Working with Your Hands Is Good for Your Brain

September 10, 2019
Touching, feeling, molding, knitting, gardening, painting... all of these manual tasks are really good for your brain. Not only are they fun but they actually produce endorphins, reducing your stress and anxiety levels.

Working with your hands is a way of improving your mental health. Modeling clay, knitting, shaping, sculpting, sewing, gardening, and painting, among other activities, are wonderful ways to stimulate your brain. They’re also a great way to relieve stress, improve neuroplasticity, and work on your skills, concentration, and calmness.

The hand-brain connection is a crucial alliance for human beings. It creates a positive feedback loop that can really help you grow. This is something we’ve seen for decades, in both anthropology and psychology. That’s why it’s so important for children to learn manual skills and work on fine motor skills, as it’s good for their brains!

But we all know that when we become adults and don’t have as much time, we forget about the wonder of these manual activities. Unless it’s part of your work, you probably don’t do them. In fact, things such as phones and computers have made people write by hand less and less.

It’s true that many people know about the benefits of exercise, but most don’t think about their hands when they’re doing it. They’re extremely versatile and mobile and have a ton of creative potential. Actively using your hands for any kind of manual task can also boost your mood. Let’s delve deeper into this.

A woman hand-carving a wooden turtle.

Creativity and mental health

It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that we’ve reached a point in our society where manual labor is losing its value. Office jobs, think tanks, marketing, advertisement, engineering, economics, tech firms… These are all career paths that prioritize other types of skills, mostly on the intellectual side.

But there are also essential jobs such as construction, farming, car repair, plumbing, or electrician work that require a pair of skilled hands to solve problems for the rest of us and make sure we always have a good quality of life. What we’re trying to get at is that both intellectual and manual jobs are essential in our daily lives.

It’s also worth pointing out that a very interesting perspective on this is starting to take shape in neuropsychology. We need to get rid of this recent tendency to glorify intellectual over manual labor. In fact, completely doing away with manual tasks in our daily lives would be going against our own nature.

It can also be extremely good for you. Neuroscientist Dr. Kelly Lambert from the University of Richmond states that doing manual tasks can even reduce your risk of depression.

Working with your hands and mental health

Making tools is what allowed humans to become what we are today. That axis of eye, hand, and brain is a perfect intellectual and emotional “constellation” which can provide many benefits. So why are we neglecting this crucial part of our lives?

  • Sitting in front of your computer all day doesn’t count as working with your hands. Unclogging a drain doesn’t count either. We’re talking about something much deeper than that, something that requires you to use your neural connections and boost your neuroplasticity.
  • How do you do that? Creation and transformation. You should engage yourself in some kind of process that has a satisfying end result. Anything from sculpting, modeling clay, knitting, drawing, or just planting a flower can have a major, positive impact on your emotional life. 

Dr. Kelly Lambert says the same basic thing in her book, Lifting Depression: A Neuroscientist’s Hands-On Approach to Activating Your Brain’s Healing Power. The goal is to find manual tasks that light up your brain’s reward centers through cognitive effort, concentration, and the pleasure you get out of the task.

A person knitting something.

Effort, creation, and satisfaction: Neurochemistry that fights depression

Just to be clear: simply learning to model clay, sculpt, or knit isn’t going to make your depression go awayWorking with your hands is simply a catalyst, a way to change your brain chemistry. It’s a starting point to get yourself to a good place.

Combined with other things such as therapy, it can have some truly amazing effects. But let’s take a closer look at exactly what working with your hands can do for your brain:

  •  It changes your brain’s physiology and chemical response. Doing manual tasks releases serotonin and endorphins and reduce your levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone”.
  • Manual tasks can also improve your neuroplasticity by creating new pathways between neurons. That will help you keep your brain young and healthy for longer.
  • As Dr. Robin Hurley from Baylor University explained, manual tasks that are significant for patients (playing an instrument, painting, etc.) can even help deal with the effects of chronic stress. That’s important because it means they’ll be more receptive and relaxed as they confront their depression.

Before we go, we want to clear up another point. Not all manual tasks are beneficial. For example, if you work in a factory, the repetitiveness of the activities you do won’t provide any benefits. The key is finding something that sparks your curiosity, passion, and interest.

Find a manual task that satisfies you, pushes you, and also relaxes you. Try to find the “flow” that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has talked so much about, the state of mind where the world stops and you’re completely in tune with yourself, fully involved in the creative process. Few things are as satisfying as that.

  • Heuninckx, S., Wenderoth, L., & Swinnen, S. (2008). Systems Neuroplasticity in the Aging Brain: Recruiting Additional Neural Resources for Successful Motor Performance in Elderly Persons. Journal of Neuroscience, 28 (1) 91-99; DOI: https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3300-07.2008
  • Kays, Jill L., et al. (2012). The Dynamic Brain: Neuroplasticity and Mental Health. The Journal of Nuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.neuropsych.12050109
  • Lambert, Kelly (2010) Lifting Depression: A Neuroscientist’s Hands-On Approach to Activating Your Brain’s Healing Power. Basic Books.