Are you paying attention? Your brain is.

The workshop was a long one – three days to be exact.  It was now day 2 and the expensive presenter was very visibly annoyed.  She had publicly admonished one of the attendees by accusing  her of not paying attention. 

As the organizer of the weekend event, I was feeling anxious over that exchange. This was a nationally recognized speaker and I did not want any glitches.

The crime? The attendee was knitting.  

She put down the knitting needles, of course, after being called out from the stage. Afterward, she offered to apologize and explained that she could listen better if her hands were moving.

She was right

Child psychiatrist and neuroscientist Dr. Bruce Perry* has done extensive work in how the brain receives and processes information.  He co-wrote What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience and Healing with Oprah Winfrey.  It is a fascinating read.

He explains that the brain works in sequence.

Dr. Perry says, “We have a set of core regulatory networks (CRNs), or neural systems, originating in the lower parts of the brain and spreading throughout the whole brain, that work together to keep us regulated in the face of various stressors.”

Inputs from our five senses (what we hear, see, smell, taste and touch) and from inside our body (like hunger) filter through the brainstem first. Overstimulation blocks the flow and paying attention becomes difficult. 

Before inputs arrive at the cortex, they must move through our regulating systems. The cortex is where logic and learning take place. That’s where we think and ideas occur.  Our creativity lives here.

And this is where knitting comes in.

We self-regulate with rhythm

Activities that provide rhythm, like knitting, coloring, walking, dancing, even playing on the swing at the playground will induce calm.  That’s why sitting by the ocean is so relaxing; the waves beat in a rhythm.

Rhythms are thought to mimic a mother’s heartbeat. This is a sound so visceral and basic that the familiarity soothes us. It calms the brainstem and allows the inputs to flow. 

The cortex can then receive information and do its work: to think, to create, and to process our thoughts. When paying attention is difficult, add rhythm.

Rhythm gives our overloaded brainstems a break.  

It’s too much!

Ever stare at a blank piece of paper with no idea where to begin?  Chances are good that you don’t realize you’re overloaded with input because it’s such an integral part of our lives. 

Like water to a fish, we’re swimming in it.

Simultaneous noise from the refrigerator, dialogue from the TV in the next room, and the bustling background traffic is all input. Add to that 97 open browser tabs while we look for a pen under our scattered papers. And on top of that, we’re hungry and need to go to the bathroom.  

To our brain, it’s all input. It’s too much! We were not evolved for this.

The information we need has a really hard time getting through the brainstem to the cortex.  

No wonder we feel overwhelmed!

How to move past it? 

The classic advice “go for a walk” means we move step after step after step after step. It works really well.  So does knitting. So does dancing. So does coloring.  Any activity that mimics the rhythms of our prenatal experience will calm us.

The sounds of nature, birds tweeting, the trees swaying in the breeze, the water lapping the shore by the lake; that is the world we were evolved to occupy.  Not the frenetic stimulation that currently surrounds us. 

Whew! Time for a break!

I think I’ll go sit on the deck and crochet.  

What favorite activity calms your brain? Please share!

*for more on Dr. Perry’s work, go here.  For more cool facts on brain science, go here.

4 Replies to "Are you paying attention? Your brain is."

  • Greta
    June 17, 2021 (2:22 pm)

    I totally agree with this knitter – I pieced an entire quilt one year in my college classes!

    • Debra
      June 17, 2021 (3:36 pm)

      College is so stressful. What a great way to manage the pent-up anxiety – and (bonus!) a useful object to last you the rest of your life! Good thing your professor was so tolerant!

  • Karen
    June 17, 2021 (4:08 pm)

    I’ve watched knitters at meetings. They don’t seem to miss a word. “Busy hands” help, they say. They’ve been knitting for so many years that their muscles know what to do; it’s automatic, sometimes mindless, like breathing. You know, “what you said.” My own weaving calms me down, opens me up to paying attention.. Thanks for that science-backed and interesting insight.

    • Debra
      June 17, 2021 (5:03 pm)

      Yes! Like breathing! Rhythmic… brainstem stuff. That book opened my eyes to a lot of what I do to keep sane.
      So glad you enjoyed this post.

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