Memories in Stitches
This Atlantic article about types of memory posits that we encode information differently depending on how we think we'll need to recall it: when the information is accessible "out there" (like, say, in a book or online), we encode a general idea of what the info is and where to find it; when the information is not "out there", we memorize it, because we know it is not to be found again. This paragraph is a good example of the former: I linked to the Atlantic article rather than quoting its relevant parts. The link was sufficient because I feel like the internet is a storage place for info I want, and the article will always be there. (I know that's not so, but because I feel like it is, I just link to it.) Another example of the former: my mom used to have a sign on the wall which read "It's not so important how much you know and remember as to know where to find what you need to know and remember."
Another thing the Atlantic article says is that when we read a book, we remember not just the general idea of the book, but what it looks and smells like, what we're doing while reading it, where we are, what we're thinking about, our mood, et cetera. In fact, all those extraneous details might be more important than the content of the book... think about your mom reading you a bedtime story: years later you might not remember the story, but you'll remember the quality time with your mom.
Moreover, all those extra details might serve as doorways to other information. In college, I was encouraged to study for tests in rooms similar to the classroom, so that when I was taking the test in the classroom, the environment (fluorescent lighting, linoleum floors, cold air) would trigger memories of my studies. Studying in my cozy bedroom might be counter productive--it might alienate the information from the environment where I'd need to recall it. Encoding information never happened selectively: the info I was trying to study would walk into my brain holding hands with other thoughts and impressions.
As I've been trying to memorize Romans 8, I do so in a variety of environments: on the plane, in my bed, on buses, while sewing, while walking. I think it's a good thing for me to weave memories of God's word into my life so inextricably that nearly any action or place may remind me of a verse.
For a long time, people thought, erroneously, that concentrating on something meant not doing anything else. So, for instance, kids in a classroom were not allowed to fidget, since that was "not paying attention". But now people realize that our seemingly mindless fidgets could aid concentration in the same way that taking a fussy baby out of the room helps the people in the room stay on task: the fidget takes the fussy baby part of your brain on a little walk so the rest of your brain can pay attention. This isn't new information, just new appreciation of info known in the past. As Carmen Silva, Queen of Roumania in 1910 wrote:
We get into a kind of fever with doing nothing. A very wise country clergyman allowed the women to knit during his sermons; never had a preacher more attentive listeners: not one of them dropped asleep, as overworked women are apt to do when they for once sit down. They grow drowsy and can't keep their eyes open. Allow them to knit or to tat and they will be able to tell you almost every word they have heard.
I started this musing by saying that the internet, with its numerous distractions, has damaged my ability to concentrate and memorize things; now I'm saying that fidgety distractions may aid in the same. So what's the difference between Internet clickbait that kills our concentration and fidgets that help us concentrate? How does it hurt us to have a dozen tabs open in our browser but help us to have something in our hands? I think it's a matter of overusing one mode versus using multiple modes.
The reason the Internet kills concentration is because it's designed to reward flights of attention. Did you click on any or all of the links I've posted in this essay? Did you briefly read the linked page, and then see other links that looked interesting? Are you still here, or did you wander off? The info I'm asking you to absorb is presented in one mode: written words on a screen, and the distracting info is in the same exact mode! You can't read them both at the same time. But if you're engaging multiple modes, like reading my musing while clicking your pen and drinking coffee, you may be able to focus on my words much better. In fact, the information I present may now be encoded in your mind along with kinesthetic information about pen clicking and the sensory information of the taste of coffee. So fidgeting helps us concentrate and encode information because it occupies several modes, rather than overusing one.
(You may wonder why, if links are so distracting, I put them in the post at all. The answer is that it's how the Internet is built. The more links there are between sites, the more likely any one site is to be seen. If my site had no links at all, and no-one linked to it either, it would be an island in the internet, virtually unfindable. Plus, search engines rank websites in search results at least partly based on how connected those sites seem to be to other ones. Less links, less "relevant". So to get views, it's necessary to risk the loss of attention with all the links!)
Self-help books and articles love to create distinct categories to sort people into. There are five love languages, seven learning styles, sixteen personalities... (It's weirdly helpful and yet dehumanizing to categorize people this way, isn't it?) The problem with these categories is that people are not insects. We don't specialize in one thing only--getting really good at carrying large loads but not breeding, for instance. I find the love languages really useful concepts, but just because gift giving is my lowest score doesn't mean I don't like to give and receive gifts! People are people: we have innumerable facets, and any true understanding of ourselves must take all facets into account. A "visual leaner" may benefit from visual aids, but it would be ludicrous to isolate him from all other input!
SEWING AS A FIDGET WIDGET
Last year, fidget spinners (little spinning toys with ball bearings and lobes) became a fad, and people suddenly had them everywhere. Several people told me that they were invented as stress relievers for kids with autism, though I've been unable to find any proof of that. Some claimed that they were concentration aids (as I previously discussed), while many schools banned them as being distracting (though whether they are more distracting to students or teachers is debatable). A fidget may indeed distract someone who's not trying to learn while using it, but may be a concentration aid to someone who is trying to learn while using it. But my biggest question is: why on earth would you fidget with something that when you're done, is exactly the same as when you started?
More "traditional" fidgets have always been productive ones. People used to knit, embroider, whittle, or doodle, which serve the purpose of fidgeting while also producing something. If you draw during a lecture, and it helps you concentrate, then when you're done you have the lecture and the drawing--a double gain! Fidget spinners leave the fidgeter with nothing to show for their fidgeting. It seems futile and aimless to me. Maybe I'm manifesting the Puritan work ethic my parents, both New Englanders, imbued in me, but I don't want to move my hands and accomplish nothing.
Sewing is my preferred way to fidget. I sew at my machine while listening to documentaries or sermons on YouTube. I embroider or make lace while lounging with NetFlix or watching TV with my housemate. I bring handwork on the bus so my commute is fruitful. For myself, I find that the complex but non-verbal nature of handwork is an aid to memory when I'm learning something complex and verbal. In other words, rather than take notes, I learn better by making lace or embroidering! I am also good at taking notes, but find it best for recording lists and outlines, rather than comprehending complexly linked ideas. If the information seems linear to me, note-taking helps. If it seems "round" to me, handwork helps.
But while sewing at home while watching TV is not a problem, it's trickier to do it socially. Once or twice I've brought sewing projects to small group meetings, and I can even now tell you what we talked about in those meetings (I was appliqueing fish on a cotton dress bodice while we discussed the Ava DuVernay documentary 13th and doing seaweed in chain stitches while we discussed a friend's wedding). Yet I felt like the handwork, though it helped me pay attention, was distracting for the others, maybe made them feel like I wasn't wholly with them. I felt rude, so I stopped doing it. This is not a problem in my family, where everyone makes things; family gatherings usually involve everyone doing things while talking. It's not rude to make lace while hanging out with my sister, especially when she might be doing cross stitch at the same time! My dad is always doodling ideas or sanding wood or something productive. But as soon as someone's iPhone comes out, we think that's rude... iPhones are never aids to concentration! They always pull people out of the conversation.
SEWING AS A MEMENTO
When I sew, I think I'm concentrating on the project, but afterward I look at the project and remember what I was thinking/feeling/watching/listening to while I sewed it. I look at my aqua fish dress and think of the Yoko Saito book I used for applique instructions, and the friend who was visiting while I sewed the back shoulder darts. I look at my blackwork embroidery and think of watching The Office while visiting with my sister, laughing and talking through the familiar comedy and snatching the last piece of chocolate. The sewing projects become repositories for memory, but not specifically chosen memory, just snippets of impressions here and there. A feeling, a snatch of music, a scent.
But people do sometimes specifically encode information in their sewing. I think of Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities, knitting the names of doomed aristocrats in a morbid scarf. Or there is a Chinese syllabic writing system known as Nüshu, which was used exclusively by women, and sometimes embroidered on clothes or shoes. Or the British POW from WWII who embroidered a sampler in which an innocuous decorative border is actually an anti-Nazi message in Morse code.
My aunt once made a log cabin patch quilt for my father, and used it as a device for prayer, praying for specific things for him every time she added a log, and other things as she attached the completed blocks to each other. Did she give my father an item, or weeks of prayer, or something more than the sum of those two parts?
Beck, Julie. "Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read... and the movies and TV shows we watch." The
Atlantic, 26 Jan. 2018. Accessed 2/13/2018: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/01/what-
"British prisoner of War stitched hidden anti-Hitler message into Nazi quilt." The Telegraph, 11 Jan. 2012.
Accessed 2/13/2018: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/9009004/British-prisoner-of-War-stitched-
H.M. the Queen of Roumania, Carmen Silva. Introduction. The Art of Tatting, by Katharin L. Hoare, Longmans,
Green and Co. 1910. pp. ix-xii. Accessed 2/13/2018: https://www2.cs.arizona.edu/patterns/weaving
Hullinger, Jessica. "The Science of Why We Fidget While We Work." Fast Company, 24 Mar. 2015. Accessed
Young, Lauren. "Remembering Nüshu, the 19th-Century Chinese Script Only Women Could Write." Atlas
Obsura, 16 Feb. 2017. Accessed 2/13/2018: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/nushu-chinese-
4/2/2018 11:49:43 am
This was an interesting read. A thought that occurred to me regarding why taking your handiwork to a social gathering and getting less done was this: perhaps you were less productive because you were out of your element? For example, when I take my sewing to the library, it takes time to find a comfy spot, settle in, pull everything out, find where I left off and then get into a groove. I'm often interrupted by curious children ('cause I'm there with my little one and she's off playing) or other mothers who want to know what I'm doing and to see the piece all unrolled. By the time S is done playing, I've only sewn a handful of stitches and now need to pack it all up again!
Having my hands busy improved my memory of the event, regardless of how many stitches I did, so productivity was not an issue. I just didn't want people to think I was ignoring them in the moment!
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