What Is Soul Work?

Soul Work, by Joy Berry

We know that often busy hands equals a calm mind and body. Sitting still with nothing to do but just listen or wait can be hard for kids, and even some adults. And also we know that we have stressful times, all of us. 

How can we help support our kids, ourselves, our program? With some understanding that neuroscientists are learning now that some activities can actually help us focus in on what we’re hearing or learning, and can help us calm down. Especially activities with our hands. 

Sometimes called fidget items, classroom teachers have known for a long time that activities like pipe cleaners, Play-Doh, and coloring can actually help listeners focus better. But did you know that, in particular, knitting, sewing, and coloring mandalas have been found to create the same brain pattern as those found during meditation? 

We know that knitters and other crafters often describe the state they experience while doing their craft as meditative or deeply relaxing. Some even refer to knitting as the new yoga. According to one study, studies of the brain waves of people immersed in repetitive spatial-motor tasks show remarkable similarities to those engaged in deep meditation, an activity known to stimulate the production of dopamine. And like meditation, repetitive spatial-motor tasks not only stimulate the brain’s reward system, they also promote relaxation and counteract the negative health consequences of stress hormones. 

Now humans have always crafted, and elders have always taught young people about those crafts. In fact, sewing types of hand work, and knitting, is still taught in Waldorf and other integrative– or “whole child”– curriculum methods. We use them in our spirit play classes in our Contemplation Center. But now science is giving us hard evidence that hand work really is a powerful contemplative activity. 

So how is that? It turns out that when we engage in handwork, we increase activity and cerebral blood flow in the left, prefrontal cortex of the brain– an area associated with positive mood and feelings of general well being.

By participating in activities that require the translation of codes and symbols– which include knitting, sewing, paint, or coloring by numbers—we also activate that prefrontal cortex on the left side. Over time, more activity in this part of the brain results in lowered anxiety, and an improved response to environmental stressors. The repetitive motions of knitting, for example activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which quiets the flight or fight response. 

Observing children or adults who are engaged in hand work like sewing, one notices a deep focus and calm. In a 2007 paper called “The Neurological Basis of Occupation”, scientists argue that patients could learn to use crafting activities to elicit something called flow, which would offer a non-pharmaceutical way to regulate strong emotion– such as anger– or prevent irrational thought. 

They said flow could potentially help patients to calm an internal chaos. And I think that’s why we all want more contemplative practices in our lives, and in our kids’ lives. Turns out that the reward center in our brain releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine when we do something pleasurable, and that is our natural antidepressant. 

And so there’s survey evidence to support crafting’s dopamine effect. In one study of more than 3,500 knitters published in the British Journal of Occupational Therapy, 81% of respondents with depression reported feeling happy after knitting. More than half reported feeling very happy. 

Crafting also improves our self-efficacy, one researcher said– or how we feel about performing particular tasks. Psychologists believe a strong sense of self-efficacy is key to how we approach new challenges and overcome disappointments in life.