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Knitting your way to a healthier, happier mind

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I’ve been proudly shall include participation in Neural Knitworks since its inception, sharing the latest article out on this fabulous activity that’s being taken up by young and old across Australia. Help us spread the word round the globe and set up your own local knit-in.

by Ian Hickie, University of Sydney and Jackie Randles, University of Sydney What do knitting and neuroscience have in common?

Most people would say not a lot- one activity involves yarn and knitting needles and the other studying the body’s nervous system. But research presents knitting and yarn craft, like other meditative activities, can “activate areas of the brain that are good for generating a sense of pacify,( and contribute to) improved emotional processing and better decision making”.

A recent study conducted out of Cardiff University in the United Kingdom also received knitting has significant psychological and social benefits. In a survey of 3,545 knitters worldwide, respondents who knitted for relaxation, stress relief and imagination reported higher cognitive running, improved social contact and communication with others.

In short, knitting induced them happier. And warmer- nothing beats the winter chills as well as a homemade jumper or scarf.

Tapping into these findings is Neural Knitworks, a community involvement project first developed for National Science Week in 2014. So successful has it proven that hundreds of knit-ins have been held across the country- in regional towns, remote Indigenous communities, libraries, galleries, schools, hospitals and at community centres- since.

The pattern for each knit-in is simple: participants learn to knit, crochet or simply wrap woollen neurons while listening to an expert discuss brain and mind health. Topics have included how neurons work, the effect of cannabis on brain function, fostering teen brains, the effect of dementia on neural pathways, neuroplasticity, and healthy brain ageing.

Knitting and neuroscience have more in common that you think. Neural Knitworks, Author provided

Workshops have been held for preschoolers, retirees and sufferers of dementia and depression. Participants have included students, library and mental health service patrons, university staff and scientists, with expert guests ranging from dementia carers and mental health workers to neuroscientists and university researchers.

At a recent knit-in held at Redfern Community Centre, former Sydney Rooster Ian Roberts spoke about a career of sustaining concussions in football, with fans attaining footy neurons in team colourings to raise awareness of brain trauma in sport. Other speakers have discussed the effect of mindfulness activities such as yoga, meditation and knitting on brain health.

In a neat oddity, knitting first-timers make woollen neurons in their hands at the same period as they forge new neural pathways in their brains. That’s what acquiring a new skill does; enhancing brain health in the process.

At the end of each knit-in, individual neurons are gathered together and displayed in a network. The first major reveal held at Hazelhurst Regional Gallery during National Science Week 2014 featured a giant, walk in brain statue made from more than 1600 knitted, crocheted and woven brain cells donated from crafters all over Australia.

How did the project start?

Neural Knitworks was founded by Pat Pillai and Rita Pearce, who developed the idea into a National Science Week community engagement initiative with the support of Hazelhurst Regional Gallery and Arts Centre and Inspiring Australia.

With the help of neuroscientists Sarah McKay and Heather Main, and science communicator Jenny Whiting, the pair developed scientifically informed patterns.

Woven woollen neurons. Neural Knitworks, Author provided

These patterns reflect what a neuron looks like when it’s placed under a microscope- complete with dendrites, a nucleus, axons and synapses. As makers make these wollen objects, they come to understand just how complex the human nervous system is.

The human brain is thought to contain 80 billion neurons, give or take a few billion, so when we talk about intellect health, a project like Neural Knitworks demonstrates in simple terms just how large, sophisticated and fragile the nervous system is. It’s learning that starts with the basic building block of the mind.

The beauty of Neural Knitworks is how the project widens the reach of scientific knowledge by engaging participants with hands on educational experiences that connect them with experts as they actually improve their own brain and intellect health.

Yarn craft, with its mental challenges, social connect and mindfulness, helps keep brains fit by solving creative and mental challenges, developing eye-hand concerted and fine motor dexterity and increasing attention span.

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