The report in the journal Science last week that people find it difficult and unpleasant to think without doing anything else surprised me. The media coverage was extensive and one example from the Washington Post is here. At first I thought, in contrast to the outcome of the study, I relish opportunities to be alone with my thoughts. But then I realized this experience usually involves knitting. In fact, having nothing to do but think does seem unpleasant. What a waste of time when one could be pulling weeds, or knitting, or kneading dough.
It is when I have a lot to think about that am drawn to projects that have a mindless quality to them. I can organize my thoughts, or work through problems easier when I’m knitting a project that I can settle into. When my current and ongoing obsession with lace began a few months back, I settled on a pattern that became easy to generate without much need for focused attention or alertness. Two scarves later, I moved to another mindless pattern, and am now working on what I hope will become a third option. These projects have in common an aesthetic appeal of color and silky texture. They capture just enough of my attention that I can focus on the knitting for extended periods of time without getting tired or bored. Perfect thinking conditions!
|Most recent melon stitch scarf|
|Another scarf, this one in a shell lace pattern made with mink yarn|
Often my thoughts are focused on questions about neural function and knitting, hence the meager existence of this poor, neglected blog. Recently I have been trying to understand the nature of the default mode network, or DMN, that has been characterized as the neural activity that occurs when nothing is happening. Daydreaming on the bus, staring at people walking in and out of the lobby of your doctor’s office, watching cars pass in front of you while you wait at a red light—all DMN-inducing conditions. This network is interrupted when a task is to be done: it’s your turn to cross the intersection, the receptionist calls your name, your stop is next, and the DMN is switched off, in favor of the specific circuits needed to complete the task at hand. When I first started reading about the DMN, I thought it might be something to foster, that it would be good to be able to engage it, to promote creativity and problem solving. The more I read, however, the more it seems as though it might be better to gain more control over the thought process, and prevent the DMN from taking over. This is how meditation is described, and there is evidence that experienced meditators have a modified default mode that differs from the DMN that most of us have.
All this reminded me that I once read the book by Tara Jon Manning called Mindful Knitting about using knitting as a tool for developing mindfulness. I have dug it out of the bookcase and am considering it anew in light of the DMN. Perhaps some of the benefits of knitting on mental health are mediated by an ability to control the DMN? While all of this is roiling in my head, I plan to continue knitting some mildly mind-engaging lace.
|Rows 1-13 of Myrtle Leaf Shawl with Willow Border from Victorian Lace Today|