There is some debate still about whether there is a distinctive division between our right brain and our left. But most experts agree that each half of your brain bears the larger portion for certain mental tasks. And sewing? Sewing allows you to tackle both. It’s basically the perfect activity for long-term brain health.
Most of us rely on our left brain for the bulk of our daily tasks. The language processing centers of the left brain allow us to interpret what we hear and organize our thoughts when we speak. The left brain is also in charge of analysis, mathematical computation, and recalling memorized facts. Our modern tech-driven society strongly rewards the skills performed by the left brain, and our educational system is largely based around emphasizing and amplifying those skills.
The right brain, on the other hand, is generally seen as the creative center. This is where we process spatial relationships, where we recognize faces, where we make sense of what we see. The right brain does rough estimates, but not real math. It interprets vocal tone and verbal context, but doesn’t process whole language. This is where music lives, and art and color.
It isn’t that the left brain only does these things or that they’re only done by the left brain, but that the majority of these tasks are taken over by this part of the brain, and those of us who rely on those skills for our work or personal interactions value them more highly than the tasks that the right brain specializes in. But as a culture, and at least in theory, the right brain activities are the ones we promote as being those worth celebrating: our composers, our painters, our sculptors, our designers. It is those who create who WOW us with their skill, and the tasks they pursue fall under the heading of the right brain.
Or do they?
I’m going to say out loud what I think those of us who sew understand intuitively: we don’t celebrate our Great Artists because they use their right brain and the rest of us don’t. We celebrate our Great Artists because they use BOTH sides of their brain, and the WOW factor comes from a recognition by the rest of us that integrating the skills from both hemispheres is the true accomplishment. What we who sew know, too, is that sewing is one of the most accessible tasks that allows us, on a daily basis, to tap into that same integration and reap the benefits of utilizing our whole brain.
According to one source, we use the left side of our brain almost 85% of the day. We use it to process, sort, analyze, and interpret information; to communicate, in both spoken and written language; and to receive the constant flow of information from the world around us. Over time, the left brain maxes out, though, and can’t process more information–but our world offers very few opportunities to ameliorate the pressure by switching to our right brain as a release valve. Because we celebrate our Great Artists so highly, many of us have been taught that ONLY Great Artists can do Real Art, meaning we have very limited access to creative pursuits as a means of healing the pressure put on our brains in modern society.
Sewing, though, gives us a chance to tap into that right brain. It recharges the battery drained by the activities of the left brain, and allows us to reach a state of calm that relieves anxiety and can even treat depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or chronic pain. It is inexpensive, simple to get started, and offers us a wide array of tasks and styles that can grow with us throughout our lives. There is a constant state of discovery that goes along with sewing, which can encourage all the benefits of right brain/left brain integration for the long-term.
Bringing the right and left sides of the brain together has an exceptional overall impact on your mental well-being. Sewing does that, in spades. Working with a pattern? You’re using hard math and spatial skills at the same time. Figuring out how pieces of a quilt block go together? You’re utilizing both geometry and color sense. Sewing a seam? You’re using visual recognition and processing feedback from the machine. Reading a project tutorial? You’re using language skills while tapping into your creative center.
Much research has focused on how sewing and crafting force us to a greater level of mindfulness, which brings along a new sense of calm and a reduction in anxiety levels. My suggestion is that all those effects are the direct result of the integration of the two halves of your brain function–more specifically, that the pressure our modern world places on your left brain is reduced when we have the chance to tap into our right brain by making. It allows us to tap into FLOW, that mental space that allows us to become fully immersed in what we’re doing in the moment, and let our other worries float away temporarily–and when we return to Real Life, those worries seem to be placed in better perspective and have less impact on our stress levels than they might have otherwise.
We have so few opportunities in our current culture that open up the potential of our right brain in the tangible way that sewing does (I include quilting, knitting and crochet in all these examples, as they are equally tactile and concrete). Some studies even indicate that sewing may offer not just meditation-like benefits, but may also decrease the odds of age-related cognitive impairment.
When I tell people constantly and passionately that SEWING WILL MAKE YOUR LIFE BETTER, I mean it very, very literally: the activities that sewing requires, particularly as you seek to improve and expand your skills, literally improve your life TODAY and IN THE FUTURE. Sewing welcomes us in by being familiar, tapping into our language and (even the most rudimentary and painful) math skills, giving us an on-ramp to creativity. That’s when the right brain is activated and allowed to come into play, siphoning off the stress and anxiety and pressure caused by modern life, and giving us a rare and blissful chance to recharge our batteries and renew our mental state.
I hope that as you sew, you will think of NONE OF THIS, but instead find yourself refreshed and renewed and immersed in a peaceful activity that, even when it makes us rip out our hair and our stitches, takes us away from the stresses of our everyday–and makes us better for every tomorrow.
REFERENCES AND RESOURCES FOR MORE READING:
The basics of right brain/left brain research
The benefits of crafting on the brain, from CNN
Is happiness really all about using your right brain? Maybe.
Discussion of the theory of “lateralization,” completing different tasks in each region of the brain
A neuroscientist’s view of how crafting improves brain health
Dr. Mercola talks about the benefits of knitting–and it all applies to sewing, too
Read what Gertie’s commenters had to say about their own left brain/right brain divide.