People often think of manual activities like woodwork or basketry as being separate from more ‘cerebral’ pursuits like writing or playing chess, but research shows that taking part in even a small amount of manual activity can have a massively positive impact on both brain function and well-being.
An enormous part of our brain is linked to controlling our hands, so when you use your hands to perform a complex task, it's a great way if giving your brain a workout. Learning a new variety of skills also increases the neuroplasticity of the brain, which means your brain gets better at learning, planning and making decisions - very useful attributes for the rest of your life. On top of all that, manual work, especially when coupled with nature, releases a complex cocktail of brain chemicals including dopamine, oxcytocin and serotonin, which can help us weather life's storms and ward off depression. The bottom line is that if you're going through a tough or stressful time, doing something with your hands can really help your brain cope.
The benefits of trying new creative skills
In 2019, the BBC undertook the largest study of its kind in partnership with UCL, with almost 50,000 people taking part. The Great British Creativity Test explored how creative activities can help us manage our mood and boost wellbeing.
The research found that trying a NEW creative activity is particularly good for our emotions and wellbeing. Crucially, it also showed that skill level isn't important. There are many people out there who think they 'aren't creative', but they benefit from making things just as much as highly skilled people. It really is the taking part that counts.
The findings also revealed that we get emotional benefits from even a single session of creativity and there are cumulative benefits from regular engagement. If that doesn't encourage you to get started on your course, nothing will!
To understand more, we spoke to Dr. Kelly Lambert, a brilliant neuroscientist from America who’s spent much of her career researching the many ways that working with your hands can have an amazingly positive effect on the health of your brain.
Here’s what Dr. Lambert had to say:
Dr. Lambert is fantastic to have you with us. Why don’t you just start by telling us a bit about your work?
‘So I am a behavioural neuroscientist and professor here at the University of Richmond in Virginia and the US. And we use animal models to try to understand aspects of human mental conditions such as depression and anxiety. So we're trying to understand how the brain can thrive and be healthy.’
What made you start looking into the links between doing stuff with your hands and the well-being of the brain?
‘A couple of things, I was working on a textbook, clinical neuroscience, where we were trying to look at the biological basis of mental illness.
I was writing the depression chapter, and I became frustrated…We certainly have a pharmaceutical tools to treat depression. We have drugs and they have played some role. But when you really dive into the literature, the percentage the efficacy rate of antidepressants is disappointing, it is sometimes little better than a placebo. Don’t get me wrong, we'll take all we can get, but the success rates are disappointing.”
Something you've also said is that despite the fact that there’s a multibillion dollar pharmaceuticals industry around depression, numbers of cases of depression just keep rising every year…
“Right. And if you look at other treatments for other medical conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, death rates are decreasing - we seem to be getting better with those. We tend to think the brain doesn't act in the same way as our heart or lungs, and it is different to some degree, but it's not mystical or magical. We really don't hold mental illness to the same standards. But it's interesting that in these other medical conditions, the pharmaceuticals and medical treatments seem to be working, we have the data to support that. However depression rates continue to rise, death by suicide is scarier than ever, especially with our young adults. So if the drugs help, why are the numbers not getting better that that is a mystery that I'm very interested in.
Something that you've said, when talking about the sort of limitations of antidepressants, was that is that it's hard to mimic nature. What do you what do you mean by that?
“So our brain is incredibly complex, and it has lots of parts, and it has lots of chemicals. So it makes sense to think that maybe some disruption of a chemical can lead to neural psychiatric illness, and especially neurological illness, which is different. For something like Parkinson's Disease it is a little bit easier to nail down exactly what's going on there and then treat it with drugs, but with depression, and just the way our brains work, all these neuro chemicals are firing at different rates and modulating each other.
I always tell my students: context matters! Most of the antidepressants target serotonin, which is involved in a lot of different functions in our brain, including mood regulation, but it’s also involved in temperature regulation and aggressive behaviour and sexual behaviour. So there's no real clear evidence when you walk into the doctor's office to determine that, oh, you have low serotonin levels, let's fix that for you by taking an antidepressant.
Now - I'm not a clinician. So I'm not saying if you're on these drugs to not take them, but I kind of look at it as a tow truck. So if your car breaks down, you can have a tow truck carry you around. But you really don't want to do that, you want to be able to drive your own car - to have the agency the autonomy to do that. And what we do see with a long-term use of these drugs, it seems like we're not getting out of the tow truck situation.
So it is complicated. And again, I'm not saying that we should show throw the drugs out, but at the very least, we need to include lifestyle. What can I do through exercise or using cognitive behavioural therapy or learning a new hobby so that the brain can start to take charge, and have a sense of agency and control again. If you had diabetes, a physician would never say, oh, take this insulin without having a conversation about your lifestyle, what you're eating, your diet and your exercise, because it all goes together.
You've said we view the brain as being a thinking organ, but it's actually mostly an organ that controls movement. How is how is that relevant to treating a condition like depression?
“In my latest book, Well Grounded, I kind of asked this question and it has multiple functions. At one level, it's taking care of our bodies, kind of the physical operations plant, maintaining our heart rate, and our hormonal secretions and muscle tone and such. But also, it's this information processing organ that's bringing in sensory information to allow us to make the best decisions. And we can talk about that as well. But when I went back to the Blackboard of the brain to think about depression, and you just map out the real estate of the brain, well one clue is what are the parts doing? And there's one area that is called the cerebellum, which literally means a little brain and hangs off the back of our brains. Most of our neurons are actually in this area called the cerebellum - like 78% of our neurons are there. So this tells us this is an important area
So if you look across the brain, most of the real estate is devoted to movement. But boy, have we changed in less than 100 years. Now we're perfectly happy sitting in front of screens. But if our brains evolved to move, to coordinate movement, to really be in synchrony with our environment, physical environment and real social environment, this seems like a step backward.
I always tell my students that we're accountable for the environments, and the lifestyles that we put our brains in, our brains are changing from the womb to the tomb. So that gives us the responsibility to make sure we're putting it in a healthy environment.”
Yeah, because for 1000s of years, basically, everyone made a living to an extent by doing something with their hands…
“Right. And, and I would argue that perhaps even our ancestors were using hands more than sitting in an office being informational
experts, that they're probably using their brains more than we do now. But, but I have thought about prosperity, and it's interesting, and the culture that I'm living in, the more prosperous someone is, that's kind of connected to the idea that you have enough money to pay someone to do things for you. So going to restaurants and paying someone to cook for me, maybe someone, you pay someone to clean your house or to do your lawn, your yard work, to make your clothes. And that makes us feel like we we've made it because we don't have to do that. But the brain being an information processing machine, is losing out.”
Why is using your hands specifically so good for the brain?
“One thing that I should say that's very important, is that motor cortex that I talked about that is involved in the movement of different areas of our body, a huge proportion of it is related to our hands. So we're activating more of our brain by using our hands than other parts of the body. Our entire back or legs, are controlled by such a small proportion of the brain compared to our hands. So yeah, so you're activating more of the brain by using your hands. The way real estate in the brain is divided up is telling us that evolution has invested in our hands, so that we can manipulate the environment. We can use our hands to create shelter, clothing, food, to survive. So that's an important part of our existence and our success.”
And do you think we sort of give that up at our peril, to a degree?
“Yeah, I call this the contingency conundrum - that we've used our brains in the best way possible to be creative and think of new ideas. And what we have done is created a world where we don't have to use our brains very much… We sit at the beach in our chair and have people bring us things. And maybe we don't have to use our brain so much. So we're in an interesting experiment, we are using our bodies less, so maybe our brains are going to downsize become smaller, our ability to problem solve may become compromised. So that that's an interesting question. We've used our incredible brains to create a world where we don't have to use our brains, which will therefore compromise our brains. That’s kind of depressing.”
How does doing this kind of creative manual behaviour change neuroplasticity in the brain, and sort of affect your wider abilities on decision making and planning?
“So as I mentioned there is a thing called neuroplasticity, we now know that we create new neurons throughout our lives, we build new connections. There's something about exploring something new that seems to be incredibly satisfying for the brain. Creativity, doing something new is good to get ourselves out of a funk and increases neuroplasticity so the brain can start to reconfigure and recalibrate for some new experience”
But can that also affect your kind of wider ability to make decisions to plan and make things happen?
“Absolutely, because if you're doing something new, you're building new circuits. So it's just expanding our neural and mental horizon and giving us more equipment, resources to deal with what life gives us. And it just gives us a healthier brain as well.”