Medieval Monks Complained About Constant Distractions: Learn How They Worked to Overcome Them

St. Benedict by Fra Angelico, via Wikimedia Commons

We might imagine that life in a monastery is one of the safest, most predictable ways of life on offer, and therefore one of the least distracted. But “medieval monks had a terrible time concentrating,” writes Sam Haselby at Aeon, “and concentration was their lifelong work!” They complained of information overload, forgetfulness, lack of focus, and overstimulation. Their jumpy brains, fundamentally no different from those we use to navigate our smart phones, were the culprit, though, like us, the monks found other sources to blame.

“Sometimes they accused demons of making their minds wander. Sometimes they blamed the body’s base instincts.” Given the nature of their restrictive vows, it’s no wonder they found themselves thinking “about food or sex when they were supposed to be thinking about God.” But the fact remains, as University of Georgia professor Jamie Kreiner says in an interview with PRI’s The World, monks living 1600 years ago found themselves constantly, painfully distracted.

It wasn’t even necessarily about tech at all. It was about something inherent in the mind. The difference between us and them is not that we are distracted and they aren’t, it’s that they actually had savvier ways of dealing with distraction. Ways of training their minds the way we might train our bodies.

So, what did the wisest monks advise, and what can we learn, hundreds of years later, from their wisdom? Quite a lot, and much of it applicable even to our online lives. Some of what medieval monks like the 5th century John Cassian advised may be too austere for modern tastes, even if we happen to live in a monastery. But many of their practices are the very same we now see prescribed as therapeutic exercises and good personal habits.

Cassian and his colleagues devised solutions that “depended on imaginary pictures” and “bizarre animations” in the mind,” Haselby explains. People were told to let their imaginations run riot with images of sex, violence, and monstrous beings. “Nuns, monks, preachers and the people they educated were always encouraged to visualize the material they were processing,” often in some very graphic ways. The gore may not be fashionable in contemplative settings these days, but ancient methods of guided imagery and creative visualization certainly are.

So too are techniques like active listening and nonviolent communication, which share many similarities with St. Benedict’s first rule for his order: “Listen and incline the ear of your heart.” Benedict spoke to the mind’s tendency to leap from thought to thought, to prejudge and formulate rebuttals while another person speaks, to tune out. “Basically,” writes Fr. Michael Rennier, Benedict's form of listening "is taking time to hear in a certain way, with an attitude of openness, and commitment to devote your whole self to the process,” without doing anything else.

Benedict’s advice, Rennier writes, is “great… because obstacles are all around, so we need to be intentional about overcoming them.” We do not need to share the same intentions as St. Benedict, however, to take his advice to heart and stop treating listening as waiting to speak, rather than as a practice of making space for others and making space for silence. “Benedict knew the benefits of silence,” writes Alain de Botton’s School of Life, “He knew all about distraction,” too, “how easy it is to want to keep checking up on the latest developments, how addictive the gossip of the city can be.”

Silence allows us to not only hear others better, but to hear our deeper or higher selves, or the voice of God, or the universe, or whatever source of creative energy we tune into. Like their counterparts in the East, medieval Catholic monks also practiced daily meditation, including meditations on death, just one of several methods “Cistercian monks used to reshape their own mental states,” as Julia Bourke writes at Lapham’s Quarterly.

“A medieval Cistercian and a modern neuroscientist” would agree on at least one thing, Bourke argues: “the principle that certain feelings and emotions can be changed through meditative exercises.” No one devises numerous formal solutions to problems they do not have; although their physical circumstances could not have been more different from ours, medieval European monks seemed to suffer just as much as most of us do from distraction. In some part, their lives were experiments in learning to overcome it.

via Aeon

Related Content:

Meditation for Beginners: Buddhist Monks & Teachers Explain the Basics

How Information Overload Robs Us of Our Creativity: What the Scientific Research Shows

How to Focus: Five Talks Reveal the Secrets of Concentration

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

What Happens To Your Body & Brain If You Don’t Get Sleep? Neuroscientist Matthew Walker Explains

As an insomniac in a morning person’s world, I wince at sleep news, especially from Matthew Walker, neuroscientist, Berkeley professor, and author of Why We Sleep. Something of a “sleep evangelist,” as Berkeley News calls him (he prefers "sleep diplomat"), Walker has taken his message on the road—or the 21st century equivalent: the TED Talk stages and animated explainer videos.

One such video has Walker saying that “sleep when you’re dead” is “mortally unwise advice… short sleep predicts a shorter life.” Or as he elaborates in an interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, “every disease that is killing us in developed nations has causal and significant links to a lack of sleep.”




Yeesh. Does he lay it on thick? Nope, he's got the evidence and wants to scare us straight. It's a psychological tactic that hasn’t always worked so well, although next to “sleep or die” sermons, there’s good news: sleep, when harnessed properly (yes, somewhere in the area of 8 hours a night) can also be a “superpower." Sleep does “wonderfully good things… for your brain and for your body,” boosting memory, concentration, and immunity, just for starters.

But back to the bad....

In the Tech Insider video above, Walker delivers the grim facts. As he frequently points out, most of us need to hear it. Sleep deprivation is a serious epidemic—brought on by a complex of socio-economic-politico-technological factors you can probably imagine. See Walker’s comparisons (to the brain as an email inbox and a sewage system) animated, and learn about how lack of sleep contributes to a 24% increase in heart attacks and numerous forms of cancer. (The World Health Organization has recently “classified nighttime shift work as a probable carcinogen.”)

On the upside, rarely is health science so unambiguous. If nutritionists could only give us such clear-cut advice. Whether we'd take it is another question. Learn more about the multiple, and sometimes fatal, consequences of sleep deprivation in the animated TED-Ed video above.

Related Content:

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

The Restaurant of Mistaken Orders: A Tokyo Restaurant Where All the Servers Are People Living with Dementia

If you've ever been to Japan, you'll know that in Japanese restaurants, mistakes are not made. And on the off chance that a mistake is made, even a trivial one, the lengths that proprietors will go to make things right with their customers must, in the eyes of a Westerner, be seen to be believed. But as its name suggests, the Tokyo pop-up Restaurant of Mistaken Orders does things a bit differently. "You might think it's crazy. A restaurant that can't even get your order right," says its English introduction page. "All of our servers are people living with dementia. They may, or may not, get your order right."

Un-Japanese though that concept may seem at first, it actually reflects realities of Japanese society in the 21st century: Japan has an aging population with an already high proportion of elderly people, and that puts it on track to have the fastest growing number of prevalent cases of Alzheimer's Disease.




Whole towns have already begun to structure their services around a growing number of citizens with dementia. But dementia itself remains "widely misunderstood," says Restaurant of Mistaken Orders producer Shiro Oguni in the "concept movie" at the top of the post. "People believe you can't do anything for yourself, and the condition will often mean isolation from society. We want to change society to become more easy-going so, dementia or no dementia, we can live together in harmony."

You can see more of the Restaurant of Mistaken Orders in last year's "report movie" just above, which shows its team of servers with dementia in action. Some shown are in middle age, some are in their tenth decade of life, but all seem to have a knack for building rapport with their customers — a skill that anyone who has ever worked front-of-the-house in a restaurant will agree is essential, especially when mistakes happen. We see them deliver orders both correct and incorrect, but the diners seem to enjoy the experience either way: "37% of our orders were mistaken," the restaurant reports, "but 99% of our customers said they were happy." This contains another truth about Japanese food culture that anyone who has eaten in Japan will acknowledge: whatever you order, the chance of its being delicious is approximately 100%.

via Kottke

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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 or on Facebook.

Science Shows That Snowball the Cockatoo Has 14 Different Dance Moves: The Vogue, Headbang & More

We humans think we invented everything.

The wheel…

The printing press…

Dancing…

Well, we’re right about the first two.

Turns out the impulse to shake a tail feather isn’t an arbitrary cultural construct of humanity but rather a hard-wired neurological impulse in beings classified as vocal learners—us, elephants, dolphins, songbirds, and parrots like the Internet-famous sulphur-crested cockatoo, Snowball, above.

Animals outside of this elite set can be trained to execute certain physical moves, or they may just look like they’re dancing when tracking the movements of their food bowl or shimmying with relief at being picked up from doggy daycare.




Snowball, however, is truly dancing, thanks to his species’ capacity for hearing, then imitating sounds. Like every great spontaneous dancer, he’s got the music in him.

Aniruddh Patel, a Professor of Psychology at Tufts who specializes in music cognition, was the first to consider that Snowball’s habit of rocking out to the Backstreet Boys CD he’d had in his possession when dropped off at a parrot rescue center in Dyer, Indiana, was something more than a party trick.

Dr. Patel notes that parrots have more in common with dinosaurs than human beings, and that our monkey cousins don’t dance (much to this writer’s disappointment).

(Also, for the record? That goat who sings like Usher? It may sound like Usher, but you'll find no scientific support for the notion that its vocalizations constitute singing.)

Snowball, on the other hand, has made a major impression upon the Academy.

In papers published in Current Biology and Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Patel and his co-authors John R. Iversen, Micah R. Bregman, and Irena Schulz delved into why Snowball can dance like … well, maybe not Fred Astaire, but certainly your average moshing human.

After extensive observation, they concluded that an individual must possess five specific mental skills and predilections in order to move impulsively to music:

  1. They must be complex vocal learners, with the accompanying ability to connect sound and movement.
  2. They must be able to imitate movements.
  3. They must be able to learn complex sequences of actions.
  4. They must be attentive to the movements of others.
  5. They must form long-term social bonds.

Cockatoos can do all of this. Humans, too.

Patel’s former student R. Joanne Jao Keehn recently reviewed footage she shot in 2009 of Snowball getting down to Queen’s "Another One Bites the Dust" and Cyndi Lauper’s "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," identifying 14 distinct moves.

According to her research, his favorites are Vogue, Head-Foot Sync, and Headbang with Lifted Foot.

If you’ve been hugging the wall since middle school, maybe it’s time to take a deep breath, followed by an avian dancing lesson.

How did Snowball come by his astonishing rug-cutting confidence? Certainly not by watching instructional videos on YouTube. His human companion Schulz dances with him occasionally, but doesn't attempt to teach him her moves, which she describes as "limited."

Much like two human partners, they’re not always doing the same thing at the same time.

And the choreography is purely Snowball’s.

As Patel told The Harvard Gazette:

It’s actually a complex cognitive act that involves choosing among different types of possible movement options. It’s exactly how we think of human dancing.

If he is actually coming up with some of this stuff by himself, it’s an incredible example of animal creativity because he’s not doing this to get food; he’s not doing this to get a mating opportunity, both of which are often motivations in examples of creative behavior in other species.

You can read more science-based articles inspired by Snowball and watch some of his many public appearances on the not-for-profit, donation-based sanctuary Bird Lovers Only’s website.

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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.

View/Download the Highest Resolution MRI Scan of a Human Brain, Revealing It as We’ve Never Seen It Before

We all know what brains look like. Or in any case, we can picture something symmetrical, a bit squishy, between pink and gray in color, and with a whole lot of folds. But until a team of researchers at the Laboratory for NeuroImaging of Coma and Consciousness did their recent ultra-high resolution MRI scan of a human brain, which took over 100 hours to complete in one of the world's most advanced MRI machines, nobody had ever seen that many-splendored organ in the kind of detail — detail at a 100-micrometer level of resolution, to be precise — shown in the video above.

"Thanks to an anonymous deceased patient whose brain was donated to science," writes Science Alert's Peter Dockrill, "the world now has an unprecedented view of the structures that make thought itself possible." After its extraction and "a period of preservation, the organ was transferred to a custom-built, air-tight brain holder made of rugged urethane, specially designed for the experiment's long-duration MRI scan. The holder was placed in a customized seven Tesla (7T) MRI scanner: a powerful machine offering high levels of magnetic field strength, and only approved by the FDA for use in the US in 2017."




Such a machine could scan a brain still in use — that is, one inside the skull of a living, breathing human being — but only for a short period of time. The great advantage of using an ex vivo brain rather than an in vivo is that it can stay inside, completely unmoving, for as long as it takes to acquire the highest-quality scan yet seen. The team could thus record "8 terabytes of raw data from four separate scan angles," data they have released to the academic community in a compressed version, which you can view and download here.

"We envision that this dataset will have a broad range of investigational, educational, and clinical applications that will advance understanding of human brain anatomy in health and disease," write the team, who are also preparing their research for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. But even non-scientists have expressed their wonder at the unprecedentedly detailed visual journey through the brain offered by not just the video here but the two others from two different angles so far released as well. One hesitates to use, but can't quite avoid, the term "mind-boggling."

via Kottke

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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.

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.

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

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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.

The Therapeutic Benefits of Ambient Music: Science Shows How It Eases Chronic Anxiety, Physical Pain, and ICU-Related Trauma

“In forty years of medical practice,” wrote Dr. Oliver Sacks near the end of his famous career, “I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.” The comment might not surprise us, coming from such an unorthodox thinker as Sacks. But we might be surprised by the considerable amount of traditional scientific research linking music and mental health.

Sixty years ago, when Sacks was still in medical school, avant-garde jazz bandleader Sun Ra had a very Sacks-like experience when he played for an audience of patients in a mental hospital, and inspired a catatonic woman who hadn’t spoken for years to stand up and say ‘Do you call that music?’” The gig, booked by his manager, constituted a fringe experiment in alternative medicine at the time, not a serious subject of study among medical doctors and neuroscientists.

How things have changed in the last half-century.




Several recent studies, for example, have linked drumming, the oldest and most universal form of music-making, to reduced anxiety, pain relief, improved mood, and improved learning skills in kids with autism. Listening to and playing jazz and other forms of syncopated music, have been shown in study after study to promote creativity, enhance math skills, and support mental and emotional well-being.

But what about ambient music, a genre often characterized by its lack of syncopation, and almost certain to feature as background music in guided meditation and stress reduction recordings; in slow, relaxing yoga videos; and thousands of YouTube videos promoting supposedly stress-reducing frequencies and stereo effects? Ambient seems purpose-built to combat tension and dis-ease, and in a sense, it was.

Brian Eno, the artist who named the genre and often gets credit for its invention, wrote in the liner notes to Ambient 1: Music for Airports, “[this record is] designed to induce calm and space to think.” Whether he meant to make a scientific claim or only an artistic statement of purpose, research has validated his inferences about the salutary effects of long, slow, atmospheric music.

Noisey Associate Editor Ryan Bassil, a longtime sufferer of anxiety and panic attacks, found the statement to be true in his own life, as he explains in the video above (illustrated by Nathan Cowdry). Music from ambient composers like Eno, William Bassinski, and Fennesz helped him “ground” himself during extremely anxious moments, bringing him back into sensory contact with the present.

When Bassil looked into the reasons why ambient music had such a calming effect on his over-stimulated nervous system, he found research from artist and academic Luke Jaaniste, who described an “ambient mode,” a “pervasive all-around field, without anything being prioritized into foreground and background.” Immersion in this space, writes Bassil, “can help the listener put aside what’s on their mind and use their senses to focus on their surroundings.”

We may not—and should not—ask music to be a useful tool, but ambient has shown itself particularly so when treating serious neurological and psychological conditions. Forensic psychiatrist Dr. John Tully of London’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience traces the form back to Bach and Chopin, and especially Erik Satie, who “was the first to express the idea of music specifically as background sound,” and who had no qualms about music serving a specialized purpose.

The purpose of what we broadly call ambient has evolved and changed as classical, minimalist avant-garde, and electronic musicians have penned compositions for very different audiences. But no matter the intent, or where we draw the genre boundaries, all kinds of atmospheric, instrumental music has the therapeutic power not only to reduce anxiety, but also to ease pain in surgical patients and reduce agitation in those suffering with dementia.

When he performed with his group Darkroom at the Critical Care Unit at University College London Hospital, writer and psychologist Charles Fernyhough found out that ambient music had significant benefits for patients trapped in what he calls “a suburb of hell”: the ICU. Stays in intensive care units correlate closely with later PTSD and what was once called “ICU psychosis” in the midst of traumatic emergency room experiences. Sedation turns out to be a major culprit. But music, especially ambient music, brought patients back to themselves.

Hear the 2016 Darkroom performance at the University College London Hospital ICU further up, and read more about Fernyhough’s research and performance at Aeon. The science of how and why ambient works the way it does is hardly settled. Where Fernyhough found that patients benefited from a lack of predictability and an ability to “escape the present moment,” Bassil’s research and experience uncovered the opposite—a sense of safe predictability and enhanced sensory awareness.

Physiological responses from person to person will vary, as will their tastes. “One person’s easy listening is another’s aural poison,” Fernyhough admits. But for a significant number of people suffering severe anxiety and trauma, the droning, minimal, wordless soundscapes of ambient are more effective than any medication.

Related Content:

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The Health Benefits of Drumming: Less Stress, Lower Blood Pressure, Pain Relief, and Altered States of Consciousness

Why Do Sad People Like to Listen to Sad Music? Psychologists Answer the Question in Two Studies

This is Your Brain on Jazz Improvisation: The Neuroscience of Creativity

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

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