First, woodworking is what is called a “whole-brain activity.” There are some things people do (like recognize faces) that involve brain activity in a very distinct part of the brain or that are only associated with one side of the brain. For example, the general concept that your right brain is more active with sensory inputs, emotions, and creativity while the left brain is more engaged in number-crunching and logic. Think about (oops, there goes your left brain!) what happens in woodworking. I am doing focused visual work, using hand-eye coordination, integrating senses such as sound, touch, and kinesthesia (feedback from my muscles). I am also being creative and thinking about design, finish, and color; and employing spatial reasoning to imagine how a half-blind, mitered dovetail fits together. I am also measuring and doing math in my head, converting fractions and adding in allowances for imaginary things like saw kerf. When you do woodworking you use your whole brain; left, right, front, and back and all the wiring in between. This is generally a good thing for mental health. Whole-brain activity tends to keep all the neurological wiring functional and keeps dementia at bay.
A recent study looked at how “doing” art affects your brain differently than just “seeing” art. The researchers had two groups of retirees—one group participated in a 10-week art appreciation class in a museum, the other group participated in a 10-week art class making their own artwork. Then the researchers took pictures (functional MRI) of what parts of the brain were active. They found that actively doing art generated more overall brain activity and connectedness than just passively looking at art. They also found that changes in brain activity were directly correlated with improvements in something called “psychological resilience”—basically your ability to handle stress and adverse situations. This finding supports the idea that a well-connected brain is a healthier brain and contributes to a healthier person.
Creative activity not only helps you maintain a healthy brain, but it can also be used to help deal with a wide range of daily challenges. The field of art therapy has been used to address chronic pain, traumatic brain injury, stress and anxiety issues, depression and other types of mental disorder. For example, there is a woodworking store in Norfolk/Virginia Beach that runs a Woodworking for Veterans program to help the physical and emotional rehabilitation of wounded and injured military service members. Studies of art therapy have found that art-based activity “…are of high benefit to psychological and social recovery particularly in areas of self-discovery, self-expression, relationships, and social identity.” Basically the science is finding that creative activity really has positive health benefits. (Do you think my health insurance company might pay for sandpaper?).
Are you consumed by a difficult problem or tough challenge? Research has shown that engaging in “mind-wandering” with an unrelated and undemanding task can help your brain find creative solutions to the original problem. Take a break from your work tasks, go out to the shop, and rub out a topcoat of lacquer. Between the fumes and the mind-wandering you might discover an answer to the grand challenges of life!
Are you feeling frustrated and ineffective at work? One of the key mental health benefits of woodworking is enhancement of self-esteem. With woodworking, you are in charge, the project comes together under your direction, the final result is praised by others and you receive the intrinsic satisfaction of a job well-done. I just built a birdhouse with my 3-year- old grandson. His first comment at the end of the project was, “Where’s the bird?” Imagine his self-esteem when he sees the first bird land on the perch that he assembled.
Now like any proper medication, there is some fine print on the label. A standing safety rule for shopwork is that you don’t work in the shop if you are: sick, tired, distracted, dizzy, stressed, or hurried. If you are not in a condition to be able to focus and work carefully you need to be very selective about your prescribed mental health shop tasks. Pick something that is inherently safe like sanding, painting, or finishing. Use some time to polish the rust off your power tools or sweep up and organize. I have an “odds and ends” bin that collects all the spare nuts, bolts, screws and fasteners. That needs to get re-sorted every now and then. Another great use of mental health shop time is in planning and design—sketching out the next project or making a mockup from cardboard (using blunt-tipped scissors of course). Common sense prevails and any potentially hazardous shop task should start by asking yourself if you can do it safely.
To draw this to a close, we all like to spend time in the shop. Science is now proving that woodworking is actually good for us. It is, at a very fundamental level, a whole-person activity that affects us mentally and physically. Woodworking can help heal and nourish our minds and bodies. The next time someone asks why you are spending so much time in the shop—tell them you are just getting your recommended daily allowance of Vitamin W (wood). What is your daily dose of shoptime? How does your woodworking affect your health