However, Dr Backman said the idea that working with one’s hands could benefit a person’s mind and wellness seems plausible. Hands-on tasks that fully engage our attention – and even mildly challenge us – can support learning, she added.

Dr Lambert has another hypothesis. “With depression, people experience something called learned helplessness, where they feel like it doesn’t matter what they do, nothing ever works,” she said.

She believes that working with one’s hands is stimulating to the brain, and that it could even help counteract this learned helplessness. “When you put in effort and can see the product of that, like a scarf you knitted, I think that builds up a sense of accomplishment and control over your world,” she said.

Some researchers have zeroed in on the possible repercussions of replacing relatively complicated hand tasks with more basic ones.

In a small study of university students published in January, Norwegian researchers compared the neurological effects of writing by hand with typing on a keyboard. Handwriting was associated with “far more elaborate” brain activity than keyboard writing, the researchers found.

“With handwriting, you have to form these intricate letters by making finely controlled hand and finger movements,” said Audrey van der Meer, one of the authors of that study and a professor of psychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Each letter is different, she explained, and requires a different hand action.

Dr Van der Meer said that the act of forming a letter activates distinctive memories and brain pathways tied to what that letter represents (such as the sound it makes and the words that include it). “But when you type, every letter is produced by the same very simple finger movement, and as a result you use your whole brain much less than when writing by hand,” she added.


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