Using Your Hands to Soothe the Brain: Part 2

Last week we gave you Part 1 of  “Using Your Hands to Soothe the Brain,” featuring designer and author Natalie Chanin, textile artist and Ecco Eco founder Abigail Doan, and Jill Danyelle, Occupational Therapist and founder of FiftyRX3.

When I came across this blog entry from sustainable designer and writer Natalie Chanin, it not only piqued my perception of the positive effects of “women’s work,” but it brought to light a real aspect of how using our hands to do meaningful tasks can benefit our overall health and well being.

Chanin cites neuroscientist Kelly Lambert, author of Lifting Depression:

“Lambert shows how when you knit a sweater or plant a garden, when you prepare a meal or simply repair a lamp, you are bathing your brain in feel-good chemicals and creating a kind of mental vitamin. Our grandparents and great grandparents, who had to work hard for basic resources, developed more resilience against depression; even those who suffered great hardships had much lower rates of this mood disorder. But with today’s overly-mechanized lifestyle, we have forgotten that our brains crave the well-being that comes from meaningful effort.”

Here in Part 2, Owyn Ruck, one of the founders of Brooklyn’s widely respected Textile Arts Center weighs in on how using our hands not only enhances our sense of well being, but how it also creates a sense of self-sufficiency.

I think it is inherently human to desire self-sufficiency. Behind it all, we are just trying to survive. It may be cheesy and a half-way joke when people talk about the “apocalypse” and being able to construct a house or make clothing, but knowing how to use your hands to create things that are useful, never mind beautiful, is vital to our self-worth and provides a feeling that we can survive anything. As kids, we want to shoo the adult away (“I can do it myself”, “let me do it!”) and that continues through our lives, though as technology advances, we become more and more dependent on machines, or others, doing things for us.

We are often so removed from the process of creating, that we miss out on knowing the basic satisfaction of taking the time, care, and knowledge that it requires. Everything is so fast-paced, we are able to skip so many steps, that we forget how simply even knowing how to fix something gives us power. The act of being able to fix something we love, even if we didn’t create it from scratch, gives us a glimpse into the knowledge behind an objects making. It takes the power and control out of the hands of someone else and gives it right back to us – we get to relate to an object, and ensure that it is built to last. It’s a great sense of freedom. Even in a sense of finances, we are taught to feel that money equals freedom, but what if you didn’t even to need to buy half the things you did, you could make them or simply make something last longer? That’s freedom.

When we first started Textile Arts Center, a lot of the trust we had in the whole venture was this gut feeling that there was a general stirring and change within people, that they’d want to take classes and have the meeting place. Maybe it’s the same as you, we are around a lot of creative people in New York City and Brooklyn in particular and have seen this DIY trend growing for years now.

Without a doubt, I think that it’s because we have distanced ourselves from creating. Not only the feeling of creating, but people are sick of the same machine-made objects. Technology has allowed us to become lazy. We’re told it makes life “simpler”, but I think all it’s done is left us yearning for more meaning from the things we own and the objects we surround ourselves with. We place so much importance on the object itself, when we could feel much more satisfaction from the process of creating. It seems life is actually much more emotionally difficult and sad as we constantly search for more stimulation, and make an empty monetary exchange for objects that actually mean nothing.

In our not so distant past, grandparents and great-grandparents (depending on your age) still made their clothing, or at least knew how to mend them. Handmade items were more the norm but they treated these objects lovingly. My grandfather likes to retell the story of when he lost one of his few button-down school shirts that had been hand made and how much trouble he was in! Or Isa often recounts the sheets and towels that she still has of her grandmothers, that are all hand embroidered. A once common practice by young women who were beginning to create items for their home and married life.

We’re so absent from these ideas now, that they are hyper-romantic to us. A desire to go back to these days, where things seemed more lovely, I think is very common for 20-40 somethings. I think his has been a growing trend, and spans a lot of age ranges depending on where you live, but I can definitely say that it seems people are more adamant about it. In recent years, we’ve seen some great changes in attitude toward independent designers and fully hand made clothing. A willingness to buy less, higher quality, classic pieces for our closets, as our appreciation for the work increases. We desire uniqueness and rely on fashion and the things we adorn our bodies with to express it. What better way than with “one of a kind” and hand made items?

What do you think of the idea that working with our hands and the idea of it being a “mental vitamin?’

What do I think? It’s amazing! And it’s such a great visual. Going to your fridge in the morning popping a giant, sunny pill of creative energy. The new year rolls around and we resolve to make sure we exercise enough, and eat right. While these are important aspects of our physical and mental health, creativity is sadly often forgotten from this equation.

I wish trades would come back, where it was expected that we decide at an early age what we want to learn to be really good at so that we can rely on it for our livelihood. Something that allows us to exercise our right brain, and makes us money? What is better than that? And isn’t that the dream?

I see sort of an epidemic among my peers/young adults my age, of discontent with jobs and a “career path.” The most common answer I feel I hear to the big question of “what do you want to do?” is to simply not work in an office, or to “work for myself”. And I can understand the annoyance with us from an older generation – it comes off as entitled, that we shouldn’t have to work hard, we have enough experience and intelligence to do exactly what we want when we want to.

But what I’m starting to feel is that maybe it is about greater desire to get back in touch with this idea of trades, and using our hands. Or maybe just getting our “hands dirty” in theory. Even if not within a technically creative business, allowing the creation of ideas to be the creative part. Maybe there can be more emphasis put on this as we search for jobs, and what to do with our lives, rather than climbing the ranks to higher salaries at jobs that we could care less about. The emphasis is on getting the “good job” rather than the job that feels good. I think there is a chance that we are deterred not by the idea and fight of “climbing the ladder”, but where the ladder ends up.

Of course this comes hand in hand with a full change to our society and giving up such a consumerist and materialistic mentality. But I think that’s where the desire to make things, even as a hobby, comes in. There has to be a way that as a society we can foster this “mental vitamin” idea and add it to the list of things you automatically associate with good health and force yourself to make time for.

Image: Mr T In DC

Amy DuFault

Amy DuFault is a conscious lifestyle writer, consultant and fashion instigator. She resides in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.