What is my brain doing when I'm working cross-stitch?
May 5, 2006 8:56 AM   Subscribe

What is my brain doing when I'm working cross-stitch?

I've just recently started working some counted cross-stitch samplers. Halfway through my second one (ever,) I realized I wasn't running the needle all along the back and watching the front to find the right hole in the cloth anymore. My blind aim brought me within two to three places of the right hole most of the time, and often directly where I was supposed to be.

What is my brain doing to make that happen? When the needle is behind the sampler, I can't see my hand or the needle, and I can't feel the needle on the cloth (though I can feel it in my hand,) so how can my aim improve if the blind conditions never change?

Or am I giving my brain too much credit? Are my muscles just learning how wide the stitches are, making my aim better by improving my dexterity with a small, exacting task?

Bonus extraneous information: I think it must be related to some kind of brain-task, because I've started to have dreams about fitting stitches together the same way I used to about putting Tetris tiles together, if I played the game too much. Perhaps it's time to put down the needle and get some fresh air...
posted by headspace to Science & Nature (14 answers total)
Your muscles alone can't "learn" anything. What we call "muscle memory" in fact happens in the brain, albeit in a part of the brain whose contents you can't consciously access.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:13 AM on May 5, 2006

Very interesting question, I'd like brainy cognitive scientists to walk in here and give some insight for alas, all my cogsci knowledge was superfical and long gone from undergrad years.

I don't think it's as simple as tactile dexterity vs. visual imagery, and probably some sort of mix. Think of it as shooting darts. You see your target, you aim with your dart and you try and hit the spot. Only with cross-stitching the target is behind the board and you're aiming the dart toward you. Oookay, not the best example, but I hope that gets my two cents across.

After a weekend of intense knitting, I too dream of strings and needles. =)
posted by like_neon at 9:18 AM on May 5, 2006

In another sense, what you're experiencing is sometimes known as 'action without thought'. There's whole categories of literature devoted to this sort of thing.

In essence, you've transcended the need to concentrate on the physical act of cross-stitching and have moved on to the next level of awareness. It's a very here-and-now sort of thing.

Or perhaps I'm just reading too much into the question.
posted by unixrat at 9:22 AM on May 5, 2006

It sounds like muscle memory.
It's no problem for many people to type or play the piano with their eyes closed.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:24 AM on May 5, 2006

What we call "muscle memory" in fact happens in the brain

I'm no scientist, but what I've been told is that when an action becomes automatic (like playing an instrument or learning a sport skill), your conscious mind lets go of it, once mastered, and begins to store the instructions for the movement in your spinal cord instead. People call that "muscle" memory, though it's not in the muscles themselves.

I hope that before long someone who actually knows about this topic will come along to better inform us.
posted by Miko at 9:34 AM on May 5, 2006

Best answer: It's your sense of proprioception. It's the component of your sensory system that provides you with feedback regarding where your body parts are located in space. There is feedback from receptors in the muscles, and there are actually distinct tracts of neurons traveling up the spinal cord that provide this pathway (as opposed to, say, the ones that provide the modalities of light touch, temperature, and pain sensations. They are all different!). Then, of course, like all other sensory input, the brain has to process the signals and make sense of it.

Proprioception is also what lets you go up and down the stairs without looking at your feet. (and on preview, yes, it lets you play the piano without looking at your hands). There is obviously some "learned" component to it, but the point is that this is a very real and physical sense, with distinct pipelines going up to your brain. It's not just that your brain memorizes a set of movements and repeats the outgoing signals. There is actually constant feedback from the proprioceptive receptors in the muscles, and your brain learns to adjust accordingly.

The Wikipedia article I linked to above is okay, but imperfect. Most non-medical explanations of proprioception are muddied with terms like kinesthesia, muscle memory, equilibrium, balance, etc... These are all related concepts, but not exactly the same as proprioception. For example, proprioception and your sense of balance/equilibrium are not the same thing at all. (the latter being mainly maintained by your inner ear and cerebellum.) Sure, you can't go up and down the stairs without proper balance, but that's above and beyond proprioception.

If you're sitting down (takes balance out of the equation), close your eyes, and hold your arm somewhere between vertically and horizontally, proprioception is how you know without looking, where it is.

Or your sewing situation, which is also a perfect example!
posted by Dr. Sam at 9:43 AM on May 5, 2006

What Dr. Sam says. It's not muscle memory or stuff like that: it's all part of your body's ability to know where your fingers are by the position of your joints.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:58 AM on May 5, 2006

Can't find great links right now, but some cognitive concepts to look into include the psychology of expertise, especially
automaticity or motor automaticity: basically, the more skill you acquire, the less you have to think about it. Also, your dreaming of stitches (and Tetris!) reminds me of the wildly popular Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi . It's an effusive (and wildly overstated, but understandably so) exploration of how skill lets you work without thought, in sort of a zen-like meditation. Tetris used to be something I could do with my hands while my mind worked on other things, and I've always been envious of coders, embroiderers, and knitters who have something tangible to show for their meditative states -- enjoy what you've got here!
posted by ellanea at 10:07 AM on May 5, 2006

Coders can code without thinking? Any long time coders here who could comment?
posted by parallax7d at 10:32 AM on May 5, 2006

Dr. Sam's description is accurate. I think it might be worth adding that though proprioception is what the phenonmenon you're describing is called, what is actually going on in your brain to make this happen is very poorly understood. Like you, neuroscientists have observed that people have this ability; they have a decent but far from complete understanding of the kinds of signals that the body sends to the brain when it moves; and (if my understanding is correct) they have little to no idea of how the brain combines this information to create an accurate and continuously updated mental representation of where all the different bits of the body are. Proprioception has been recognized and named, but is far from being understood.

It makes me think of the following story from Richard Feynman about his childhood: the young Richard asks his father why when he pulls his wagon forward, the ball sitting in the wagon rolls to the back. Melville Feynman responds with a serious discussion of inertia and explains--quite accurately--that we know what inertia does, but nobody knows at the deepest level what it is.
posted by louigi at 10:32 AM on May 5, 2006

As someone who has been coding for nigh upon 20 years now, I'll offer this up:

In languages where I am most familiar, it is no longer necessary to think of either the language syntax or data structures when I'm working. For instance, when working a recent research project (in Python), I could innately 'see' the lists inside of dictionaries that would be required and, in a sense, I can 'think' Python. There is no intermediate "What Do I Need To Do"/"How Do I Write That In Python" step, it just forms itself.

Sadly enough, I can do that in Visual Basic also. ;)
posted by unixrat at 11:44 AM on May 5, 2006

I had a very similar experience when I found myself employed to link together the seams on woolly jumpers. The job involved putting every individual stitch onto a separate needle on the linking machine. I had no experience of knitting and when looking at the edge of a piece of knitted fabric, couldn't even tell where a stitch was, where a row was, etc.

Many times I would sit, biting back tears of frustration (I needed the money...) thinking "I just cannot do this, I have no idea what to put where. When someone shows me it makes no sense". It seemed impossible that I would ever work out where to put the bloody needles.

Then I'd go home, dream that I was linking, and come back to work the next day to find it was the easiest thing in the world - the holes I was looking for would appear before my very eyes, in straight lines, and slide onto the needles.

It was not only about becoming more dexterous, but also about processing new information (looking at a mass of thread and spotting the pattern, learning how and where wool pulls and unravels etc).

Speaking as someone without an ounce of neurological/psychological knowledge, and with apologies to those who do have, I assume I was building new pathways in the brain the same way you do when you learn a new language (or any other skill) through repetition. Why it should 'bed down' overnight instead of while working, though, I have no idea.

(Oh, and I often freak out office mates by typing rapidly whilst staring vacantly out of the window, again a skill learned through repetition).
posted by penguin pie at 1:22 PM on May 5, 2006 [1 favorite]

Coders can code without thinking? Any long time coders here who could comment?
posted by parallax7d at 10:32 AM PST on May 5 [!]

I have seen the results of coders coding without thinking numerous times :-)
posted by oats at 3:20 PM on May 5, 2006

People who haven't thought much about it assume that all learning is related to language-based thought (what we call 'consciousness') and that all sensory input falls under the ill-conceived 'five senses' rubric. (The '5 senses' are supposed to be vision, hearing, touch, smell and taste.)

Dr Sam points out proprioception, which is strictly the sensory ability to percieve changes in angle across a mobile joint. Kinesthesia is a related sense; it is the ability to detect changes in stretch and tension in muscles as they actively contract or are passively stretched. These senses are important in the sort of motor learning you describe, and their use explains why you do not need to see your fingers to improve your accuracy at this task.

Consciously planned, new motor actions originate in the frontal cortex of the cerebrum. However, with much repetition, the basal ganglia and brainstem (especially the red nucleus and inferior olivary nucleus) become involved in adaptive learning and improvement of these practiced movements. These structures are not closely connected with language areas and so operate fairly independently of that little voice in your head that's saying "What's for dinner?"

Spinal circuits, in man at least, are not very adaptive, although this doesn't hold true for all organisms.
posted by ikkyu2 at 2:31 PM on May 10, 2006

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