How to Focus: Five Talks Reveal the Secrets of Concentration

Disagree though we may about what's wrong with life in the 21st century, all of us — at least in the developed, high tech-saturated parts of the world — surely come together in lamenting our inability to focus. We keep hearing how distractions of all kinds, but especially those delivered by social media, fragment our attention into thousands of little pieces, preventing us from completing or even starting the kind of noble long-term endeavors undertaken by our ancestors. But even if that diagnosis is accurate, we might wonder, how does it all work? These five video talks offer not just insights into the nuts and bolts of attention, concentration, and focus, but suggestions about how we might tighten our own as well.

In "How to Get Your Brain to Focus," the TED Talk at the top of the post, Hyperfocus author Chris Bailey relates how his own life devolved into a morning-noon-night "series of screens," and what resulted when he did away with some of those screens and the distractions they unceasingly presented him — or rather, the overstimulation they inflicted on him: "We think that our brains are distracted," he says, "but they're overstimulated."




Reducing his own level of stimulation further still, he deliberately engaged in such low-stimulation (more commonly known as "boring") practices as reading iTunes' entire terms-and-conditions document (and not in graphic-novel form), waiting on hold with Air Canada's baggage department, counting the zeroes in pi, and finally just watching a clock.

Bailey found that, absent the frequent dopamine hits provided by his screens, his attention span grew and more ideas, plans, and thoughts about the future came to him. "We think that we need to fit more in," he says, but in reality "we're doing too much, so much that our mind never wanders." When we have nothing in particular to focus on, our mind finds its way into new territories: hence, he says, the fact that we so often get our best ideas in the shower. He references data indicating that these mental wanderings take us back into the past 12 percent of the time and remain in the present 28 percent of the time, but most often fast-forward into the future, a habit also explored by neuroscientist Amishi Jha in the TED Talk just above, "How to Tame Your Wandering Mind."

"Our mind is an exquisite time-traveling master," says Jha, "and we land in this mental time-travel mode of the past or the future very frequently. "And when this happens, when we mind-wander without an awareness that we're doing it, there are consequences. We make errors. We miss critical information, sometimes. And we have difficulty making decisions." In Jha's view, a wandering mind can be dangerous: she labels its "internal distraction" as one of the three factors, alongside external stress and distraction in the environment, that "diminishes attention's power." Her laboratory research has brought her to endorse the solution of "mindfulness practice," which "has to do with paying attention to our present-moment experience with awareness. And without any kind of emotional reactivity of what's happening," keeping our finger on the "play" button "to experience the moment-to-moment unfolding of our lives."

As a mindfulness practice, meditation does the trick for many, although precision shooting champion Christina Bengtsson recommends staring at leaves. "I focused on a beautiful autumn leaf playing in the wind," she says of her decisive shot in her TED Talk above. "Suddenly I am completely calm, and the world champion title was mine." That leaf, she says, "relieved me of distracting thoughts and made me focus," and the experience led her to come up with a broader theory. "We need to learn to notice disturbing thoughts and to distinguish them from not-disturbing thoughts," she says, a not-disturbing thought being one that "knocks out all the disturbing and worrying thoughts." In this framework, the thought of a leaf can drain the distracting power from all those nagging what-ifs about our goals and the future ahead.

"Focus is not about becoming something new or something better, but simply about functioning exactly as well as we already are," says Bengtsson, "and understanding that this is enough for both general happiness and great achievements." Among her other, non-leaf-related recommendations is to create a "not-to-do list," a form suited to a world "no longer about prioritizing, but about prioritizing away." The not-to-do list also gets a strong endorsement in "How to Focus Intensely," the Freedom in Thought animated video just above. After opening with an elaborate analogy about robots, boxes, and factory fires, it goes on to break down the key tradeoff of attention: on one side directed focus, "providing undivided attention while ignoring environmental stimuli," and on the other generalized focus, which does the opposite.

We human beings often don't make that tradeoff adeptly, and the reasons cited here include stress, engagement in tasks we dislike because they aren't inherently pleasurable (even when they promise pleasures later on, since the arrival of those pleasures can be uncertain), and the habit of short-term pleasure-seeking. Along with meditation and the not-to-do list come other featured strategies like actively placing boundaries on your media consumption, structuring your day with "blocks" of work separated by short breaks, and drawing up a priority list, all while adhering to the general ratio of spending 80 percent of your time on "activities that produce long-term pleasure" and 20 percent on "activities that produce short-term pleasure."

The Freedom in Thought video also recommends something called "deep work," a set of techniques defined by computer scientist Cal Newport in his book of the same name. But to do deep work as Newport himself does it requires that you take a step that may sound radical at first: quit social media. That imperative provides the title of Newport's TED Talk above, which explains the whys and hows of doing just that. He also deals with the common objections to the notion of quitting social media, framing social media itself as just another slot machine-like form of entertainment — with all the attendant psychological harms — that, because of its sheer commonness and easiness, can hardly be as vital to success in the 21st-century economy as it's so often claimed to be.

Newport explains that "what the market dismisses, for the most part, are activities that are easy to replicate and produce a small amount of value," i.e. what most of us spend our days doing on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. "It's instead going to reward the deep, concentrated work required to build real skills and apply those skills to produce things, like a craftsman, that are rare and are valuable." If you treat your attention with respect, he says, "when it comes time to work, you can actually do one thing after another, and do it with intensity, and intensity can be traded for time." When you train your mind away from distraction, in other words, you actually end up with more time to work with — an asset that even Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, both of whom famously credit their own success to focus, can't buy for themselves.

Related Content:

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The Case for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts & Doing Valuable “Deep Work” Instead, According to Prof. Cal Newport

The Neuroscience & Psychology of Procrastination, and How to Overcome It

Alan Watts Presents a 15-Minute Guided Meditation: A Time-Tested Way to Stop Thinking About Thinking

Listen to Wake Up to Your Life: Discovering the Buddhist Path of Attention by Ken McLeod

How to Take Advantage of Boredom, the Secret Ingredient of Creativity

Lynda Barry on How the Smartphone Is Endangering Three Ingredients of Creativity: Loneliness, Uncertainty & Boredom

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

An Artist Crochets a Life-Size, Anatomically-Correct Skeleton, Complete with Organs

How to make a life-sized facsimile of a human skeleton:

  1. Download files published under a Creative Commons license, and arrange to have them 3-D printed.

or

  1. Do as artist Shanell Papp did, above, and crochet one.

The latter will take considerably more time and attention on your part. Papp gave up all extracurricular activities for four months to hook the woolen skeleton around her work and school schedule. Equipping it with internal organs ate up another four.

To ensure accuracy, Papp armed herself with anatomical textbooks and an actual human skeleton on loan from the University of Lethbridge, where she was an undergrad. The brain has gray and white matter, there's marrow in the bones, the stomach contains half-digested wool food, and the intestines can be unspooled to a realistic length.

The grueling 2006 project did not exhaust her fascination for the intricacies of human anatomy. The University of Saskatchewan granted her open access to draw in the gross anatomy lab while she pursued her MFA.

 

As she told MICE magazine:

I wanted this work to illustrate all of the organs and bones everyone shares and to not highlight differences. Much of anatomical history is about defining difference, by comparative analysis. This can set up strange taxonomies and hierarchies. I wasn't interested in participating in that; I wanted to expose the fragile, common, and unseen things in all of us.  

The finished piece, which is displayed supine on a gurney she nabbed for free during a mortuary renovation, incorporates many of Papp’s other abiding interests: horror, medical history, Frankenstein, crime investigation, and mortuary practices.




Papp, who taught herself how to crochet from books as a child, using whatever yarn found its way to her grandma’s junk shop, appreciates how her chosen medium adds a layer of homey softness and familiarity to the macabre.

It’s also not lost on her that fiber arts, often dismissed as too “crafty” by the establishment, were an important component of 70s-era feminist art, though in her view, her work is more of a statement on the history of textile manufacturing, which is to say the history of labor and class struggle.

See more of Shanell Papp’s work here.

All images in this post by Shanell Papp.

via designboom/Mymodernmet

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, September 9 for another season of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Sir Ian McKellen Reads Kurt Vonnegut’s Letter to High School Students: Make Art and “Make Your Soul Grow”

Author Kurt Vonnegut was possessed of a droll, unsentimental public speaking style. A son of Indianapolis, he never lost his Hoosier accent, despite lengthy stints in Cape Cod and New York City.

Actor Ian McKellen, on the other hand, exudes warmth. He’s a charmer who tells a story with a twinkle in his eye, altering his voice and facial expressions to heighten the effect. (Check out his Maggie Smith.) Vocal training has only enhanced his beautiful instrument. (He can make a tire repair manual sound like Shakespeare.)




These two lions may have come at their respective crafts from different angles, but Sir Ian did Vonnegut proud, above, as part of Letters Live, an ongoing celebration of the enduring power of literary correspondence.

The letter in question was penned the year before Vonnegut’s death, in reply to five students at a Jesuit high school in New York City, regretfully declining their invitation to visit.

Instead, he gave them two assignments.

One was fairly universal, the sort of thing one might encounter in a commencement address: make art and in so doing, learn about life, and yourself.

The other was more concrete:

Write a 6 line rhyming poem

Don’t show it or recite it to anyone.

Tear it up into little pieces

Discard the pieces in widely separated trash receptacles

Why?

A chance for Xavier High School’s all male student body to air romantic feelings without fear of  discovery or rejection?

Mayhaps, but the true purpose of the second assignment is encapsulated in the first—to “experience becoming” through a creative act.

This notion clearly strikes a chord with Sir Ian, 17 years younger than Vonnegut but by the time of the  2016 performance, closing in on the iguana-like age Vonnegut had been when he wrote the letter.

Should we attribute the quiver on the closing line to acting or genuine emotion on Sir Ian’s part?

Either way, it’s a lovely rendition.

November 5, 2006

Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lockwood, and Messrs Perin, McFeely, Batten, Maurer and Congiusta:

I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don't make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana. 

What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what's inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you're Count Dracula.

Here's an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don't do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don't tell anybody what you're doing. Don't show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash recepticals. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what's inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

God bless you all!

Kurt Vonnegut

(Ian McKellen’s other Letters Live performance is a fictional coming out letter from Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, from a gay character to his Anita Bryant-supporting parents.)

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, September 9 for another season of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Piano Played with 16 Increasing Levels of Complexity: From Easy to Very Complex

Remember the feeling of accomplishment as a child, picking out a simple tune after your first piano lesson?

Then the day you begin to play with both hands? So grown up.

Eventually you start using more than two fingers.

And then comes the party where a proud parent, possibly with a drink or two in him, commands you to play for the guests, who indulge your efforts with applause and the suggestion that perhaps their child, a contemporary of yours, take a turn at the keyboard.

Mozart.

Beethoven.

Maximum humiliation.

How soon can you bail on those damn piano lessons?




I flashed on that universal experience whilst listening to pianist and composer Nahre Sol demonstrate the “endless possibilities” of piano composition and interpretation by subjecting "Happy Birthday" to sixteen levels of increasing complexity.

‘Round about level five is where our respective talents began to part ways.

After a lot of practice and false starts, I can sometimes manage a simple arpeggio.

That’s greasy kid stuff to Nahre, whose YouTube channel abounds with expert advice on how to sound like various classical composers and robust investigations of genres—flamenco, ragtime, Bossa nova, the Blues…

Now I know what made the visitors’ kid so much more advanced than me—broken octaves, glissandos, great muscular spans, a confident command of harmonies and rhythm...

Sol blows that performance out of the water, with seemingly very little effort, breezily explaining what she’s doing each time she takes things up a notch, culminating in level 16, which encompasses all previous steps.

As homelessricegum observes in the comment section of the video, “Level 17: you will now need your third hand.”

Related Content:

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine.  Join her in NYC on September 9 for another monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

 

Cartoonist Lynda Barry Teaches You How to Draw

Friend, are you paralyzed by your ironclad conviction that you can't draw?

Professor Chewbacca aka Professor Old Skull aka cartoonist Lynda Barry has had quite enough of that nonsense!

So stop dissembling, grab a pen and a hand-sized piece of paper, and follow her instructions to Anne Strainchamps, host of NPR's To The Best Of Our Knowledge, below.

It’s better to throw yourself into it without knowing precisely what the ten minute exercise holds (other than drawing, of course).

We know, we know, you can’t, except that you can. Like Strainchamps, you’re probably just rusty.

Don’t judge yourself too harshly if things look “terrible.”

In Barry’s view, that’s relative, particularly if you were drawing with your eyes closed.

A neurology nerd, Barry cites Girija Kaimal, Kendra Ray, and Juan Muniz’ study Reduction of Cortisol Levels and Participants' Responses Following Art Making. It’s the action, not the subjective artistic merit of what winds up on the page that counts in this regard.

For more of Barry’s exercises and delightfully droll presence, check out this playlist on Dr. Michael Green's Graphic Medicine Channel.

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Join Cartoonist Lynda Barry for a University-Level Course on Doodling and Neuroscience

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine... Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Oliver Sacks Promotes the Healing Power of Gardens: They’re “More Powerful Than Any Medication”

Early European explorers left the continent with visions of gardens in their heads: The Garden of Eden, the Garden of the Hesperides, and other mythic realms of abundance, ease, and endless repose. Those same explorers left sickness, war, and death only to find sickness, war, and death—much of it exported by themselves. The garden became de-mythologized. Natural philosophy and modern methods of agriculture brought gardens further down to earth in the cultural imagination.

Yet the garden remained a special figure in philosophy, art, and literature, a potent symbol of an ordered life and ordered mind. Voltaire’s Candide, the riotous satire filled with gardens both fantastical and practical, famously ends with the dictate, “we must cultivate our garden.” The tendency to read this line as strictly metaphorical does a disservice to the intellectual culture created by Voltaire and other writers of the period—Alexander Pope most prominent among them—for whom gardening was a theory born of practice.




Exiled from France in 1765, Voltaire retreated to a villa in Geneva called Les Délices, “The Delights.” There, writes Adam Gopnik at The New Yorker, he “quickly turned his exile into a desirable condition…. When he wrote that it was our duty to cultivate our garden, he really knew what it meant to cultivate a garden.” Enlightenment poets and philosophers did not dwell on the scientific reasons why gardens might have such salutary effects on the psyche. And neither does neurologist Oliver Sacks, who also wrote of gardens as health-bestowing havens from the chaos and noise of the world, and more specifically, from the city and brutal commercial demands it represents.

For Sacks that city was not Paris or London but, principally, New York, where he lived, practiced, and wrote for fifty years. Nonetheless, in his essay “The Healing Power of Gardens,” he invokes the European history of gardens, from the medieval hortus to grand Enlightenment botanical gardens like Kew, filled with exotic plants from “the Americas and the Orient.” Sacks writes of his student days, where he “discovered with delight a very different garden—the Oxford Botanic Garden, one of the first walled gardens established in Europe,” founded in 1621.

“It pleased me to think,” he recalls, referring to key Enlightenment scientists, “that Boyle, Hooke, Willis and other Oxford figures might have walked and meditated there in the 17th century.” In that time, cultivated gardens were often the private preserves of landed gentry. Now, places like the New York Botanical Garden, whose virtues Sacks extolls in the video above, are open to everyone. And it is a good thing, too. Because gardens can serve an essential public health function, whether we’re stressed and generally fatigued or suffering from a mental disorder or neurological condition:

I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains, but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens, even for those who are deeply disabled neurologically. In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication.

“In forty years of medical practice,” the physician writes, “I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.” A garden also represents—for Sacks and for artists like Virginia Woolf—“a triumph of resistance against the merciless race of modern life,” as Maria Popova writes at Brain Pickings, a pace “so compulsively focused on productivity at the cost of creativity, of lucidity, of sanity.”

Voltaire’s prescription to tend our gardens has made Candide into a watchword for caring for and appreciating our surroundings. (It’s also now the name of a gardening app). Sacks’ recommendations should inspire us equally, whether we’re in search of creative inspiration or mental respite. “As a writer,” he says, “I find gardens essential to the creative process; as a physician, I take my patients to gardens whenever possible. The effect, he writes, is to be “refreshed in body and spirit,” absorbed in the “deep time” of nature, as he writes elsewhere, and finding in it “a profound sense of being at home, a sort of companionship with the earth,” and a remedy for the alienation of both mental illness and the grinding pace of our usual form of life.

via New York Times/Brain Pickings

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How the Japanese Practice of “Forest Bathing”—Or Just Hanging Out in the Woods—Can Lower Stress Levels and Fight Disease

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Jeff Tweedy Explains How to Learn to Love Music You Hate: Watch a Video Animated by R. Sikoryak

Punk rock peer pressure forced Jeff Tweedy, founder of Wilco, to shun Neil Young and other  "hippie"musical greats.

Ah, youth...

Were Tweedy, now a seasoned 51-year-old, to deliver a commencement speech, he'd do well to counsel younger musicians to reject such knee jerk rejection, as he does in the above animated interview for Topic magazine.




Not because he's now one of those grey beards himself, but rather because he's come to view influence and taste as living organisms, capable of interacting in surprising ways.

That's not to say the youngsters are obliged to declare an affinity for what they hear when venturing into the past, just as Tweedy doesn't fake a fondness for much of the new music he checks out on the regular.

Think of this practice as something similar to one millions of childish picky eaters have endured. Eat your vegetables. Just a taste. You can't say you don't like them until you've actively tasted them. Who knows? You may find one you like. Or perhaps it'll prove more of a slow burn, becoming an unforeseen ingredient of your maturity.

In other words, better to sample widely from the unending musical buffet available on the Internet than conceive of yourself as a wholly original rock god, sprung fully formed from the head of Zeus, capiche?

The narration suggests that Tweedy's got some problems with online culture, but he gives props to the digital revolution for its softening effect on the ironclad cultural divide of his 70s and 80s youth.

Was it really all just a marketing scheme?

Unlikely, given the Vietnam War, but there's no denying that educating ourselves in our passion includes approaching its history with an at-least-partially open mind.

If you want to snap it shut after you've had some time to consider, that's your call, though Tweedy suggests he's never comfortable writing something off forever.

If nothing else, the stuff he dislikes teaches him more about the stuff he loves—including, presumably, some of his own impressive catalog.

Kudos to director Keith Stack and Augenblick Studios, animator of so many Topic interviews, for matching Tweedy with cartoonist R. Sikoryak, an artist who clearly shares Tweedy's creative philosophy as evidenced by such works as Terms and Conditions and Masterpiece ComicsHere is another who clearly knows how to make a meal from mixing old and new, traditional and experimental, high and low. One of the bonus joys of this animated life lesson is catching all of Sikoryak's musical Easter eggs—including a cameo by Nipper, the face of His Master's Voice.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist ofthe East Village Inky zine.  Join her in New York City June 17 for the next installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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