Jackie Randles from Inspiring Australia, which runs community events like Neural Knitworks to bring to public attention the work being undertaken by Australian scientists, hosted the event.
The Neural Knitworks project is an initiative of community artist Pat Pillai, who has a background in science and an interest in psychology and art therapy. She collaborated with Rita Pearce at last year’s Ultimo Science Festival Art & Science Soiree to present the winning pitch of creating a giant brain installation of handmade textile neurons for this year’s Australian Science Week, August 16-22.
Our brains are made up of a network of neurons that connect to billions of other neurons in our spinal cords and nervous system to pass electrical signals to co-ordinate our senses, thoughts, memories, bodily functions and movement. So the project has enlisted craft groups and schools to assist in creating thousands of knitted, knotted, wrapped and crocheted neurons to be assembled into an installation to represent the complexity of the brain as an art piece.
Professor Ian Hickie, the Director of the Brain and Mind Research Institute at the University of Sydney, as patron of Neural Knitworks, spoke of how little most people understand about the complexity of what goes on in their own heads. He confessed his inability to master fine motor tasks that many of the participants were doing automatically as they sat around tables of yarn knitting, crocheting or winding textile brain neurons while at the same listening to the speakers. His take-home message was the importance to brain health of spending time interacting with others socially; making group craft projects like Neural Knitworks ideal activities to help keep our brains and minds sharp, engaged and healthy.
Pat Pillai gave a few simple colour rules for creating textile neurons. No black, as dead cells in the brain show up on neural scans as black, and no red, as it signifies blood, and the brain installation being created is healthy with its blood-brain barrier intact.
There was no need to convince a woman like me of the calming effect of invoking repetitive muscle memory. I knitted throughout the weeks I was attached to medical equipment for tests prior to neurosurgery for my epilepsy over a decade ago. But it was very pleasing to hear Dr Sarah McKay, neuroscientist and blogger at Your Brain Health Craft, citing academic research into the neuroscience of knitting.
She spoke of the wealth of research into the benefits of meditation and mindfulness, but acknowledged that many people find the prospect of learning to meditate daunting, so she sees knitting and other repetitive activities can help a wider group of people achieve a meditative state of mind.
For the beginner, yarn crafts involve the challenge of mastering fine motor movements, and for those of us who have been at it for the past 50 years, we revel in the fun that can be had in creative calculating when adapting, resizing and making our own patterns.