Tag: neuroscience

Happy Friday! 0


Since the current state of knitting here at Chez Knit Potion is mostly my looking longingly at my WIPs while I remind myself to get back to work, I thought I’d take a page out of last week’s book and share some of the  fun links I’ve come across online over the last few days.

The number one best discovery has to be The Secret History of Knitting.



I found this documentary by reading a post on Little Golden Notebook (another new-to-me knitting blog that’s full of interesting stuff). If you’re a knitter, the film is big fun to watch. It’s loaded with great visuals, and while most of the knitting highlights are things I was familiar with, there are a few surprises. There is actually a pretty convincing explanation of the origin of the Kitchener Stitch, one with more detail than I’d heard before (would love to know the source of their info), and there is a fascinating section on the secret codes women stitched into their knitting to pass along details of railway activities to the Belgian Resistance during WWII. In addition, there are interviews with knitting superstars and a satisfying overview of the ups and downs of knitting for the last thousand years or so. It’s thoroughly enjoyable.

The number two interesting thing was a post on the UK Hand Knitting blog about scrap yarn. Apparently, it was the thing the most knitters absolutely wouldn’t be without in their knitting kits. I’ve used scrap yarn for all of the things mentioned, but it was fun to see the run-down and, of course, the yarny pictures.

And in the news . . . I enjoyed this article about how a run on handknit Icelandic woollen sweaters is causing a knitting wool shortage in Iceland! And this one about a jaw dropping, knitted field of poppies created for the Chelsea Flower Show in the UK.

Finally, do you know about Twiddle Muffs? This is the article that sparked my interest. Twiddle muffs (or twiddlemuffs) are hand muffs with interesting textures and attached bobbles, and they are said to have a soothing effect on people suffering from dementia. It’s apparently common for those afflicted with Alzheimer’s and similar conditions to need something to do with their hands. Having a plush muff with buttons, ribbons, zippers, and other small points of tactile interest to run their fingers over helps keep their hands busy which makes them more at ease overall.

I had never heard of such a thing, but it makes a lot of sense, especially in light of what I’ve seen myself in a few people close to me. There are a number of free patterns online including these:

http://www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/twiddle-muff (crochet)

For anyone who’d like to knit for charity but hasn’t found the right project or for those who have someone close to them who is in need, this might be just the thing. I will definitely be making a few.

In the meantime, it’s back to work and fitting in my knitting where I can.


Happy weekend, my knitters!

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Knit, Read, Work, Knit, Knit 2

Being absolutely buried in work makes me want to knit and read more than ever. That’s a problem for obvious reasons. I do what I can. Sometimes, I even carry my knitting from room to room, just in case there’s an open moment for a row or two. That happened when I had to wait half an hour for my proctored online Anatomy final to start.


I connected at the appointed time and then sat there waiting for the proctor to do her thing. Definitely not the smoothest test taking experience I’ve ever had. It meant progress on the Crystal Palace yarn sweater, though.

It’s coming along nicely even though I’ve just been able to work on it in fits and starts.


I went to a doctor’s appointment with my dad earlier this week and got to knit in the waiting room. I wore Gramps, by the way, and LOVED it!

And there’s been brain dead, end-of-the-day, knit-and-snuggle knitting.


On the reading front, I’ve just finished a short book called How To Stay Sane by Philippa Perry. I can definitely recommend it. It’s written in the style of a self help book without any of the hype or gimmicks. It’s a psychotherapist’s straightforward recommendations on the best way to live without either letting the world drive you crazy or shutting down in order to shut the world out. It has a plenty detailed but refreshingly informal presentation style that makes reading it enjoyable, like talking with a smart friend.

My favorite section is the one on self-observation. Perry says, “Even after our left brains have developed to give us the powers of language and logic, reasoning and mathematics, we continue to be ruled by the mammalian right brain. It turns out that we are unable to make any decision without emotions. . . .” She cites research to support this and makes the fascinating statement that while

We live in a so-called ‘age of reason’ . . . many of our ideas, feelings and actions come from the right brain, while the left brain makes up reasons for those ideas, feelings and actions retrospectively. Every war might only be the playing out of an old dispute that happened in the nursery, for which the leader concerned is still trying to find a resolution.

Perry’s point is that self-observation gives us the leverage we need to have some choice in the matter, to actually take responsibility for our actions. The book is only about 150 pages long, but it is well documented if you want to know more about any of Perry’s research, and it includes exercises to help you implement the strategies she describes. And guess what. The section on the importance of learning for combatting stress  includes an illustration of a man knitting.


  Illustration by Marcia Mihotich (How to Stay Sane, page 77)


Coincidence? I think not.

I’ll sign off today with a picture of our ridiculously cute house guest. She’ll be with us through the weekend. Happy Friday, knitting friends!


Ride a painted pony, let the spinnin’ wheel fly . . . 3

Spinzilla is underway! Since Sunday, it’s been pretty much all working and spinning around here.

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I decided to start the week off with 12 ounces of alpaca/BFL I got from our friends whose farm we visited for Alpaca Days a couple of weeks ago. What a pleasure to spin! It drafts incredibly easily and is oh so soft.

This was what I ended up with on day one. It’s a little over 6 ounces of singles.

Spinzilla Day 1

On day two, with a lot of help from Lola and Rasta, I finished turning the rest of the 12 ounces of roving into singles.

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Today, I ply! I can’t wait to see how this turns out. I’m thinking I’ll end up with a sport weight yarn that wants to be mittens or maybe a scarf.

The weather has been gorgeous with lots of welcome sunshine after all the days of rain we’ve had recently, so even though I’m trying to spend every spare second at my wheel, I made time for a walk yesterday afternoon.

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I think this might be Blade’s first appearance on the blog. He’s had some health issues lately, so we haven’t been on a good long walk for a couple of weeks. This one made us both very happy.

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While I’ve been spinning, I’ve been listening to podcasts and watching a lot of TV. I even put my Elizabeth Zimmermann DVDs in the line up. It’s so  nice to spin along while she talks about the poor dear pearl stitch and the tragic consequences of ignoring gauge. It feels like any second she’s going to reach out from the screen and give me an encouraging little pat on the back. She’s the coolest.

At some point during my fiber media fest (can’t remember exactly when and where), I learned about Neural Knitworks. Have you heard of it?

It’s a project connected to Australia’s National Science Week. They ask people to knit neurons, and then groups of these textile neurons are put together to make what the organizers call “soft sculptural representations of the brain.” The point of the whole thing is to highlight the ways “Yarn craft, with its mental challenges, social connection and mindfulness, helps keep our brains fit.” The quote is from the Neural Knitworks Facebook page.

It’s a great idea, but what’s most interesting if you’re not an Australian school child, is how the project is serving as a kind of information hub for neuroscience news. The Facebook page is the best place to look for this. If you’re curious about how the brain works and how this ties into knitting, definitely give it a visit. There are links to everything from relevant TED talks to representations of the brain in textile art.

“dirty little secrets about writing” 2

Knit Potion the blog is about knitting. However, given that knitting leads to thinking and thinking to knitting, it seems fair to feature the occasional eureka moment related more to thinking than knitting. Or something. Please imagine a graceful transition to the following . . . or take this opportunity to move on, but be sure to come back tomorrow for pictures of CeCe and the Calligraphy cardigan.

As you probably know by now, I’m obsessed with the way the brain works. A big realization for me as I approach the half century mark has been that the conscious mind is not infallible and that it can’t be one’s sole resource for navigating life. Saying it like this, it sounds absurd. Would someone really believe that? I’m here to tell you, someone really would.

Let’s have an example. Experience has shown me that practicing yoga helps me live a happy life. For as long as I’ve been doing yoga, though, I’ve had to fight the tendency to prioritize other things. When the time comes to stop working, grab my mat, and head out the door, I often think, “at this moment it’s more important that I make progress on this work thing than that I take an hour and a half to go bend and stretch.” For a long time, when I made the mental checklist, the work thing or some other thing often won out over yoga. But here’s the kicker. What slowly began to sink in was that yoga helps me in ways I don’t understand. There are benefits in the yoga column of that checklist that I can’t name or even access intellectually. I now do yoga because I know from experience that it’s important, not because I fully understand why.

Learning to spin showed me again that in some cases you have to quit thinking and start doing to get where you want to go, that reason alone might not be up to every task. I had to hit the pause button on my conscious mind and let my hands and body and my broader awareness figure things out. This realization didn’t come easily. I fought it for at least a year before Abby Franquemont’s exhortation that “the stuff you need to learn now about spinning isn’t in your brain, but in your hands” convinced me to quit trying to think my way into being a good spinner and start spinning my way into better spinning.

All of this has been gradually dawning on me, and the more I learn about the way the brain works, the more it all makes sense. We discount the overwhelming proportion of brain activity that occurs beyond consciousness at our peril. Books like Gonzales’s Surviving Survival and Richtel’s A Deadly Wandering shine a light on the dangers of assuming everything is within our conscious control.

Richtel talks about the radar operators in World War II whose job was to watch the radar screen for blips. Sometimes they made mistakes. Richtel says, “If you misread the radar screen, got distracted, fell asleep, well, people died. Villages burned. Without being too hyperbolic: Battles were won and lost, and wars, too.” These were highly intelligent, seriously motivated people, but time and again they failed to see what was right in front of their eyes. How was this happening? As Richtel goes on to explain, “They were running up against the limits of their own brains.”

And Gonzales’s shark attack survivor—she remained unable to function as long as she tried to reason her way beyond her “irrational” fears. These fears weren’t coming from her conscious mind, so the conscious mind was powerless to address them. If she had continued to assume that her ability to react, to focus, to understand was boundless and that she just wasn’t trying hard enough, she’d have been dooming herself to a lifetime of misery she had no way to combat. To move forward she had to recognize that the conscious brain is just the tip of the iceberg where human experience is concerned.

Here’s another great big honking implication of acknowledging that there are limits to our conscious understanding. It frees us from holding ourselves and other people accountable for everything. If I believe my husband has complete control over his attention and that his conscious mind is infinitely capable, then when he forgets to put the cutting board away and clean up the crumbs after he makes a sandwich, I have to think that he just isn’t trying hard enough to remember; or when we’re talking and he insists on what I think is a skewed approach to things, I have to assume he’s just being willfully contentious. I start to become annoyed because I think he’s choosing to be argumentative or disregard something important to me. In some cases, he might be, who knows—but in many many cases, brain science is teaching us it’s more likely that he isn’t. His conscious mind, like mine, simply works imperfectly. Being able to let my sweet husband off the hook, to imagine that perhaps he didn’t intentionally set out to frustrate me, is huge. This awareness lets me be kinder and more accepting of my family and my friends and of the guy who cut me off in traffic . . . And even of myself. Realizing that I can’t always know everything perfectly and fully and that sometimes it takes time, sleep, new info or perspective or a good meal or some knitting for my brain and body to make sense of something. . . . well, that helps me live more successfully and certainly more happily.

So . . . the occasion for my aha moment this this time around was an article I came across on writing, “How Writing Leads to Thinking,” by the historian Lynn Hunt. Hunt’s interest is in how relying on the conscious mind to map everything out ahead of time can actually prevent you from writing rather than help you to do it. If we assume our ability to think our way through things is absolute and we wait for this thinking through to be complete before we begin to write, we’re stuck. Whether we’re blogging, writing an email, or preparing a report for work, waiting until we’ve formulated everything we want to say before we start is deadly.

Hunt says of herself that “writing is not the transcription of thoughts already consciously present in my mind. Writing is a magical and mysterious process that makes it possible to think differently.” She elaborates on this idea:

. . . the process of writing itself leads to previously unthought thoughts. Or to be more precise, writing crystallizes previously half-formulated or unformulated thoughts, gives them form, and extends chains of thoughts in new directions. Neuroscience has shown that 95 percent of brain activity is unconscious. My guess about what happens is that by physically writing . . . you set a process literally into motion, a kind of shifting series of triangulations between fingers, blank pages or screens, letters and words, eyes, synapses or other “neural instantiations,” not to mention guts and bladders. By writing, in other words, you are literally firing up your brain and therefore stirring up your conscious thoughts and something new emerges. You are not, or at least not always, transcribing something already present in your conscious thoughts.

Again, we’re talking about the limits of the conscious brain. It’s not a matter of thinking and then writing down what you’ve thought. Thinking doesn’t lead to writing. Writing leads to writing.

Hunt describes what she calls one of the “dirtiest of the dirty little secrets about writing” when she explains how trying to think through everything before you begin leads to perpetual delay:

Everything about history and life itself is potentially infinite (except one’s life span, unfortunately). There is always another document that could have been consulted, just as there is always another fact about a friend or partner that if you knew would make you understand her or him better. But life is short and if you want to write more than a dissertation or one book or two books and so on, you have to limit yourself to what can be done in a certain time frame. You cannot accumulate pages if you constantly second guess yourself. You have to second guess yourself just enough to make constant revision productive and not debilitating. You have to believe that clarity is going to come, not all at once, and certainly not before you write, but eventually, if you work at it hard enough, it will come. Thought does emerge from writing. Something ineffable happens when you write down a thought. You think something you did not know you could or would think and it leads you to another thought almost unbidden.

That right there is truth. If I’d realized it when I was not writing my dissertation, it might have helped. For better or worse, the conscious mind is not infinitely able. If it’s important to do a thing, start doing it. Now. Clarity will come, eventually.

Realizing this freaks me out a little. You mean I can’t figure out all the things right this minute?! You mean just jump in and start writing without knowing what I want to say?! You mean go to yoga even though I don’t understand exactly why it does me so much good? knit even though I don’t know why it’s so sustaining? Why, yes. That’s what I mean.

Sunday 3

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The wedding afghan is off the needles, and I proclaim it a good knit. It was interesting without requiring a lot of concentration, and I like the finished blanket. And even though I used a wool/acrylic blend (I worry about gifting 100% wool for something that might require regular washing), the feel of it is very nice, kind of heavy and drapey. Plus, I got to try out a new technique for joining yarn—the magic knot. I’ve been searching for a good way to join slicker yarns, and a knitting friend suggested I try this method. It’s perfect! The join is very secure and hardly noticeable at all. Here’s a video that shows how to do it. I can’t wait to use it the next time I’m doing colorwork because it completely eliminates the need to weave in ends!


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In other news, I made a second galette. It turned out much prettier than the first and just as tasty. I think I’m hooked.


Galette No 2


And during the day today, I sat outside on the porch and worked on work and the second stripey sock. It seemed like a fair arrangement, and I was certainly a happier worker than I would have been sans stripey sock.


Sunday Work


The next thing I need to decide on the knitting front is what to start as a travel project. We’ll be in the car for half a day going to and from the upcoming wedding. I’m considering the Pi Shawl (which I’ve wanted to knit forevahhhh) in some gorgeous unspun Icelandic, Citron in Malabrigo Lace in the “Amor Intenso” colorway, and the Churchmouse Easy Folded Poncho in Rowan Felted Tweed in “Maritime.” I’ve got the yarn for all of these so just need to decide which will complement CeCe to make the best travel combo. I actually cast on for CeCe on Friday night. Woohooo!

The other thing I did this weekend was finish listening to the audiobook version of A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention. The book is by Matt Richtel, who won a Pulitzer for the reporting he did on distracted driving, and I think it’s an absolutely essential read. It explains recent findings in neuroscience that are in the same league as what Laurance Gonzales presents in terms of scope and impact. The fascinating bottom line is that our ability to pay attention is not unlimited. Who knew???

Research is showing that no matter how smart you are or how hard you try, if you are human, you simply cannot pay attention to two things at once. You can go back and forth, but as Richtel shows, that is not at all the same thing. The anchor for the book is the story of Reggie Shaw, a 19-year-old whose texting while driving resulted in a wreck that killed two rocket scientists. In telling Reggie’s story, the book covers the science of attention going all the way back to World War II and stretching forward up to the moment the book was published in 2014. It’s a great read, and it reveals things about the way the brain works that blew me away.

And last but not least, weekend news revealed this. Whew!

The Frog And The Rat 4

Surviving Survival 2

One of the most amazing things about reading happens when you come upon a passage that puts into words one of your personal truths. You know those times? When things you know in your bones but have never had the language to articulate are suddenly there on the page?

When you find a book that gives you these words and that also teaches you something more—well, that’s a rare thing. I’ve been reading such a book. It’s Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience, by Laurence Gonzales. I’m telling you this right now, today, because I’m afraid if I don’t, I might end up so overwhelmed by the whole experience that I won’t post about it at all.

I have no doubt that I’ll be thinking about this book for the rest of my life. I want to read it over and over. I want to copy down every word by hand to help it stick in my brain. I want everyone I know and love to read it so we can talk about it. I want to stop everything and study neuroscience so I can learn more about the things the author describes. I want to meet all the people he interviews and ask them questions.

Some of the ideas at the center of this book are things I’ve talked about before. They have to do with how activities like knitting affect the brain. This is a popular topic lately. It seems like every week there’s a new article encouraging people to knit to improve their health and happiness. Most of these articles are vague about exactly how the helping occurs, though. What Gonzales does is explain in detail some of the research that shows what goes on in our brains when we do certain things and why doing these  things (knitting, walking, writing, traveling . . . ) becomes the vessel that can carry people forward when trauma (or a neurological imbalance) turns their world upside down. His examples are of people who have survived extreme trauma, who have had near-death experiences like being attacked by a shark or terrorized by a lunatic or living through a shipwreck, but the conclusions have implications for everyone.

One of the main things I’ve gotten from the book is a sense of how much of what we feel and do is determined beyond conscious thought. It appears that to understand how resilience works, you have to acknowledge this.

Despite my best efforts to go with the flow and follow my intuition and let the spirit move me, I want to think my way through everything. Not understanding why something has the effects it does is a real hurdle for me. I’m comfortable when things make logical sense. I like to be in the know. As I’ve begun to get more and more out of knitting (and spinning) over the last years, I’ve thought and thought about this, about how hard it is for me to just accept that something helps and go with it without understanding what’s going on behind the curtain. Sometimes I wonder if this goes back to the fact that my brain has taken me so many of the places I’ve really wanted to go. I’m not used to doing things just because. Thinking and reasoning have saved me, and my impulse is still, always, to dance with the ones who brung me. This – despite the fact that knitting saves me too, every day.

Reading this book has changed my perspective. Gonzales has convinced me, “How much more we know than we can ever know we know.”

I can imagine that this all seems pretty sketchy, but the book is not sketchy. It’s very specific, and that’s what makes it so compelling. Gonzales talks about what scientists call the brain’s “rage” and “seeking” pathways; he talks about the amygdala and the striatum, the hippocampus, mirror neurons, and the hypnagogic state. He looks at the role the primitive parts of the brain play in who we are and what we do. He explains that we have a “triune brain,” sort of like a three-scoop ice cream cone. The first small scoop is our reptile (or frog) brain; the second bigger scoop is similar to what mammals like dogs and cats and rats have; and the third scoop is our huge human neocortex. And while a lot of us tend to think of ourselves as operating almost exclusively from the third scoop, we don’t! The frog brain and the rat brain are seriously involved in almost everything we do.

To explain this, Gonzales gives an example. We have the same midbrain visual system that a frog has. We don’t use it for seeing, only for orienting ourselves in the right direction. However, people who have gone blind because of a brain injury, whose eyes themselves are undamaged, are able to pinpoint a light in a darkened room even though they aren’t aware of being able to detect light through their eyes. Their ability to accurately point out the light comes from the frog brain. It still works even though our conscious mind isn’t aware of processing visual input. Gonzales follows this example by saying: “So here is why we are tormented in the aftermath of trauma. Because we have a frog and a rat in our brain. But that is also one reason we have a sixth sense. The frog and the rat are always watching out for us.”

To make sense of why the frog and the rat torment us AND can save us, you must read this book. I can’t do the full explanation justice, but it is life changing. Gonzales explains clearly and eloquently the role the frog and the rat play in our lives and how something like knitting can quite literally save a life.

Surviving Survival