The Morals That Determine Whether We’re Liberal, Conservative, or Libertarian

An old friend once wrote a line I’ll never forget: “There are two kinds of people in the world, then there are infinitely many more.” It always comes to mind when I confront binary generalizations that I'm told define two equally opposing positions, but rarely capture, with any accuracy, the complexity and contrariness of human beings—even when said humans live inside the same country.

Voting patterns, social media bubbles, and major network infotainment can make it seem like the U.S. is split in two, but it is split into, if not an infinity, then a plurality of disparate ideological dispositions. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that there are two kinds of people. Let’s say the U.S. divides neatly into “liberals” and “conservatives.” What makes the difference between them? Fiscal policy? Education? Views on “law and order,” social welfare, science, religion, public versus private good? Yes, but….

Best-selling NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt has controversially claimed that morality—based in emotion—really drives the wedge between competing “tribes” engaged in pitched us-versus-them war. The real contest is gut-level, mostly centered on disgust these days, one of the most primitive of emotional responses (we learn in the hand-drawn animation of a Haidt lecture below). Haidt argues that our sense of us and them is rooted, irrevocably, in our earliest cognitions of physical space.

Haidt situates his analysis under the rubric of “moral foundations theory,” a school of thought “created by a group of social and cultural psychologists to understand why morality varies so much across cultures yet still shows so many similarities and recurrent themes.” Another moral foundations theorist, Peter Ditto, professor of Psychology and Social Behavior at the University of California, Irvine, uses his research to draw similar conclusions about “hyperpartisanship” in the U.S. According to Ditto, as he describes in the short video at the top, “morals influence if you’re liberal or conservative.”

How? Ditto identifies five broad, universal moral categories, or “pillars,” that predict political thought and behavior: harm reduction, fairness, loyalty, authority/tradition, and purity. These concerns receive different weighting between self-identified liberals and conservatives in surveys, with liberals valuing harm reduction and fairness highly and generally overlooking the other three, and conservatives giving equal weight to all five (on paper at least). Ditto does step outside the binary in the last half of the segment, noting that his studies turned up a significant number of people who identified as libertarians.

He takes a particular interest in this category. Libertarians, says Ditto, don’t rank any moral value highly, marking their worldview as “pragmatic” and strikingly amoral. They appear to be intensely self-focused and lacking in empathy. Other strains—from democratic socialism to anarchism to fascism—that define American politics today, go unmentioned, as if they didn’t exist, though they are arguably as influential as libertarianism in the strange flowerings of the American left and right, and inarguably as deserving of study.

The idea that one's morals define one's politics doesn’t seem particularly novel, but the research of psychologists like Haidt and Ditto offers new ways to think about morality in public life. It also raises pertinent questions about the gulf between what people claim to value and what they actually, consistently, support, and about how the evolution of moral sensibilities seems to sort people into groups that also share historical identities, zip codes, and economic interests. Nor can we cannot discount the active shaping of public opinion through extra-moral means. Finally, in a two-party system, the options are as few as they can be. Political allegiance can be as much convenience, or reaction, as conviction. We might be right to suspect that any seeming political—or moral—unity on one side or the other could be an effect of amplified oversimplification.

via Aeon

Related Content:

Yale’s Free Course on The Moral Foundations of Political Philosophy: Do Governments Deserve Our Allegiance, and When Should They Be Denied It?

Hannah Arendt Explains How Propaganda Uses Lies to Erode All Truth & Morality: Insights from The Origins of Totalitarianism

Do Ethicists Behave Any Better Than the Rest of Us?: Here’s What the Research Shows

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

Why Time Seems to Fly By As You Get Older, and How to Slow It Down: A Scientific Explanation by Neuroscientist David Eagleman

The Buddha, it’s said, struggled mightily with three specters of adulthood—aging, sickness, and death—when reflections on mortality harshed his hedonistic life as a prince. His “intoxication with life entirely dropped away,” the stories say, when he reflected on its passing. Nothing cured his fatal unease until a memory from childhood arose unbidden: of stopping time by quietly sitting under a rose-apple tree.

In another version of this story, Marcel Proust discovered timelessness baked in a cookie. His potent memories of madeleines also came from childhood. As he recalled “the taste of tea and cake,” he writes, “at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory …. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal.”

Neuroscientist David Eagleman also invokes a childhood memory in his discussion of time and aging, in the BBC video above. It is also a memory resonant with a remarkable physical detail: red brick pavement hurtling toward him as he falls from the roof of a house, experiencing what must have been a terrifying descent in slow motion. Quite a different experience from communing with trees and eating tea cakes, but maybe the content of a childhood memory is irrelevant to its temporal dimensions.

What we can all remember is that along with impatience and distractibility, childhood seems rich with carefree, absorptive languor (or moments of slow-motion panic). Psychologists have indeed shown in several studies that adults, especially those over the age of 40, perceive time as moving faster than it did when they were children. Why?

Because time is a “psychological construct,” says Eagleman, and can vary not just between ages and cultures, but also between individual consciousnesses. “It can be different in your head and my head,” he says. “Your brain is locked in silence and darkness inside the vault of your skull.” In order to “figure out what’s going on outside,” it’s got to do “a lot of editing tricks.” One trick is to convince us that we’re living in the moment, when the moment happened half a second in the past.

But we can notice that gap when we’re faced with novelty, because the brain has to work harder to process new information, and it creates thicker descriptions in the memory. All of this additional processing, Eagleman says, seems to take more time, so we perceive new experiences as happening in a kind of slow motion (or remember them that way). That includes so many experiences in our childhood as well as emergency situations in which we have to navigate a challenging new reality very quickly.

As writer Charles Bukowski once said, “as you live many years, things take on a repeat…. You keep seeing the same thing over and over again.” The brain can coast on familiarity and expend little energy generating perception. We retain fewer detailed memories of recent events, and they seem to have flown by us. The remedy, says Eagleman, is to seek novelty. (You thought he was going to say “mindfulness”?) Wear your watch on a different wrist, change the way you brush your teeth….

Mundane examples, but the point remains: we need new and varied experiences to slow our sense of time. Routine lack of novelty in adulthood may be the primary reason that “our early years,” write psychologists James Broadway and Brittaney Sandoval write at Scientific American,“tend to be relatively overrepresented in our autobiographical memory and, on reflection, seem to have lasted longer.”

They can also, for that reason, seem all the sweeter. But nostalgia, however tempting, can’t take the place of going new places, meeting new people, reading new books, hearing new music, seeing new films, and so on and so forth—and thereby effectively slowing down time.

via Aeon

Related Content:

The Secret Powers of Time

Why Time Seems to Speed Up as We Get Older: What the Research Says

How to Read Many More Books in a Year: Watch a Short Documentary Featuring Some of the World’s Most Beautiful Bookstores

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

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

Meditation for Beginners: Buddhist Monks & Teachers Explain the Basics

In the app-rich, nuance-starved culture of late capitalism, we are encouraged to conflate two vastly different concepts: the simple and the easy. Maybe no better example exists than in the marketing of meditation—the selling of an activity that, in essence, requires no specialized equipment or infrastructure. What mediation does require is a good instructor and encouragement. It is simple. But it is not easy. It’s true, you’ll hear teachers ruefully admit, they don’t print this on the brochures for retreat centers: but sustained meditation can be difficult and painful just as well as it can induce serenity, peace, and joy. When we sit down to meditate, we “feel our stuff,” to paraphrase David Byrne.

Next to the host of physical complaints and external stressors clamoring for attention, if we’ve got personal bad vibrations to contend with, they will hamper our ability to accept the present and relax. This is why, historically, those wishing to embark on the Buddhist path would first take ethical precepts, and practice them, before beginning to meditate, under the presumption that doing good (or non-harm) quiets the mind. “It is true that meditation is important in the Buddhist tradition,” writes Tibetan teacher Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche at Lion’s Roar. “But in many ways, ethics and virtue are the foundation of the Buddhist path.”

Of course, there are non-Buddhist meditation traditions. And the mindfulness movement has demonstrated with great success that one can carve most of the religion away from meditation and still derive many short-term benefits from the practice. But to do so is to dispense with thousands of years of experiential wisdom, not only about the difficulties of sustaining a meditation practice over the long term, but also about meditation's inherent simplicity—something those of us inclined to overcomplicate things may need to hear over and over again.

Tibetan teachers like Mingyur (and teachers from every Buddhist lineage) are generally happy to expound upon the simplicity and joy of mediation, with the good nature we might expect of those who spend their lives letting go of regrets and fears. Sometimes their messages are packaged for easier consumption, which is a fine way to get a taste of something before you decide to explore it further. But the point remains, as Mingyur says in the video at the top from The Jakarta Poet, that “meditation is completely natural.” It is not a product and doesn't require any accessories or subscriptions.

It is also not an altered state of consciousness or a nihilist escape. It is allowing ourselves to experience what is happening inside and all around us moment by moment by tuning into our awareness. We can do this anywhere, at any time, for any length of time, as the monk further up tells us. “Even three seconds, two seconds, while you’re walking, while you’re having coffee and tea, while you’re having a meeting… you can meditate.” Really? Yes, since meditation is not a vacation from your life but an intensified experiencing of it (even the meetings).

We get a celebrity endorsement above from the man who plays the angriest man on television, Gordon Ramsay. The chef takes a break from his abusive kitchen rages to meet with a Thai monk, who says of his decision to enter the monastery, “I’ve been to many different places, I’d traveled around, but the one place I hadn’t looked at was my mind.” Westerners may hear this and think of far out states—and there are plenty of those to be found in Buddhist texts, but not much talk of them among Buddhist teachers. Generally, the word “mind” has a far more expansive range here than the firing of synapses: it includes movement of the stomach lining, the tension of the sinews, and the beating of the heart.

One of the most tragic misunderstandings of meditation casts it as a mental discipline, splitting mind and body as Western thought is wont to do for centuries now. But the awareness cultivated in meditation is awareness of everything: the senses, the body, the breath, the space around us, our cognition and emotion. Every Buddhist tradition and secular offshoot has its way of teaching students what to do with their often-ignored bodies while they meditate. The differences between them are mostly slight, and you’ll find a good guided introduction to beginning meditation focused on the body just above, led by Mingyur Rinpoche.

The happiness one can derive from a meditation practice does arrive, according to meditators worldwide, but it is not a solitary achievement, Buddhist teachers say, a prize claimed for oneself like a profit windfall. It is, rather, the result of more compassion, and hence of more humility, better relationships, and less self-involvement; the result of stripping away rather than acquiring. Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, who left a career in cellular genetics in his twenties to study and practice in the Himalayas, hasn’t shied away from marketing as a way to teach people to meditate. But he is also upfront about the importance of ethics to beginning mediation.

In addition to being a “confidante of the Dalai Lama,” notes Business Insider, Ricard is also “a viral TED Talk speaker, and a bestselling author.” His message is the importance of compassion—not as a goal to achieve some time in the future, but as the very place to start. “There’s nothing mysterious” about it, he says in an interview on Business Insider’s podcast. He then goes on to describe the basic practices of “Metta, ”among other things a way of training oneself to have kind and loving intentions for others in an ever-widening circle outward. In the video above, Ricard talks about the practice, and the science, of compassion at Google.

Many people balk at this kind of sentimental stuff, even from a man Google describes as “the world’s best bridge between modern science and ancient wisdom.” But if we can hear anything in the ancient wisdom distilled by these Buddhist teachers, perhaps it’s a simple idea fast-meditation apps and utilitarian programs generally skip. No, you do not need to put on robes, become a monk or nun, or take on a set of ancient traditions, beliefs, or rituals. But as American Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield says below, “if you want to learn to be wise and present, the first step is to refrain from harming yourself or others.”

Related Content:

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

How Meditation Can Change Your Brain: The Neuroscience of Buddhist Practice

Daily Meditation Boosts & Revitalizes the Brain and Reduces Stress, Harvard Study Finds

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

Aldous Huxley Trips on Acid; Talks About Cats & the Secret of Life (1962)

Dystopia and drugs: these are the two concepts most commonly associated with Aldous Huxley, who wrote Brave New World and, decades later, advocated the mind-expanding possibilities of psychedelic substances. The sociopolitical realities of the 21st century have prompted us to return to and more fully understand what Huxley was trying to tell us with his novelistic vision of a society engineered and automated into total submission. But how many of us really understand his perspective on what the drugs did for his thinking?

Huxley may have written eloquently on the subject, most popularly in 1954's The Doors of Perception, but in the audio clip above we can hear some of that thinking straight from the visionary's mouth. "This is a recording of Aldous Huxley on 100 μg of LSD, made on December 23 1962," writes the uploader, "gonzo philosopher" Jules Evans. "The trip sitter is his wife, Laura Archera Huxley." A trip sitter, for the uninitiated, is like the designated driver of a psychedelic journey, a companion who stays on the ground to look out for the one who gets high. (This same wife would, the following year, take Huxley on his final trip, the one that would take him all the way out of this world.)

Huxley "discusses the secret of life — to be oneself and at the same time 'identical with the divine.' And he wonders about the value of blasting off into the stratosphere, like Timothy Leary." Leary, a fellow champion of psychedelics, began his career as a clinical psychologist at Harvard and ended up dedicating his life to the possibilities of LSD, along the way popularizing the phrase "turn on, tune in, drop out." "Tim is alright," says the tripping Huxley. "He's just sort of... an Irishman, banging around, but I think he's doing a lot of good." But in Huxley's view, Leary also "just wants to be an ass. We all have to be forgiven for something. My God, will you forgive me!"

In just three minutes drawn from a longer recording stored at UCLA's Huxley archive, the writer makes a variety of other observations as well. These include the desire of drug-users to "take holidays from themselves," the value of psychedelic experiences showing people that "they don't have to always live in this completely conditioned way," and the challenge of having to be "completely boxed up in oneself as that cat is" — as he gestures, presumably, toward a household pet — "at the same time one has to be completely identical with God!" LSD has reportedly led some of its users to communion with the divine, but on this trip Huxley settles for trying to commune with the feline. After a brief attempt at speaking the cat's own language, he returns to English to make a broader point about the human and animal condition: "Luckily he doesn't have our problems. But he has his own."

Related Content:

When Aldous Huxley, Dying of Cancer, Left This World Tripping on LSD, Experiencing “the Most Serene, the Most Beautiful Death” (1963)

Aldous Huxley, Psychedelics Enthusiast, Lectures About “the Visionary Experience” at MIT (1962)

Aldous Huxley Tells Mike Wallace What Will Destroy Democracy: Overpopulation, Drugs & Insidious Technology (1958)

When Michel Foucault Tripped on Acid in Death Valley and Called It “The Greatest Experience of My Life” (1975)

How to Use Psychedelic Drugs to Improve Mental Health: Michael Pollan’s New Book, How to Change Your Mind, Makes the Case

Woman Takes LSD in 1956: “I’ve Never Seen Such Infinite Beauty in All My Life,” “I Wish I Could Talk in Technicolor”

The Historic LSD Debate at MIT: Timothy Leary v. Professor Jerome Lettvin (1967)

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.

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:

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

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.

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:

The “True” Story Of How Brian Eno Invented Ambient Music

The 50 Best Ambient Albums of All Time: A Playlist Curated by Pitchfork

Stream 72 Hours of Ambient Sounds from Blade Runner: Relax, Go to Sleep in a Dystopian Future

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.

More in this category... »
Quantcast