Neural Knitworks: award-winning community science engagement

By Jackie Randles

Hazelhurst Gallery and Arts Centre was recently awarded best community engagement program at the IMAGinE Awards Museums and Galleries NSW for Neural Knitworks: craft a healthy brain, a community engagement project first developed for National Science Week 2014.

Founded by textile artist Pat Pillai, the neuroscience awareness project was developed with the support of Inspiring Australia NSW. The idea was simple: community members would knot, crochet or wrap textile neurons following scientifically informed patterns and then send them to an art gallery in Sydney.

Dozens of knit-ins were held across the country including in schools, remote Indigenous communities and universities. High profile supporters included brain surgeon Dr Charlie Teo, who held a knit-in at Canberra hospital, and Todd Sampson and Dr Karl, who each tweeted images of themselves holding colourful textile neurons.

The first Neural Knitworks exhibition at Hazelhurst Regional Gallery and Arts Centre in Sutherland Shire was seen by thousands of visitors over a three-week period. An impressive walk in brain installation housed more than 1600 hand crafted neurons and neuron-inspired art works adorned the walls. During the gallery’s Fest Day, a public talks program featured experts speaking about recent research into the effect of cannabis on brain function, nurturing adolescent brains, mindfulness and healthy brain ageing.

The human brain is thought to contain 80 billion neurons, give or take a few billion, so when we talk about mind health, a project like Neural Knitworks shows in simple terms just how large, sophisticated and fragile the nervous system is. It’s learning that starts with the basic building blocks of the mind.

The beauty of Neural Knitworks is how the project extends the reach of scientific knowledge by engaging participants with hands on educational experiences that connect them with experts as they actually improve their own brain and mind health. Yarn craft, with its mental challenges, social connection and mindfulness, helps keep brains fit by solving creative and mental challenges, developing eye-hand coordination and fine motor dexterity and increasing attention span.

The pattern for Neural Knitworks is simple: participants learn to knit, crochet or simply wrap woollen neurons while listening to an expert and discussing brain and mind health. Topics to explore at knit-ins can be anything at all to do with the mind and brain.

This year, Neural Knitworks was again part of National Science Week in August, with hundreds of neurons displayed in Queensland University of Technology’s library. The Caringbah Lions Club’s Nifty Knitters held a knitted brain challenge and a number of knit-ins were held in Adelaide, Albury and Sydney. A spin off project, Footy Neurons, was launched by Lesely Grut to raise awareness about head injuries in sport.

Later in the year, the Australian National Museum ran knit-ins to launch Dementia Awareness Month and TedMed Live displayed neurons at its Melbourne event at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. An article published in The Conversation attracted more than 41,000 readers and the project’s Facebook group continues to attract new members from around the world.

So far the 2016 line up of Neural Knitwork events includes knits-ins and an installation at the World Science Festival in Brisbane in March, and a panel discussion at Vivid Ideas in June that will look at scientific research into the social brain and its response to creativity, boredom, social connection and isolation.

All are welcome to join this project and help extend the neural network by contributing neurons to upcoming installations. A free pattern book and installation ideas are available on the National Science Week website.

You can follow the project and share your creations by joining at Neural Knitworks on Facebook or via #neuralknitworks on Twitter.

The artists acknowledge inspiration derived from Knit a Neuron UK, Sydney Hyperbolic Reef Project, Wrap with Love Inc, Pistil – X Chromosome and the mentorship of Hiromi Tango as part of the 2013 collaborative project Hiromi Hotel: Moon Jellies.

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