How Yoga Changes the Brain and May Guard Against Alzheimer’s and Dementia

Pho­to by Abhisek Sar­da, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

I tend to be some­what skep­ti­cal of sci­en­tif­ic research that focus­es sole­ly on what prac­tices like med­i­ta­tion do to the grey­ish-pink­ish-white stuff inside our skulls. Humans are too com­plex to be treat­ed like brains in vats. Holis­tic dis­ci­plines like med­i­ta­tion and yoga empha­size the union of mind and body, and neu­ro­sci­en­tists have shown how men­tal and emo­tion­al health is as tied to the func­tion­ing of our cir­cu­la­to­ry sys­tems and micro­bio­mes as it is to prop­er brain func­tion.

On the oth­er hand, there’s no deny­ing the impor­tance of brain health, giv­en that it’s the one organ we may nev­er be able to replace. While we may have grown accus­tomed to, and maybe even weary of, see­ing mind­ful­ness under the scan­ner, the neu­ro­science of yoga hasn’t received near­ly as much press. This is chang­ing for sev­er­al rea­sons. Most promi­nent­ly, “yoga has par­tic­u­lar­ly gained trac­tion as a research area of inter­est in its promis­ing poten­tial of ther­a­py to com­bat the alarm­ing increase in age-relat­ed neu­ro­gen­er­a­tive dis­eases.”

So notes a sys­temic review of the cur­rent lit­er­a­ture on yoga and brain health pub­lished in the jour­nal Brain Plas­tic­i­ty this past Novem­ber. The authors sur­veyed 11 dif­fer­ent stud­ies, all of which pre­served the typ­i­cal Hatha yoga mix of pos­tures, med­i­ta­tion, and breath­ing exer­cis­es in their method­ol­o­gy. Each study also “used brain-imag­ing tech­niques such as MRI, func­tion­al MRI or sin­gle-pho­ton emis­sion com­put­er­ized tomog­ra­phy” to assess phys­i­cal brain changes, reports Sci­ence Dai­ly.

The sur­vey authors define yoga as “the most pop­u­lar form of com­ple­men­tary ther­a­py prac­ticed by more than 13 mil­lion adults,” as well as an ancient prac­tice that “dates back over 2000 years to ancient India.” Whether one does yoga in more spir­i­tu­al or more sec­u­lar con­texts, its “acute and inter­ven­tion effects on cog­ni­tion are evi­dent” across the entire range of stud­ies. The research con­firms much of what we might expect—yoga has a pos­i­tive effect on mood, demon­strat­ing “the poten­tial to improve anx­i­ety, depres­sion, stress and over­all men­tal health.”

The sur­vey also showed con­sis­tent find­ings we might not have expect­ed. Despite the typ­i­cal­ly slow pace of a Hatha yoga rou­tine, all the stud­ies found evi­dence that “yoga enhances many of the same brain struc­tures and func­tions that ben­e­fit from aer­o­bic exer­cise,” as Sci­ence Dai­ly points out. “From these 11 stud­ies, we iden­ti­fied some brain regions that con­sis­tent­ly come up, and they are sur­pris­ing­ly not very dif­fer­ent from what we see with exer­cise research,” says lead author Neha Gotha, kine­si­ol­o­gy and com­mu­ni­ty health pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois.

Gotha iden­ti­fies one of those ben­e­fits as an increase in the size of the hip­pocam­pus, the region of the brain that tends to shrink with age and “the struc­ture that is first affect­ed in demen­tia and Alzheimer’s dis­ease.” Oth­er regions affect­ed include the amyg­dala, which con­tributes to emo­tion­al reg­u­la­tion, and the pre­frontal cor­tex, which is “essen­tial to plan­ning, deci­sion-mak­ing, mul­ti­task­ing, think­ing about your options and pick­ing the right option,” says study co-author Jes­si­ca Damoi­seaux, psy­chol­o­gy pro­fes­sor at Wayne State Uni­ver­si­ty.

“Yoga is not aer­o­bic in nature,” says Gotha, “so there must be oth­er mech­a­nisms lead­ing to these brain changes. So far we don’t have the evi­dence to iden­ti­fy what those mech­a­nisms are.”  The effects, how­ev­er, aren’t only sim­i­lar to those of more vig­or­ous exer­cise; in some cas­es, yoga seemed even more effec­tive. Nicole McDer­mott at Greatist explains that in one study Gotha con­duct­ed with 30 female col­leagues, “reac­tion times were short­er and accu­ra­cy was greater after the yoga ses­sion com­pared to 20 min­utes of a tread­mill.” Even more sur­pris­ing­ly, “jog­ging result­ed in near­ly the same cog­ni­tive per­for­mance as the base­line test­ing when the women didn’t exer­cise at all.”

These results should be seen as pro­vi­sion­al and pre­lim­i­nary. “We need more rig­or­ous and well-con­trolled inter­ven­tion stud­ies to con­firm these ini­tial find­ings,” Damoi­seaux cau­tions. But they may con­tribute to grow­ing evi­dence of the “mind-body con­nec­tion” yoga helps fos­ter. Bet­ter mood and low­ered stress tend to improve brain health over­all. Oth­er stud­ies sup­port these con­clu­sions, such as research show­ing how yoga prac­tice over time enlarges the somatosen­so­ry cor­tex, which con­tains a “men­tal map” of the body and pro­motes greater self-aware­ness.

No doubt we’ll see many more stud­ies on yoga and brain func­tion in the com­ing years. For the time being, the sci­ence strong­ly sug­gests that when we hit the yoga mat to lim­ber up and de-stress, we’re also help­ing to proof our brains against debil­i­tat­ing effects of aging like mem­o­ry loss and cog­ni­tive decline. Read Gotha and Damoi­seaux’s full sur­vey of the neu­ro­science of yoga here.

via Sci­ence Dai­ly

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How to Get Start­ed with Yoga: Free Yoga Lessons on YouTube

Son­ny Rollins Describes How 50 Years of Prac­tic­ing Yoga Made Him a Bet­ter Musi­cian

Yoga in an X‑Ray Machine

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

Clive James & Jonathan Miller (Both RIP) Talk Together About How the Brain Works

“Were they the last rep­re­sen­ta­tives of a spe­cial kind of pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al?” asks John Mullen in the Guardian. He writes of Clive James and Jonathan Miller, two fig­ures who exem­pli­fied “the poly­math as enter­tain­er.” The Aus­tralian-born James became famous on the back of the tele­vi­sion crit­i­cism that turned him into a tele­vi­sion fix­ture him­self. The com­bined TV crit­ic and TV host also played the same dual role in the realm of poet­ry, and as his life and career went on — and his bib­li­og­ra­phy great­ly expand­ed — it came to seem that there were few forms, tra­di­tions, time peri­ods, or lan­guages his cul­tur­al omniv­o­rous­ness did­n’t reach. Trained as a doc­tor before he rede­fined British com­e­dy as a mem­ber of Beyond the Fringe, Miller retained his sci­en­tif­ic inter­ests, using his fame to write books and present a tele­vi­sion show on anato­my, psy­chol­o­gy, and lan­guage, and much more besides.

Since the deaths of both James and Miller were announced last Fri­day, the out­pour­ing of trib­utes (most of them lament­ing the seem­ing loss, in our time, of high-pro­file roles for enter­tain­ing poly­maths free to move between “high” and “low”) has been accom­pa­nied by a renewed enthu­si­asm for both men’s con­sid­er­able bod­ies of work.

Despite hav­ing known each oth­er, James and Miller seem nev­er to have explic­it­ly col­lab­o­rat­ed on any­thing — except, that is, an episode of Talk­ing in the Library, an ear­ly exam­ple of what we would now call an inter­view web series. Pro­duced from 2006 to 2008, the show has James pio­neer­ing a form that has now become stan­dard among pod­cast­ers: record­ing the con­ver­sa­tions he want­ed to have with his friends any­way.

In James’ case, his friends include the likes of not just Miller but Mar­tin Amis, Ruby Wax, Ian McE­wan, Stephen Fry, and Ter­ry Gilliam. With Miller, James spends the half-hour talk­ing sci­ence, and specif­i­cal­ly neu­ro­science. Miller, who spe­cial­ized in neu­rol­o­gy while study­ing med­i­cine (and who count­ed Oliv­er Sacks as a close friend since age 12), returned to the sub­ject in the ear­ly 1980s for his book and BBC series States of Mind. Not long there­after he returned at the age of 50 to his med­ical stud­ies, div­ing into neu­ropsy­chol­o­gy at McMas­ter Uni­ver­si­ty and becom­ing a research fel­low at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Sus­sex.

Though James aban­doned his own uni­ver­si­ty stud­ies in psy­chol­o­gy by 1960, his curios­i­ty about the work­ings of the human brain — and how it could pro­duce all the art, lit­er­a­ture, film, and indeed tele­vi­sion to whose appre­ci­a­tion he ded­i­cat­ed his life — nev­er aban­doned him, as evi­denced by the eager­ness with which he asks ques­tions of his more neu­ro­sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly savvy friend. “The brain is the most com­pli­cat­ed thing in the uni­verse,” says Miller, “so com­pli­cat­ed, in fact, that by con­trast the uni­verse itself it not much more com­pli­cat­ed than a cuck­oo clock.” Fair to say that both Miller and James had the good luck to pos­sess more com­pli­cat­ed, or at least more inter­est­ing, brains than aver­age — and that it’s our good luck to be able to enjoy their work in per­pe­tu­ity.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Athe­ism: A Rough His­to­ry of Dis­be­lief, with Jonathan Miller

John Cleese & Jonathan Miller Turn Profs Talk­ing About Wittgen­stein Into a Clas­sic Com­e­dy Rou­tine (1977)

The Drink­ing Par­ty, 1965 Film Adapts Plato’s Sym­po­sium to Mod­ern Times

Join Clive James on His Clas­sic Tele­vi­sion Trips to Paris, LA, Tokyo, Rio, Cairo & Beyond

Your Brain on Art: The Emerg­ing Sci­ence of Neu­roaes­thet­ics Probes What Art Does to Our Brains

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­maand the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future? Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

What Is Higher Consciousness?: How We Can Transcend Our Petty, Day-to-Day Desires and Gain a Deeper Wisdom

Each of us has a nor­mal state of mind, as well as our own way of reach­ing a dif­fer­ent state of mind. As the School of Life video above reminds us, such habits go back quite deep into record­ed his­to­ry, to the eras when, then as now, “Hin­du sages, Chris­t­ian monks and Bud­dhist ascetics” spoke of “reach­ing moments of ‘high­er con­scious­ness’ – through med­i­ta­tion or chant­i­ng, fast­ing or pil­grim­ages.” In recent years, the prac­tice of med­i­ta­tion has spread even, and per­haps espe­cial­ly, among those of us who don’t sub­scribe to Bud­dhism, or indeed to any reli­gion at all. Peri­od­ic fast­ing has come to be seen as a neces­si­ty in cer­tain cir­cles of wealthy first-worlders, as has “dopamine fast­ing” among those who feel their minds com­pro­mised by the dis­trac­tions of high tech­nol­o­gy and social media. (And one needs only glance at that social media to see how seri­ous­ly some of us are tak­ing our pil­grim­ages.)

Still, on top of our moun­tain, deep into our sit­ting-and-breath­ing ses­sions, or even after hav­ing con­sumed our mind-alter­ing sub­stance of choice, we do feel, if only for a moment, that some­thing has changed with­in us. We under­stand things we don’t even con­sid­er under­stand­ing in our nor­mal state of mind, “where what we are prin­ci­pal­ly con­cerned with is our­selves, our sur­vival and our own suc­cess, nar­row­ly defined.”

When we occu­py this “low­er con­scious­ness,” we “strike back when we’re hit, blame oth­ers, quell any stray ques­tions that lack imme­di­ate rel­e­vance, fail to free-asso­ciate and stick close­ly to a flat­ter­ing image of who we are and where we are head­ing.” But when we enter a state of “high­er con­scious­ness,” how­ev­er we define it, “the mind moves beyond its par­tic­u­lar self-inter­ests and crav­ings. We start to think of oth­er peo­ple in a more imag­i­na­tive way.”

When we rise from low­er to high­er con­scious­ness, we find it much hard­er to think of our fel­low human beings as ene­mies. “Rather than crit­i­cize and attack, we are free to imag­ine that their behav­ior is dri­ven by pres­sures derived from their own more prim­i­tive minds, which they are gen­er­al­ly in no posi­tion to tell us about.” The more time we spend in our high­er con­scious­ness, the more we “devel­op the abil­i­ty to explain oth­ers’ actions by their dis­tress, rather than sim­ply in terms of how it affects us. We per­ceive that the appro­pri­ate response to human­i­ty is not fear, cyn­i­cism or aggres­sion, but always — when we can man­age it — love.” When our con­scious­ness reach­es the prop­er alti­tude, “the world reveals itself as quite dif­fer­ent: a place of suf­fer­ing and mis­guid­ed effort, full of peo­ple striv­ing to be heard and lash­ing out against oth­ers, but also a place of ten­der­ness and long­ing, beau­ty and touch­ing vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. The fit­ting response is uni­ver­sal sym­pa­thy and kind­ness.”

This may all come across as a bit new-age, sound­ing “mad­den­ing­ly vague, wishy washy, touchy-feely – and, for want of a bet­ter word, annoy­ing.” But the con­cept of high­er con­scious­ness is var­i­ous­ly inter­pret­ed not just across cul­tur­al and reli­gious tra­di­tions but in sci­en­tif­ic research as well, where we find a sharp dis­tinc­tion drawn between the neo­cor­tex, “the seat of imag­i­na­tion, empa­thy and impar­tial judge­ment,” and the “rep­til­ian mind” below. This sug­gests that we’d ben­e­fit from under­stand­ing states of high­er con­scious­ness as ful­ly as we can, as well as try­ing to “make the most of them when they arise, and har­vest their insights for the time when we require them most” — that is to say, the rest of our ordi­nary lives, espe­cial­ly their most stress­ful, try­ing moments. The instinc­tive, unimag­i­na­tive defen­sive­ness of the low­er con­scious­ness does have strengths of its own, but we can’t take advan­tage of them unless we learn to put it in its place.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Med­i­ta­tion for Begin­ners: Bud­dhist Monks & Teach­ers Explain the Basics

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

David Lynch Explains How Med­i­ta­tion Boosts Our Cre­ativ­i­ty (Plus Free Resources to Help You Start Med­i­tat­ing)

The Neu­ronal Basis of Con­scious­ness Course: A Free Online Course from Cal­tech

The Unex­pect­ed Ways East­ern Phi­los­o­phy Can Make Us Wis­er, More Com­pas­sion­ate & Bet­ter Able to Appre­ci­ate Our Lives

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

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.

Neuroscience & Jazz Improvisation: How Improvisation Shapes Creativity and What Happens Inside Our Brain

Jazz impro­vi­sa­tion has become a hot top­ic in neu­ro­science late­ly, and lit­tle won­der. “Musi­cal impro­vi­sa­tion is one of the most com­plex forms of cre­ative behav­ior,” write the authors of a study pub­lished in April in Brain Con­nec­tiv­i­ty. Research on the brains of impro­vis­ers offers “a real­is­tic task par­a­digm for the inves­ti­ga­tion of real-time creativity”—an even hot­ter top­ic in neu­ro­science.

Researchers study jazz play­ers for the same rea­son they take MRI scans of the brains of freestyle rappers—both involve cre­at­ing spon­ta­neous works “where revi­sion is not pos­si­ble,” and where only a few for­mal rules gov­ern the activ­i­ty, whether rhyme and meter or chord struc­ture and har­mo­ny. Those who mas­ter the basics can leap into end­less­ly com­plex feats of impro­visato­ry brava­do at any moment.

It’s a pow­er most of us only dream of possessing—though it’s also the case that many a researcher of jazz impro­vi­sa­tions also hap­pens to be a musi­cian, includ­ing study author Mar­tin Nor­gaard, a trained jazz vio­lin­ist who “began study­ing the effects of musi­cal impro­vi­sa­tion… while earn­ing his Ph.D. from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas at Austin,” notes Jen­nifer Rainey Mar­quez at Geor­gia State Uni­ver­si­ty Research Mag­a­zine.

Nor­gaard inter­viewed both stu­dents and pro­fes­sion­al musi­cians, and he ana­lyzed the solos of Char­lie Park­er to find pat­terns relat­ed to spe­cif­ic kinds of brain activ­i­ty. In this recent study, Nor­gaard, now at Geor­gia State Uni­ver­si­ty, worked with Mukesh Dhamala, asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of physics and astron­o­my, using an fMRI to mea­sure the brain activ­i­ty of “advanced jazz musi­cians” who sang both stan­dards and impro­vi­sa­tions while being scanned.

The researchers’ find­ings are con­sis­tent with sim­i­lar stud­ies, like those of John Hop­kins sur­geon Charles Limb, who also con­sid­ers jazz a key to under­stand­ing cre­ativ­i­ty. While impro­vis­ing, musi­cians show decreased activ­i­ty in the pre­frontal cor­tex, the area of the brain that gen­er­ates plan­ning and over­think­ing, and gets in the way of what psy­chol­o­gists call a state of “flow.” Impro­vis­ing might engage “a small­er, more focused brain net­work,” says Nor­gaard, “while oth­er parts of the brain go qui­et.”

Train­ing and prac­tice in impro­vi­sa­tion may also have longer-term results as well. A study con­trast­ing the brain activ­i­ty of jazz and clas­si­cal play­ers found that the for­mer were much quick­er and more adapt­able in their think­ing. The researchers attrib­uted these qual­i­ties to changes in the brain wrought by years of impro­vis­ing. Nor­gaard and his team are much more cir­cum­spect in their con­clu­sions, but they do sug­gest a causal link.

In a study of 155 8th graders enrolled in a jazz for kids pro­gram, Nor­gaard found that the half who were giv­en train­ing in impro­vi­sa­tion showed “sig­nif­i­cant improve­ment in cog­ni­tive flex­i­bil­i­ty.” Research like this not only val­i­dates the intu­itions of jazz musi­cians them­selves; it also helps define spe­cif­ic ques­tions about the cog­ni­tive ben­e­fits of play­ing music, which are gen­er­al­ly evi­dent in study after study.

“For near­ly three decades,” Nor­gaard says, “sci­en­tists have explored the idea that learn­ing to play an instru­ment is linked to aca­d­e­m­ic achieve­ment.” But there are “many types of music learn­ing.” It’s cer­tain­ly not as sim­ple as study­ing Bach to work on accu­ra­cy or Coltrane for flex­i­bil­i­ty, but dif­fer­ent kinds of music cre­ates dif­fer­ent struc­tures in the brain. We might next won­der about the math­e­mat­i­cal prop­er­ties of these struc­tures, or how they inter­act with mod­ern the­o­ries of physics. Rest assured, there are jazz-play­ing sci­en­tists out there work­ing on the ques­tion.

via Futu­ri­ty

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

Philoso­pher Jacques Der­ri­da Inter­views Jazz Leg­end Ornette Cole­man: Talk Impro­vi­sa­tion, Lan­guage & Racism (1997)

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

Neurosymphony: A High-Resolution Look into the Brain, Set to the Music of Brain Waves

We can’t talk about how music moves us with­out talk­ing about what, exact­ly, music does to our brains. The musi­cophile neu­rol­o­gist Oliv­er Sacks made the rela­tion­ship between music and the brain one of the themes of his career, and were he alive today, he would sure­ly enjoy Neu­rosym­pho­ny, a new audio­vi­su­al expe­ri­ence of the brain now up at Aeon. It takes the high­est-res­o­lu­tion MRI scan of the human brain in exis­tence, fea­tured ear­li­er this year here at Open Cul­ture, and mash­es it up with music suit­able for a jour­ney through the cross-sec­tions of our most impres­sive organ — suit­able not just aes­thet­i­cal­ly, but also in the sense that it, too, was made from the stuff of the brain.

Orig­i­nal­ly scanned by the Lab­o­ra­to­ry for Neu­roImag­ing of Coma and Con­scious­ness (NICC) at Mass­a­chu­setts Gen­er­al Hos­pi­tal in Boston, this brain imagery is sound­tracked in Neu­rosym­pho­ny by “an excerpt from the album Chapel by the US elec­tron­ic musi­cian and music-cog­ni­tion researcher Grace Leslie, in which she con­verts her brain­waves into music.” On her web site, Leslie describes her­self as “com­mit­ted to har­ness­ing the expres­sion grant­ed by new music inter­faces to bet­ter under­stand the link between music and emo­tion, with an ulti­mate goal of employ­ing musi­cal brain-com­put­er inter­faces to pro­mote well­ness.”

A few years ago, Leslie revealed her process of con­vert­ing brain waves to musi­cal sounds to BBC Future. “Using equip­ment that mon­i­tors the elec­tri­cal activ­i­ty of her brain, changes in her heart rate and sub­tle shifts in the con­duc­tance of her skin, she is cre­at­ing music from the sig­nals pro­duced by her own body while on stage,” writes Richard Gray. “Leslie plays these sig­nals through an elec­tron­ic syn­the­siz­er to pro­duce ambi­ent sounds that reflect what is going on in her body. She can also fil­ter the sounds from musi­cal instru­ments, like a flute, with the sig­nals from her body to mix them togeth­er in a com­put­er.” You can watch Leslie’s 2017 per­for­mance of anoth­er such piece, Audi­ble, in the video below.

While Leslie’s meth­ods pro­duce music quite unlike what most of us are used to, her goals go beyond the per­for­ma­tive. “Ulti­mate­ly, Leslie believes this inno­v­a­tive form of musi­cal expres­sion could be used to help those who have dif­fi­cul­ty inter­act­ing with the world, such as those with autism,” writes Gray. In this way she has some­thing in com­mon, beyond pure inter­est in the brain, with the team at the NICC, who pro­duced their ground­break­ing scans as a part of their mis­sion to fur­ther the under­stand­ing of recov­ery from trau­mat­ic brain injury. All wor­thy pur­suits, of course, but it cer­tain­ly does­n’t hurt that their by-prod­ucts include works like Neu­rosym­pho­ny that moti­vate us all to learn a bit more about the nature of our own brains.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Music in the Brain: Sci­en­tists Final­ly Reveal the Parts of Our Brain That Are Ded­i­cat­ed to Music

The Neu­ro­science of Bass: New Study Explains Why Bass Instru­ments Are Fun­da­men­tal to Music

The Neu­ro­science of Drum­ming: Researchers Dis­cov­er the Secrets of Drum­ming & The Human Brain

The Sci­ence of Singing: New, High-Speed MRI Machine Images Man Singing ‘If I Only Had a Brain’

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.

The Benefits of Boredom: How to Stop Distracting Yourself and Get Creative Ideas Again

Here in the 21st cen­tu­ry, we have con­quered bore­dom. Impres­sive though that achieve­ment may be, it has­n’t come with­out cost: As with many oth­er con­di­tions we’ve man­aged to elim­i­nate from our lives, bore­dom now looks to have been essen­tial to full human exis­tence. Has our real­i­ty of on-demand dis­trac­tions, tai­lored ever more close­ly to our impuls­es and desires, robbed us of yet anoth­er form of every­day adver­si­ty that built up the char­ac­ter of pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions? Per­haps, but more impor­tant­ly, it may also have dried up our well of cre­ativ­i­ty. The frus­tra­tion that descends on us when try­ing to come up with new ideas; the itch we feel, when­ev­er we start doing some­thing, to do some­thing else; our inabil­i­ty to go more than a few min­utes with­out look­ing at our phones: we can hard­ly assume these mod­ern prob­lems are unre­lat­ed.

“When you’re bored, you tend to day­dream, and your mind wan­ders, and this is a very, very impor­tant part of the cre­ative process,” says psy­chol­o­gist San­di Mann in the ani­mat­ed BBC REEL video at the top of the post. “If you find that you’re stuck on a prob­lem, or you’re real­ly wor­ried about some­thing and can’t seem to find a way out, take some time out. Just be bored. Let your mind wan­der, and you might just find that a cre­ative solu­tion will pop into your head.”

But we’ve fall­en into the habit of “swip­ing and scrolling our bore­dom away,” seek­ing “a dopamine hit from new and nov­el expe­ri­ences” — most often dig­i­tal ones — to assuage our fears of bore­dom. And the more such stim­u­la­tion we get, the more we need, mean­ing that, “para­dox­i­cal­ly, the way to deal with bore­dom is to allow more of it into our life.”

“Once you start day­dream­ing and allow your mind to real­ly wan­der,” Mann says, “you start think­ing a lit­tle bit beyond the con­scious, a lit­tle bit into the sub­con­scious, which allows sort of dif­fer­ent con­nec­tions to take place.” She says it in “How Bore­dom Can Lead to Your Most Bril­liant Ideas,” a TED Talk by jour­nal­ist Manoush Zomoro­di. Like the pub­lic-radio pod­cast­er she is, Zomoro­di brings in inter­view clips from not just Mann but a range of experts on the sub­ject of bore­dom and dis­trac­tion, includ­ing neu­ro­sci­en­tist Daniel Lev­itin, who warns that “every time you shift your atten­tion from one thing to anoth­er, the brain has to engage a neu­ro­chem­i­cal switch that uses up nutri­ents in the brain to accom­plish that.” And so the “mul­ti­task­ing” in which we once prid­ed our­selves amounts to noth­ing more than “rapid­ly shift­ing from one thing to the next, deplet­ing neur­al resources as you go.”

We’ve become like the exper­i­ment sub­jects, described in the Ver­i­ta­si­um video above, who were asked to sit alone in an emp­ty room for a few min­utes with noth­ing in front of them but a but­ton that they knew would shock them. In the end, 25 per­cent of the women and 60 per­cent of the men chose, unasked, to shock them­selves, pre­sum­ably out of a pref­er­ence for painful stim­u­la­tion over no stim­u­la­tion at all. How much, we have to won­der, does that ulti­mate­ly dif­fer from the dis­trac­tions we com­pul­sive­ly seek at every oppor­tu­ni­ty in the form of social media, games, and oth­er addic­tive apps? And what do these increas­ing­ly fre­quent self-admin­is­tered jolts do to our abil­i­ty to iden­ti­fy promis­ing avenues of thought and fol­low them all the way to their most fruit­ful con­clu­sions? As the old say­ing goes, only the bor­ing are bored. But if our tech­no­log­i­cal lives keep going the way they’ve been going, soon only the bored will be inter­est­ing.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

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

David Lynch Explains How Med­i­ta­tion Boosts Our Cre­ativ­i­ty (Plus Free Resources to Help You Start Med­i­tat­ing)

How to Focus: Five Talks Reveal the Secrets of Con­cen­tra­tion

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

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.

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

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