Why getting crafty pampers your brain?
The research is in: doing handicrafts boosts wellbeing, increases creativity, and brain activity!
In a lecture hall at the University of Helsinki it’s a common sight to see students knitting while they listen to a lecture by Minna Huotilainen, PhD, and professor of educational sciences who specialises in neuroscience.
If it sounds odd for students to be encouraged to take up handicrafts while they learn, it’s not. The practice is backed by solid neuroscience research, and one of the outcomes is that wellbeing and cognitive skills improve while doing handicraft.
“We can study the effects of the human brain and measure them, and there are a variety of activities that lower stress and help to activate brain activity and actually help learning,” says Huotilainen.
“Handicrafts such as knitting can lower stress and have a range of health and wellbeing benefits,” says Huotilainen. “It’s been shown that doing something other than just sitting and listening to a lecture can help cognitive wellbeing. It actually helps the brain take in more information,” she adds.
Huotilainen is the author of many prestigious scientific papers including her 2018 paper “Why our brains love arts and crafts: Implications of creative practices on psychological wellbeing,” which she co-authored with several lead researchers in the field in Form Akademisk journal.
“Why our brains love arts and crafts” goes onto explain in scientific terms the process of handicraft on brain activity: “The mirror neuron system helps in skill learning, and the plasticity of the brain ensures that skills may be learned at all stages of life. Arts and crafts play a role in controlling stress and enhancing relaxation. They also enable us to fail safely and handle our emotions,” says Huotilainen.
Helsinki-based art therapist Krista Launonen worked for many years as a successful magazine editor and writer for some of the top Finnish glossies, including fashion magazine Gloria and health title Voi Hyvin (“Wellbeing”).
Several years ago, Launonen became increasingly interested in the effects of arts and handicrafts when she noticed the positive effect they had on her staff when she was the helm of Voi Hyvin magazine.
For example, one way to generate ideas and alleviate the pressure of Monday morning brainstorming sessions was to redirect the focus in the conference room. So Launonen encouraged staff to do something completely unrelated such as paint their nails while they talked about ideas. She quickly noticed that ideas flowed more freely when the focus was elsewhere.
“While you’re doing something else it frees you.”
“I noticed that at the so-called nail polish meetings ideas just started to flow. Some of them were the best meetings we’ve had in terms of generating ideas because people could speak freely without feeling as though the focus was on them or they were being judged. Now of course it doesn’t need to be nail painting, it can be something else. Just to do something with your hands, like building Lego, or sketching, or whatever,” she says.
That insight and Launonen’s passion took over and she left the magazine business five years ago and started Mielitila (loosely translated as “mind space”), which is housed in a light airy townhouse a short metro ride from downtown Helsinki filled with paints and paper, paintings, brushes, and books.
“My main focus is creativity through handicrafts. I aim to live what I teach, so it’s not just workshops or lectures, but the key focus is doing things with your hands,” says Launonen, who is also an avid painter.
She credits the extensive research that Minna Huotilainen has carried out on the effects of working with your hands and how it activates different parts of the brain.
“Different things work for different people, and the best thing is to find out what works best for you. When you tap into your creativity, you unblock the ideas that are self-filtered,” says Launonen.
For first-timers, Launonen’s goal is to clear the client’s head of any preconceived notions about what they can or cannot do.
“For example, it you’re very stressed and busy we could do a relaxation or an imagination exercise, and then start the process by writing, painting, or colouring. It’s all very free form and calming. The answer is already in you – you just need to get through the blocks, busyness, and other things that hold you back,” she says.
Launonen’s formula for getting into a flow situation is simple: Enjoy what you do and do what you enjoy.
Text Katja Pantzar
Illustration Siiri Väisänen