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

A familiar ding comes from your pocket, you look up from what you’re doing and reach for the smartphone. Before you can think, "it can wait," you’ve disappeared into the screen like little Carol Anne Freeling in Poltergeist. Taken by a ghostly presence with designs upon your soul—your time, emotional well-being, creativity—Facebook. Someone has requested my friendship! You like my video? I like you! Why, I’ve got an opinion about that, and that, and that, and that…. All the little performative gestures, imprinted in the fingers and the thumbs.

Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr, WhatsApp, VKontact, Sina Weibo…. Just maybe, social media addiction is a global epidemic, a collection of mentally, and politically, toxic behaviors. As Suren Ramasubbu reports, “social media engagement has been found to trigger three key networks in the brain” that make us think intensely about our self-image and public perception, create new neural pathways, and release dopamine and oxytocin, which keep us coming back for more thumbs-ups, little hearts, and gold stars (good job!).




While the nature of addiction is a controversial topic, it will arouse little disagreement to say that we live—as Georgetown University Computer Science Professor Calvin Newport writes in the subtitle of his book Deep Work—in a “distracted world.” Newport’s prescription will go down less easily. Quit, drop out, tune out, opt out, get out of the Matrix, Newport argues, more or less, in his book and his TEDx talk above. He acknowledges the oddity of being a “millennial computer scientist book author, standing on a TED stage” who never had a social media account and urges others to give up theirs.

Any one of his overlapping demographics is likely to have a significant web presence. Put all of them together and we expect Newport to be pitching a startup network to an audience of venture capitalists. Even the story about why he first abstained could have made him a minor character in The Social Network. But feelings of professional jealousy soon turned to wariness and alarm. “This seems dangerous,” he says, then lets us know—because we surely wondered—that he’s okay. “I still have friends. I still know what’s going on in the world.” Whether you’re convinced he’s happier than the rest of us poor saps is up to you.

As for the claim that we should join him in the wilderness of the real—his argument is persuasive. Social media, says Newport, is not a “fundamental technology.” It is akin to the slot machine, an “entertainment machine,” with an insidious added dimension—the soul stealing. Paraphrasing tech guru and iconoclast Jaron Lanier, Newport says, “these companies offer you shiny treats in exchange for minutes of your attention and bytes of your personal data, which can then be packaged up and sold.” But like the slot machine, the social media network is a “somewhat unsavory source of entertainment” given the express intent of its engineers to make their product “as addictive as possible,” comparable to what dietitians now call “ultra-processed foods.”

Newport names another objection to quitting—the necessity of social media as an essential business tool—then pivots to his book and his commitment to what he calls “deep work.” What is this? You can read the book to find out, or get a Cliff’s Notes version in Brian Johnson’s video above. Johnson begins by contrasting deep work with “shallow work,” where we spend most of our time, “constantly responding to the latest and loudest email and push notification for social media, or text messages or phone ringing, whatever.”

While we may get little endorphin boosts from all of this heavily mediated social activity, we pay a high price in stress, anxiety, and lost time in our personal, professional, and creative lives. The research on overwork and distraction supports Newport's conclusions. The real rewards come from deep work, he argues, that which we do when we have total focus and emotional investment in a project. Without getting too specific, such work, Newport says, is not only personally fulfilling, but valuable “in a 21st century economy” for its rarity.

Social media, on the other hand, he claims, contributes little to our work lives. And as you (or maybe it’s me) scan the open social media tabs in your overloaded browser, and tune in to the cluttered state of your mind, you might find yourself agreeing with his heretical proposition. You might even share his talk on social media. Or decide to follow us on Facebook and/or Twitter.

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

Evelyn Glennie (a Musician Who Happens to Be Deaf) Shows How We Can Listen to Music with Our Entire Bodies

Composer and percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, above, feels music profoundly. For her, there is no question that listening should be a whole body experience:

Hearing is basically a specialized form of touch. Sound is simply vibrating air which the ear picks up and converts to electrical signals, which are then interpreted by the brain. The sense of hearing is not the only sense that can do this, touch can do this too. If you are standing by the road and a large truck goes by, do you hear or feel the vibration? The answer is both. With very low frequency vibration the ear starts becoming inefficient and the rest of the body’s sense of touch starts to take over. For some reason we tend to make a distinction between hearing a sound and feeling a vibration, in reality they are the same thing. It is interesting to note that in the Italian language this distinction does not exist. The verb ‘sentire’ means to hear and the same verb in the reflexive form ‘sentirsi’ means to feel.

It’s a philosophy born of necessity—her hearing began to deteriorate when she was 8, and by the age of 12, she was profoundly deaf. Music lessons at that time included touching the wall of the practice room to feel the vibrations as her teacher played.

While she acknowledges that her disability is a publicity hook, it’s not her preferred lede, a conundrum she explores in her "Hearing Essay." Rather than be celebrated as a deaf musician, she’d like to be known as the musician who is teaching the world to listen.

In her TED Talk, How To Truly Listen, she differentiates between the ability to translate notations on a musical score and the subtler, more soulful skill of interpretation. This involves connecting to the instrument with every part of her physical being. Others may listen with ears alone. Dame Evelyn encourages everyone to listen with fingers, arms, stomach, heart, cheekbones… a phenomenon many teenagers experience organically, no matter what their earbuds are plugging.

And while the vibrations may be subtler, her philosophy could cause us to listen more attentively to both our loved ones and our adversaries, by staying attuned to visual and emotional pitches, as well as slight variations in volume and tone.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  She’ll is appearing onstage in New York City this June as one of the clowns in Paul David Young’s Faust 3. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Why We Love Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”: An Animated Music Lesson

Remember listening to Peter and the Wolf as a child, how the narrator would explain that certain instruments correspond to particular characters:  the duck - an oboe, the wolf - three horns, and so on?

In the above TED-Ed lesson (memorably animated by Compote Collective), music historian Betsy Schwarm fulfills much the same role for The Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi. (Stream it here.)

Why are we so drawn to this Baroque concerto? Is it because we associate it with brunch?

The hundreds of movies and commercials that have featured it?




(Director Robert Benton chose Vivaldi rather than an original composer for the score of Kramer vs. Kramer, arguing that "Concerto in C Major for Mandolin & Strings” captured the troubled Manhattan couple’s refined lifestyle far better than the John Williams-esque bombast the ear associates with some many other cinematic hits of the period. The 1979 film’s success sent "The Four Seasons” to the top of the charts.)

These pleasant associations no doubt account for some of our fondness, but Professor Schwarm posits that the stories contained in the melodies are what really reel us in.

Basically, we’re in the thrall of a musical weather report, reveling in the way Vivaldi manages to bring to life both the birdies’ sunny spring song and the sudden thunderstorm that disrupts it.

Summer rolls out the meteorological big guns with a hailstorm.

Autumn’s cooler nighttime temperatures keep the wine-flushed peasants from turning their harvest celebrations into a full-on bacchanal.

Winter? Well perhaps you’re tucked up contentedly in front of the fireplace right now, gratified to be hearing your own comfort echoed in the largo section.

Inspired by the landscape paintings of artist, Marco Ricci, Vivaldi penned four poems that drive the movements of his most famous work. Their translations, below, are nowhere near as eloquent to the modern listener’s ear, but you'll find that reading them along with your favorite recording of the Four Seasons will corroborate Professor Schwarm’s thesis.

Spring – Concerto in E Major

Allegro

Springtime is upon us.

The birds celebrate her return with festive song,

and murmuring streams are softly caressed by the breezes.

Thunderstorms, those heralds of Spring, roar, casting their dark mantle over heaven,

Then they die away to silence, and the birds take up their charming songs once more.

Largo

On the flower-strewn meadow, with leafy branches rustling overhead, the goat-herd sleeps, his faithful dog beside him.

Allegro

Led by the festive sound of rustic bagpipes, nymphs and shepherds lightly dance beneath the brilliant canopy of spring.

Summer – Concerto in g-minor

Allegro non molto

Beneath the blazing sun's relentless heat

men and flocks are sweltering,

pines are scorched.

We hear the cuckoo's voice; then sweet songs of the turtle dove and finch are heard.

Soft breezes stir the air….but threatening north wind sweeps them suddenly aside. The shepherd trembles, fearful of violent storm and what may lie ahead.

Adagio e piano - Presto e forte

His limbs are now awakened from their repose by fear of lightning's flash and thunder's roar, as gnats and flies buzz furiously around.

Presto

Alas, his worst fears were justified, as the heavens roar and great hailstones beat down upon the proudly standing corn.

Autumn – Concerto in F Major

Allegro

The peasant celebrates with song and dance the harvest safely gathered in.

The cup of Bacchus flows freely, and many find their relief in deep slumber.

Adagio molto

The singing and the dancing die away

as cooling breezes fan the pleasant air,

inviting all to sleep

without a care.

Allegro

The hunters emerge at dawn,

ready for the chase,

with horns and dogs and cries.

Their quarry flees while they give chase.

Terrified and wounded, the prey struggles on,

but, harried, dies

Winter – Concerto in F-minor

Allegro non molto

Shivering, frozen mid the frosty snow in biting, stinging winds;

running to and fro to stamp one's icy feet, teeth chattering in the bitter chill.

Largo

To rest contentedly beside the hearth, while those outside are drenched by pouring rain.

Allegro

We tread the icy path slowly and cautiously, for fear of tripping and falling.

Then turn abruptly, slip, crash on the ground and, rising, hasten on across the ice lest it cracks up.

We feel the chill north winds coarse through the home despite the locked and bolted doors…

this is winter, which nonetheless brings its own delights.

 


You can download the Wichita State University Chamber Players’ recording of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” for free here.

See how well you retained your TED-ED lesson with a multiple choice quiz, then read more here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her play Zamboni Godot is opening in New York City in less than three weeks. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Spellbinding Art of Human Anatomy: From the Renaissance to Our Modern Times

Many of us have a fraught relationship with what medical illustrator Vanessa Ruiz, above, refers to as our anatomical selves.

You may have received the Visible Man for your 8th birthday, only to forget, some thirty years later, what your spleen looks like, where it’s located and what it does.

We know more about the inner workings of our appliances than we do our own bodies. Why? Largely because we saved the manual that came with our dishwasher, and refer to it when our glassware is covered in spots.




As Ruiz noted in her TED-Med talk last November, there’s a wealth of easily accessible detailed anatomical illustrations, but we tend to keep them out of sight, and thus out of mind. Once a student is finished with his or her medical textbook or app, he or she rarely seeks those pictures out again. Those of us outside the medical profession have spent very little time considering the way our bodily systems are put together.

This lack of engagement prompted Ruiz to found the aggregate blog Street Anatomy, devoted to ferreting out the intersection between anatomical illustration and public art. Exposure is key. In creating startling, body-based images---and what is more startling than a flayed human or piece thereof?---the artist reminds viewers of what lurks beneath their own skin.

Ruiz is deeply interested in the history of her craft, a practice which can be dated to Renaissance man Leonardo da Vinci. She sees beauty in bizarre early examples which inserted severed limbs into still lives and posed semi-dissected cadavers next to popular attractions, such as Clara, the touring rhino.

These days, the subjects of those purposeful illustrations are more likely to be rendered as 3-D computer-generated animations.

The more old school approach is visible in the work of the artists Ruiz champions, such as Fernando Vicente, who couches 19th-century male anatomical plates inside more contemporary female pin-ups and fashion illustrations.

Artist Jason Freeny gives Barbie, Legos, and Mario the Visible Man treatment.

Noah Scalin, who spent 2007 creating a skull a day, made a gut-filled gun and titled it "Anatomy of War.”

But let us not presume all viewers are in total ignorance of their bodies’ workings. A woman whose ankle had been smashed in a roller skating accident commissioned architect Federico Carbajal to document its reconstruction with one of his anatomically accurate wire sculptures. Carbajal incorporated his benefactor's surgical screws.

Check out Ruiz’s recommended reading list to delve into the subject more deeply.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her latest script, Fawnbook, is available in a digital edition from Indie Theater Now.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Secret Link Between Jazz and Physics: How Einstein & Coltrane Shared Improvisation and Intuition in Common

Scientists need hobbies. The grueling work of navigating complex theory and the politics of academia can get to a person, even one as laid back as Dartmouth professor and astrophysicist Stephon Alexander. So Alexander plays the saxophone, though at this point it may not be accurate to call his avocation a spare time pursuit, since John Coltrane has become as important to him as Einstein, Kepler, and Newton.




Coltrane, he says in a 7-minute TED talk above, “changed my whole research direction… led to basically a discovery in physics.” Alexander then proceeds to play the familiar opening bars of "Giant Steps." He’s no Coltrane, but he is a very creative thinker whose love of jazz has given him a unique perspective on theoretical physics, one he shares, it turns out, with both Einstein and Coltrane, both of whom saw music and physics as intuitive, improvisatory pursuits.

Alexander describes his jazz epiphany as occasioned by a complex diagram Coltrane gave legendary jazz musician and University of Massachusetts professor Yusef Lateef in 1967. "I thought the diagram was related to another and seemingly unrelated field of study—quantum gravity,” he writes in a Business Insider essay on his discovery, “What I had realized... was that the same geometric principle that motivated Einstein’s theory was reflected in Coltrane’s diagram.”

The theory might “immediately sound like untestable pop-philosophy,” writes the Creators Project, who showcase Alexander’s physics-inspired musical collaboration with experimental producer Rioux (sample below). But his ideas are much more substantive, “a compelling cross-disciplinary investigation,” recently published in a book titled The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe.

Alexander describes the links between jazz and physics in his TED talk, as well as in the brief Wired video further up. “One connection,” he says, is “the mysterious way that quantum particles move.... According to the rules of quantum mechanics," they "will actually traverse all possible paths.” This, Alexander says, parallels the way jazz musicians improvise, playing with all possible notes in a scale. His own improvisational playing, he says, is greatly enhanced by thinking about physics. And in this, he’s only following in the giant steps of both of his idols.

It turns out that Coltrane himself used Einstein’s theoretical physics to inform his understanding of jazz composition. As Ben Ratliff reports in Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, the brilliant saxophonist once delivered to French horn player David Amram an “incredible discourse about the symmetry of the solar system, talking about black holes in space, and constellations, and the whole structure of the solar system, and how Einstein was able to reduce all of that complexity into something very simple.” Says Amram:

Then he explained to me that he was trying to do something like that in music, something that came from natural sources, the traditions of the blues and jazz. But there was a whole different way of looking at what was natural in music.

This may all sound rather vague and mysterious, but Alexander assures us Coltrane’s method is very much like Einstein’s in a way: “Einstein is famous for what is perhaps his greatest gift: the ability to transcend mathematical limitations with physical intuition. He would improvise using what he called gedankenexperiments (German for thought experiments), which provided him with a mental picture of the outcome of experiments no one could perform.”

Einstein was also a musician—as we’ve noted before—who played the violin and piano and whose admiration for Mozart inspired his theoretical work. “Einstein used mathematical rigor,” writes Alexander, as much as he used “creativity and intuition. He was an improviser at heart, just like his hero, Mozart.” Alexander has followed suit, seeing in the 1967 “Coltrane Mandala” the idea that “improvisation is a characteristic of both music and physics.” Coltrane “was a musical innovator, with physics at his fingertips,” and “Einstein was an innovator in physics, with music at his fingertips.”

Alexander gets into a few more specifics in his longer TEDx talk above, beginning with some personal background on how he first came to understand physics as an intuitive discipline closely linked with music. For the real meat of his argument, you'll likely want to read his book, highly praised by Nobel-winning physicist Leon Cooper, futuristic composer Brian Eno, and many more brilliant minds in both music and science.

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

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

I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but meditation may have saved my life. During a particularly challenging time of overwork, underpay, and serious family distress, I found myself at dangerous, near-stroke levels of high cholesterol and blood pressure, and the beginnings of near-crippling early-onset arthritis. My doctors were alarmed. Something had to change. Unable to make stressful outer circumstances disappear, I had to find constructive ways to manage my responses to them instead. Yoga and meditation made the difference.




I’m hardly alone in this journey. The leading cause of death in the U.S. is heart disease, followed closely by stroke, diabetes, and depression leading to suicide---all conditions exacerbated by high levels of stress and anxiety. In my own case, a changed diet and daily exercise played a crucial role in my physical recovery, but those disciplines would not even have been possible to adopt were it not for the calming, centering effects of a daily meditation practice.

Anecdotes, however, are not evidence. We are bombarded with claims about the miracle magic of “mindfulness,” a word that comes from Buddhism and describes a kind of meditation that focuses on the breath and body sensations as anchors for present-moment awareness. Some form of “mindfulness based stress reduction” has entered nearly every kind of therapy, rehabilitation, corporate training, and pain management, and the word has been a marketing totem for at least a solid decade now. No one ever needs to mention the B-word in all this meditation talk. As one meditation teacher tells his beginner students, “Buddhism cannot exist without mindfulness, but mindfulness can exist perfectly well without Buddhism.”

So, no need to believe in reincarnation, renunciation, or higher states of consciousness, fine. But does meditation really change your brain? Yes. Academic researchers have conducted dozens of studies on how the practice works, and have nearly all concluded that it does. “There’s more than an article a day on the subject in peer-reviewed journals,” says University of Toronto psychiatrist Steven Selchen, “The research is vast now.” One research team at Harvard, led by Harvard Medical School psychology instructor Sara Lazar, published a study in 2011 that shows how mindfulness meditation results in physical changes to the brain.

The paper details the results of MRI scans from 16 subjects “before and after they took part in the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness,” reports the Harvard Gazette. Each of the participants spent “an average of 27 minutes each day practicing mindfulness exercises.” After the program, they reported significant stress reduction on a questionnaire, and analysis of their MRIs “found increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.”

The Harvard Business Review points to a another survey study in which scientists from the University of British Columbia and the Chemnitz University of Technology “were able to pool data from more than 20 studies to determine which areas of the brain are consistently affected. They identified at least eight different regions.” Highlighting two areas “of particular concern to business professionals,” the HBR describes changes to the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), an area of the frontal lobe associated with self-regulation, learning, and decision-making. The ACC “may be particularly important in the face of uncertain and fast-changing conditions.” Like Lazar’s Harvard study, the researchers also identified “increased amounts of gray matter” in the hippocampus, an area highly subject to damage from chronic stress.

These studies and many others bring mindfulness together with another current psychological buzzword that has proven to be true: neuroplasticity, the idea that we can change our brains for the better—that we are not “hardwired” to repeat patterns of behavior despite our best efforts. In the TEDx Cambridge talk at the top of the post, Lazar explains her results, and connects them with her own experiences with meditation. She is, you’ll see right away, a skeptic, not inclined to accept medical claims proffered by yoga and meditation teachers. But she found that those practices worked in her own life, and also had “scientifically validated benefits” in reducing stress, depression, anxiety, and physical pain. In other words, they work.

None of the research invalidates the Buddhist and Hindu traditions from which yoga and meditation come, but it does show that one needn’t adopt any particular belief system in order to reap the health benefits of the practices. For some secular introductions to meditation, you may wish to try UCLA’s free guided meditation sessions or check out the Meditation 101 animated beginner’s guide above. If you’re not too put off by the occasional Buddhist reference, I would also highly recommend the Insight Meditation Center’s free six-part introduction to mindfulness meditation. Chronic stress is literally killing us. We have it in our power to change the way we respond to circumstances, change the physical structure of our brains, and become happier and healthier as a result.

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

How to Sound Smart in a TED Talk: A Funny Primer by Saturday Night Live‘s Will Stephen

Is there any subject that can’t be covered in a TED Talk?

Apparently not. You can make a TED Talk about anything, even nothing, as veteran improviser and rookie Saturday Night Live writer, Will Stephen, demonstrated at a recent TEDx event in New York City.

What you shouldn’t do is deviate from TED’s established presentation tropes. Stephen may be punking us with his How to Sound Smart in Your TEDx Talk, above, but aspirant TED speakers should take notes. One can’t practice observational humor without being a keen observer. Stephen's insights are as good a playbook as any for that unmistakeable TED-style delivery:

Use your hands.

Engage the audience by asking them a question that will result in a show of hands…

By show of hands, how many of you have been asked a question before?

Hit ‘em with an endearing, personal anecdote.

Projections will enhance your credibility.

Replay the clip with the sound down, as Stephen suggests, and it’s still obvious what he’s doing - giving a TED Talk.  (The familiar camera work and editing don’t hurt either.)

Even if you’re not planning on nominating yourself to become a TED speaker in the near future, Stephen’s lesson should prove handy next time you’re called upon to do some public speaking, whether running for President or delivering the toast at your best friend’s wedding.

And nothing is certainly not the only topic of substance upon which Stephen can discourse. Witness his Tinder Strategy Powerpoint.

Hmm, maybe there are some TED-proof subjects  after all...

via BoingBoing

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

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