For ten years I worked as a war reporter in the world's most hostile places. I covered famines, civil wars, revolutions and a genocide. I was grazed by a bullet in Libya, nearly kidnapped in Syria and I also had a game of ping pong with Al-Qaeda. By the summer of 2018, I was ready for a break.
I decided to take a couple of months off and try to fulfil an old childhood dream of building a wooden boat. Then something unexpected happened - the experience transformed my mental health.
As soon as my hands touched the tools, I just felt deeply, profoundly better, and by the end of the process I was convinced that making things is a key missing ingredient to fulfilment that most of us aren't getting.
Soon afterwards I decided to start a company to encourage other people to get started.
Why did starting to make things transform my life?
I've been doing some digging and I think the answer begins with the fact that these days many of us are 'knowledge workers'.
We spend all our time absorbing, processing and reproducing information, and most of this work is digital and has no 'real' result that you can hold in your hands. Although I worked in war zones, most of the work I did was also digital. I would produce films that required thousands of hours of screen time to shoot an edit and once finished, they existed only on the internet.
Recent research in neuroscience suggests that this type of work may not give our brains what they need to feel happy. For aeons, human beings made everything they owned themselves, including all the tools they needed to survive. These objects could be touched and used, and our brains developed to derive self-esteem, purpose and a sense of personal power from making them.
Dr. Kelly Lambert is a brilliant neuroscientist from America who believes that one of the reasons levels of depression and anxiety keep rising every year around the world is that less and less people make things for themselves. In her amazing book, Lifting Depression: A Neuroscientist's Hands-On Approach to Activating Your Brain's Healing Power she argues that using our hands to make things is one of the best ways to give the brain what it needs to achieve all-round wellbeing.
"What revs up the crucial effort-driven rewards circuit—the fuel, if you will—is generated by doing certain types of physical activities, especially ones that involve your hands. It’s important that these actions produce a result you can see, feel, and touch, such as knitting a sweater or tending a garden. Such actions and their associated thoughts, plans and ultimate results change the physiology and chemical makeup of the effort-driven rewards circuit, activating it in an energised way. I call the emotional sense of well-being that results effort-driven rewards."
Dr Lambert also explains that 80% of the neurons in the brain are used to control movement, not thought, and that a large proportion of those neurons are linked to controlling the hands. This means that 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 - all very useful attributes for the rest of your life.
She also says that modern antidepressants tend to only target one brain chemical, which makes them quite a crude tool that doesn't always work better than a placebo.
Making things with your hands releases a complex cocktail of brain chemicals including dopamine, oxcytocin and serotonin that provoke a more profound feeling of wellbeing:
"Effort-driven rewards and other real-world interactive experiences generate much more intense and pervasive reactions in your brain than the neurochemical alterations produced by a single pill. The result? You begin to feel more control over your environment and more connected to the world around you. This reduces stress and anxiety and, most important, builds resilience against the onset of depression."
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 you'd like some advice on how to get started check out our blogs on how to get started with basketweaving, how to get started with wood whittling and six great baskets you can learn to weave from home.
Dr. Lambert kindly agreed to speak to us about her research, Here's what she said:
Dr. Lambert, tell us a bit about your work...
'I am a behavioural neuroscientist and professor here at the University of Richmond in Virginia and the USA. We use animal models to try to understand aspects of human mental conditions such as depression and anxiety. We're trying to understand how the brain can thrive and be healthy.’
What made you start looking into the links between doing things 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 have a huge ammount ot pharmaceutical tools to treat depression. We have many 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.
And it's interesting that in these medical conditions, the pharmaceuticals and medical treatments seem to be working. However depression rates continue to rise, death by suicide is scarier than ever, especially with our young adults. So if the drugs (anti-depressants) help, why are the numbers not getting better? 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, 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 you have low serotonin levels, and that this can be fixed 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 in the last 100 years our behaviours have changed a huge amount. 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, the way we live now 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.”
For tens of thousands of years, everyone made a living to an extent by doing something with their hands…
“Right, and I would argue that our ancestors who were using their hands instead of sitting in an office being informational experts, were probably using their brains more than we do now.
The other key thing is our ideas about prosperity. In the culture that I'm living in, prosperity is 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 you, maybe you pay someone to clean your house or to mow your lawn, do 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 prefers it when we do things for ourselves. It make the brain feel in charge and in control.
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'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 things with your hands 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”
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."