Neuroscience Could Explain Why Pottery Is Good for Depression

The therapeutic potential of pottery for depression is increasingly being recognized by the mental health community. But how and why does it work? From the effort-driven reward circuit theory that extolls the benefits of manual labor to theories focusing on the biological impact of self-expression, researchers are looking for answers. What ultimately matters, however, is that people are getting better, which is why Bridges to Recovery integrates pottery in depression treatment.

We are living at the pinnacle of psychiatric discovery and innovation, a time in which the landscape of pharmacological therapy is broader than ever and biological psychiatry is opening up new frontiers in mental health treatment. We are harnessing the power of technology to integrate therapies in new and revolutionary ways and disseminating cutting-edge research to popular audiences in a way never before possible.

And, yet, even in this time of extraordinary progress, many people living with depression are finding relief in an ancient practice, something that many of us have already done in one form or another, even if only in grade school: pottery.


The Effort-Driven Reward Circuit

For Louisa Kemps, pottery is an integral part of staying well through the cold and dark Midwestern winters that usually zap her of her energy. Running her hands over the clay, giving it form, feeling it come to life—the process gives her a sense of calmness, joy, and discovery. As one potter notes:

Using a lump of moist clay, you put it on the potter’s wheel and you shape it into your very own creation. As the wheel spins and the clay begins to form, both your mind and body are synergized with your surroundings and with the universe. It is here where you can find the therapeutic benefits of pottery.

For many of us, these benefits make sense on an instinctive level: pottery takes you out of your routine, gives you something to master, something to contemplate. It becomes a meditation of sorts. But Kemps wanted to learn more—why is pottery good for depression on a neurological level? For answers, she turned to Dr. Kelly Lambert.

Dr. Lambert is a neuroscientist fascinated by the subject of behavior-induced neuroplasticity—in other words, how what we do impacts the way our brains function—and she believes that humans are innately wired for particular kinds of behaviors. By “tracking brain activation during different activities,” she “identified a network of geographically connected brain regions that appears to strongly influence well-being when activated by physical labor.” This network forms what Lambert refers to as an effort-driven reward circuit which includes a plethora of brain regions, each involved in processes as diverse as emotion, movement, problem-solving, and higher reasoning. Kemps writes:

In our contemporary age, when it’s possible to Tweet one’s deepest thoughts while waiting two minutes for dinner to warm in the microwave, this circuitry—encompassing a vast amount of ‘brain real estate’—isn’t often called on to function in coordination and communication, as it seems evolutionarily designed to do. But when we activate our own effort-driven reward circuitry, it squirts a cocktail of feel-good neurotransmitters, including dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin.

Participating in sustained demanding and intricate physical activity engages the effort-driven reward circuit, providing meaningful relief from depression on a neurochemical level and reminding the brain that we can exercise control even in challenging environments. As we move away from both paid and private manual labor, we must consciously seek out opportunities to participate in these activities in which our brains are wired to find pleasure and equilibrium. Pottery may be a particularly valuable activity due to the involvement of dexterity; as Lambert herself notes in a 2005 study, “Considering the amount of brain area devoted to the sensitivity and movement of the hands, it is likely that behavior maximizing the use of the hands may be the most engaging.”

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The Biological Impact of Self-Expression

Lambert is not alone in her assertion that deliberate manual activity such as artistic production and crafting is good for our mental well-being. In a study published in Art Therapy earlier this year, researchers recruited 39 men and women aged 18-59 and measured their cortisol levels before and after 45-minutes of self-directed artistic activities, including modeling clay. Cortisol levels are an important indicator of stress, and people with depression often show elevated cortisol levels, which experts believe can both be caused by and contribute to distress as well as having detrimental effects on general health.

The results revealed that cortisol levels decreased in 75% of participants after engaging in artistic production. Although the exact cause of the reduction was beyond the scope of the paper, researchers offer a different theory than Lambert does to explain the phenomenon: self-expression. “The findings are certainly consistent with the idea that self-expression can reduce stress and improve health,” says James W. Pennebaker, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. According to study lead author Girija Kaimal, the reduction in cortisol levels may be explained in part by the way art helps us externalize and process internal events. “It helps us express things that we don’t often have words for but are deeply felt and experienced. Second, it helps us communicate to others this inner state, and when you communicate, you can build relationships. You are really communicating ‘This is who I am and where I am.’”

Integrating Pottery in Depression Treatment

There is no doubt that researchers will continue to try to explain why exactly pottery helps depression. But in the end, the precise reasons may be largely irrelevant to those practitioners who find relief in the process of molding clay; what’s important is the inner tranquility it instills, regardless of how it happens.

At Bridges to Recovery, we believe in offering our clients every opportunity nourish their well-being and opening doors to healing that go beyond purely clinical care. This is why we offer a dedicated pottery class in which you are invited to engage your body and your mind in the production of decorative and utilitarian objects within a supportive, safe space. For people struggling with depression, this class can provide the springboard for newfound confidence, self-expression, self-discovery, and creativity, augment psychotherapeutic and pharmacological therapies, and contribute to a holistic treatment experience that gives you the room to flourish. By incorporating mindfulness techniques and group discussion, the class becomes a truly unique healing tool you can use to move toward a richer, more fulfilling, and more joyful life.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive residential treatment for people struggling with depression as well as other mental health disorders, substance use disorders, and eating disorders. Contact us to learn more about our innovative program and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward wellness.

Image Source: Pexels user Regiane Tosatti