Summer is in the rear-view mirror and fall is at our doorstep. Before transitioning to the blossoming season, it is helpful to reminisce upon summer and reflect upon our experiences. Stepping forward with wisdom often involves looking back as to where we’ve been and the lessons we’ve gleaned.
In a personal reflection, I revisited memories from a week-long family vacation enjoying the Central Coast of California. Every day started with beach combing and collecting an array of stones. These unique, smooth, rounded beach stones were then transformed into art using acrylic paint and dot techniques unfolding multi-colored mandalas. By the end of the week, a collection of beach treasures adorned the deck. Every family member found themselves engrossed in this activity as the collection of stones grew. In the morning we would plan colors and designs, and in the evening, we would admire our new family of stone art. The activity was so simple, yet so profound.
Why was this activity so deeply satisfying and stress-relieving? The answer lies in activating our “effort-driven rewards circuit.” Participating in activities that involve creating or executing tasks with our hands activates a part of our brain that is a primal part of who we are. Our hands allow us to gain control of our environment. Surprisingly, our hands are so important that moving them activates large real estate of the brain’s complex cortex. Using one’s thumb requires more cortical activity than moving our back or legs. Studies show that the more we use our hands and activate this effort-based reward circuit in our brain, the greater our satisfaction and sense of psychological well-being.
We are all alienated from our hands these days. We depend on most things to be ready-made through the press of a button; the likelihood for our day to include making things has lessened over time. Many of us can easily find the work we perform with our hands amounting to no more than scrolling on our phones and typing on a keyboard. Activities such as art, cooking or gardening are wonderful examples of pastimes allowing us to gain a sense of control over our environment.
Painting stones hour upon hour at first seemed trivial, yet now all the stones adorn the family shelf, and there is tremendous pleasure in the memory of what was created in that week. There was a sense of relief in doing something with my hands that did not require thinking about much of anything; it allowed my brain a chance to rest. When we engage in a repetitive task, taking our mind off issues and daily problems, miraculously more solutions appear and our problems lessen.
This summer, my hands spoke to me, and now I am listening to what they want. They ask for time to play and create. They don’t mind making mistakes and learning how to refine and get better at things. When I allow my hands time needed for creative pursuits, my working hands make meaningful action. This stimulates neurogenesis in the brain and my effort-based reward loop is humming with harmony. Happy Hands, Happy Brain!