June 19, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Emilia Griffin explores the science behind the benefits of crochet for the mind.

(By Emilia Griffin on 15th November 2023)

I try not to mention the dreaded pandemic if I can avoid it, but this is critical to my story. When lockdown rolled around in 2020, I was feeling incredibly lost with no purpose and riddled with anxiety. I knew that I had to find something to do about this so perhaps crochet could have been a solution to my problems.

I sort of fell into crocheting. For a while, my mum has been a knitting pattern tester, so we often had leftover yarn in the house along with other random crafty bits lying around. I found a crochet hook and turned to YouTube tutorials. Insert the hook into the loop, yarn over, pull through, over and over again, until I had perfected all the basic stitches. Soft twists and turns of yarn woven into a stitch. Each delicate stitch comes together to form a perfect piece I can be proud of. So proud that I started to make things for my friends and family and, eventually, Etsy. I had so many questions. Why couldn’t I put the hook down? Why did I feel less anxious? What was going on in my brain? I’ve been doing some research to find out the answers.

Blue crochet cotton string bag made by me!

When we do something pleasurable, such as eating, drinking or having sex (things that keep us humans alive), our brains release a neurotransmitter called dopamine. You might have heard this called the “happy hormone” because the activities that release it make us feel good. There is evidence that crochet makes people feel calm and 82% of people say they feel happier after picking up the hook. People feel happier after doing creative activities such as knitting or crocheting, which suggests dopamine is being released. The fact that we tend to seek out these dopamine-releasing activities makes me wonder if that is why I spent so much time crocheting. I often struggled to put the hook down – I just couldn’t get enough! (I’m aware this makes me sound incredibly sad and boring….)

Many people suggest that the benefits of crochet come from its repetitive nature. Serotonin, a different hormone, is released when doing repetitive movements and is used in antidepressants. Perhaps this is how crochet “medicates” without actually prescribing medication. My mind stops chatting to me when I crochet. I get a minute to just pause. Focus on the stitch count, the colours, insert the hook, loop the yarn over, pull through, insert the hook, loop the yarn over…you know the rest.

Knitting and crochet can elicit what’s called the flow experience. A state in which people “experience deep feelings of gratification and elation in response to engagement in highly desired activity”. This can require complete immersion in the moment and the activity, allowing everyday anxieties to fade and providing immense feelings of personal satisfaction. Many activities can cause a flow experience such as dancing, playing music, writing and even surgery. The science points to the involvement of increased levels of dopamine during the flow experience. These features are very similar to meditation and mindfulness. Activities that elicit the flow experience often also elicit the relaxation-response but include a repetitive activity. Research is being carried out to investigate the similarities in the neurological mechanisms between the flow experience and the relaxation-response. Meditation and mindfulness practices are effective in managing stress and anxiety so actions that elicit flow and the relaxation-response can be used in the same way.

Finding peace crocheting outside.

Crochet is great for you in the moment, but it is also good for you in the future.  Studies suggest that activities like knitting and crochet may be cognitively stimulating enough to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. When learning a new skill, neurons build greater connections and create associations between different parts of the brain. Neurons are flexible so creating more connections increases your ability to adapt to situations and reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s. Amongst knitters, 58% thought that knitting was good for their memory because they had to remember patterns and skills as well as solving problems. It was also suggested that mathematical skills improved because of calculating measurements, counting stitches and altering patterns. Who wants to get old? A great way to beat ageing while you’re ahead.

I noticed when I was learning to crochet that there was a massive crafting community online; people sharing patterns or final results and connecting with one another. Once I felt a little more confident in my crochet abilities, I decided to document my own journey on Instagram. The crochet community was a welcoming one and I chatted with others and tried out patterns, just as my mum had with knitting. This was an opportunity to connect to human beings without having to leave the house during lockdown. Receiving praise for my work and sharing my challenges online was very welcomed during periods where I felt lonely. Humans need to belong to something in times like those, crochet and the online community provided this for me.

On top of the respite from reality crochet provided for me, it gave me purpose. I witnessed many Instagram accounts I followed change from showing their journey into shops and, eventually, I became one of those! Knowing that somebody was going to enjoy wearing their crochet item as much as I enjoyed making it gave me a reason to wake up in the morning. I expressed myself creatively on Instagram, through my packaging and in the products themselves. Now that I’m back in full time study on a master’s here at Imperial, it would be unreasonable to have the same crocheting expectations of myself as I previously did. Despite my commitments, I still bumble along with a few projects to help manage stress levels. I must admit I have found it hard sometimes to make time for crochet, but I always notice a difference in myself when this happens. Just writing this article has motivated me to pick up my hook and ball of yarn again and decide to make something new.

Although research is not yet certain whether crochet can be used as art therapy, I would argue all of the evidence above and my personal experience suggests that it can. Whilst the activity of crochet itself might not be for everyone, I hope this proves to you the importance of taking part in an activity that is cognitively stimulating and can induce the flow experience. Go forth and craft.

Feature image credit: Karen Penroz on Unsplash

Image credit: Emilia Griffin