The day after I completed an intensive project, I went upstairs and baked.
I am not a baker. I am not even on speaking terms with my kitchen much of the time. But after months of intensive work, mostly digital, in front of a computer screen and a microphone with my keyboard, mouse and Wacom tablet and stylus practically extensions of my hands, the prospect of making tiny orange spirals fall from the skin of a ripe Clementine as I scraped it across a zester’s tiny silver teeth kept me going during the last few arduous weeks of work.
So I baked. The Mediterranean yogurt cake turned out alright (I think). I felt almost immediately reinvigorated without even tasting it. I felt happy and ready to get back to work on a new project.
There’s a reason for this of course, besides having run across a tempting recipe. Brain researchers tell us that emotion and thinking are systemically connected with movement. That is, the ethereal is affected by the corporeal. And that movement is rather particular. Neuroscientist and psychologist Kelly Lambert has suggested that “moving our hands activates larger areas of the cortex than moving other parts of the body such as our legs or back muscles.”
I don’t know about you but I am all for having an active cortex, given that’s where our brain actually does its thinking work. Lambert argues that our ever-increasing use of screens and devices takes us away from vital physical, effort-driven activities which enhance our emotional well-being.
It is possible, then, that one of the most important tools we have as writers has nothing to do with whether we use a fountain pen or Blackwing pencil or if our paper is recycled or vellum or the never-ending question of paper at all versus digital. A prize tool is right at our fingertips. Or rather, is our fingertips.
So maybe you’re not a baker. Here are four other great ways to use your hands in your writing process:
1. Get your hands dirty in your garden
I don’t know if this is creepy or cool (I’m going to swallow hard and go with cool). Researchers from Sage Colleges in Troy, NY, discovered a particular bacteria found in soil can activate neurons that produce serotonin (that’s the chemical messenger that helps boost your mood and improve sleep patterns). You don’t have a garden? Perhaps the smaller commitment of a potted plant could give you a little place to play in your writing space. And if you’re all about that efficiency, consider killing two birds with one pie plate: go outside and make a mud pie.
2. Play with toys
When I was working a claims desk for an insurance company, I kept a fleet of Matchbox cars and trucks (and a sweet yellow school bus) lined up on my desk. While I talked with a policyholder about a car accident, I reenacted events on my desktop, moving the vehicles along the path they described, right up through the crash. I don’t have my cars anymore but I do have a small gyro wheel, that reminds me of a toy I always wanted, next to my desk. When I’m stuck I pick it up and imagine the wheel is like my mind going up and down over the rails until I find the thought I’m looking for. Research says block play is good for kids’ development. There’s reason to think it’s good for grown ups, too.
I recently took my Every Day Sketches exercise a little farther and picked up a bucket of modeling clay. When I sense my activities are becoming too digital or need a creative transition between tasks during the workday, I sometimes dig out a little blob and make a simple (one could say crude) sculpture using a line from an Every Day Poems selection.
4. Write longhand
I am a big advocate of writing longhand. It has the obvious benefit of being disconnected from the Internet (assuming you put away your phone and tablet and move away from your computer). But writing longhand also involves cognitive processing differently than using a computer. A recent study found students who took notes longhand instead of on their laptop forced the brain to engage in more active listening, digesting and summarizing instead of merely “transcribing a lecture word for word without devoting much thought to the content.” University of Washington researcher Virginia Berninger found that grade school student who wrote essays by hand “wrote more words, faster, and expressed more ideas” than when they used a keyboard. She suggests that the difference lies in the sequential strokes that must be executed to form a letter, as opposed to hitting a single key to produce a letter. Another study found more advanced neural activity among kids who wrote letters out versus those who had only looked at letters. (And yes, these researchers believe the benefits extend to adults.)
When it comes to writing and creativity, your hands are good for much more than just carrying your writer’s toolkit around. So what about you? What do you do with your hands to get your brain moving?
For Further Reading;
Browse more Poets & Writers Toolkit
Check our our “Incidentally” series for more on block and other play strategies
Browse more Writing Tips
Photo by 白士 李, used with permission via Flickr. Post by LW Lindquist.
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