I do another row, or should I work on my lecture for next week?  The immediate reward of seeing the effect of the next color on the next row needs to be weighed against the benefit of getting the lecture prepared.  Do I really want to be up until 1am working on the lecture the night before it's delivered?  Or should I put the knitting down and get to work?  These decisions that involve delayed gratification are very difficult, but a functioning ventromedial prefrontal cortex can anticipate the emotional impact of an action, making it possible to make a decision.  I know from experience how painful and unpleasant it is to be preparing a lecture when I'm supposed to be sleeping, so the anticipation of this unpleasantness will factor into my decision, if my ventromedial prefrontal cortex is working.  

To see some figures of the prefrontal cortex and read about many other brain functions, check out a very cool site maintained by McGill University called The Brain From Top to Bottom.  The link will take you to the module that is focused on the function of the prefrontal cortex.  You can adjust the level of explanation from beginner to advanced, and you can also change the level of analysis, from neurological to psychological, or even social.

I have often thought that this type of knitting is one way to exercise the prefrontal cortex.  Maybe Fair Isle knitting can be used to strengthen the prefrontal cortex when depression and anxiety have been wearing it down.


Oogyknitter said...

Well - that explains why I'm incapable of putting down the Fair Isle projects once I've started them!

smw said...

Ah, now I think I understand why the act of knitting is so much like playing the piano...