Have you ever had one of those days at work? It is 4:00 AM and I can't sleep. My eyes popped open and now my brain is starting to think about all the things on my schedule for the next workday. Should I try to roll over and force myself to sleep? Maybe I should take a pill. Or maybe I should just head out to the woodshop in my slippers and bathrobe...hmmm.
Three hours later my wife pokes her head in the door of the shop. She had looked around the house for me, checked the TV room, the kitchen, the garage-- and then saw that the lights were on out in the shop. There she was with a fresh cup of coffee—and there I was happily lapping the sole of an old block plane. Back and forth, round and round, focusing on getting it flat and shiny.
This whole episode made me think about how woodworking relates to our mental health. For many of us woodworking is a chosen leisure activity that we take up because it makes us "feel good." There may be challenges, frustrations, and hard work involved but overall woodworking makes us happy. Now, I am not a psychologist, but I have read a lot of scientific literature on this topic and would like to share some general perspectives on woodworking and your mental health.
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?).