Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

The voice of nature

Yesterday I wrote about my difficulty with maintaining concentration.  My mind's tendency to wander has been with me all my life, and at after sixty years of fighting with it I'm beginning to think it always will be.  This, coupled with an unfortunate history of not sticking with things long if I don't see quick results, has been why my attempts to make a practice of meditation have, all things considered, been failures.

I've had more than one person recommend meditation and mindfulness training as a means for combatting depression, anxiety, and insomnia, all of which I struggle with.  I even did a six-week mindfulness training course three years ago, thinking that if perhaps I learned some strategies for dealing with my errant brain, I might be more successful.  But even training didn't seem to be able to fix the fact that when I meditate, I nearly always veer off either into an anxiety attack or else fall asleep.  Steering a middle course -- being relaxed and tranquil enough to gain some benefit from it, but not so relaxed and tranquil that I lose consciousness -- just never seemed to be within my grasp.

Part of my problem is that I have a loud internal voice,  I know we all deal with internal chatter, but mine has the volume turned up to eleven.  And it's not even interesting chatter, most of the time.  I sometimes have looped snippets of songs, usually songs I hate.  (Last week, I woke up at two AM with the song "Waterloo" by Abba running through my head.  God alone knows why.  I don't even like that song during the day.)  Sometimes it's just completely random musings, like while I was running yesterday and pondering how weird the word "aliquot" is.  (For you non-science folks, it means "a sample" -- as in, "transfer a 3.5 ml aliquot of the solution to a test tube."  I also found out, because I was still thinking about it later and decided to look it up, that it comes from a Latin word meaning "some.")

So most of the time, my brain is like a horse that's always on the verge of spooking, throwing its rider, and then running off a cliff.

The topic comes up because of a paper that appeared this week in the journal Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain, which found that the old technique used for combatting distraction during meditation -- to focus on your breath -- simply doesn't work well for some people.  Not only is it an ongoing battle, a lot of people have the same problem I did, which is taking those mindfulness skills and then applying them during the ordinary activities of the day.

In "Exploring Mindfulness Attentional Skills Acquisition, Psychological and Physiological Functioning and Well-being: Using Mindful Breathing or Mindful Listening in a Nonclinical Sample," by Leong-Min Loo, Jon Prince, and Helen Correia, we read about a study of 79 young adults who were trained in mindfulness and meditation techniques -- but for some of them, they were instructed in the traditional "return to your breath if you get distracted" method, and others were told to focus on external sounds like quiet recorded music or sounds of nature.  Interestingly, the ones who were told to focus on external sounds not only reported fewer and shorter episodes of distraction during meditation, they reported greater ease in using those techniques during their ordinary daily activities -- and also reported lower symptoms of depression and anxiety afterward than the group who mediated in silence.

What's funny is I was just thinking about the idea of soothing sounds a couple of days ago, when I participated in one of those silly online quizzes.  One of the questions was, "What are your favorite sounds?" -- and after I rattled off a few, I realized that all but one of them were natural sounds.  Thunder.  Wind in the trees.  The dawn chorus of birds in spring.  A hard rain striking the roof.  Ocean waves.  (The only one on my list that wasn't natural was "distant church bells at night" -- a sound that reminds me of when I was nine and lived with my grandma for a year, and every evening heard the beautiful and melancholy sound of the bells of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Broussard, Louisiana, rising and falling with the breeze.)

So maybe it's time to try meditation again, but using some recordings of natural sounds to aid my focus.  I know I'll still have to combat my brain's tendency to yell absurd and random stuff at me, and also my unfortunate penchant for giving up on things too easily.  But something external to focus on seems like it might help a bit, at least with the attentional part of it.

And lord help me, if it purges "Waterloo" from my brain, it'll be worthwhile regardless.


I'm always amazed by the resilience we humans can sometimes show.  Knocked down again and again, in circumstances that "adverse" doesn't even begin to describe, we rise above and move beyond, sometimes accomplishing great things despite catastrophic setbacks.

In Why Fish Don't Exist: A Story of Love, Loss, and the Hidden Order of Life, journalist Lulu Miller looks at the life of David Starr Jordan, a taxonomist whose fascination with aquatic life led him to the discovery of a fifth of the species of fish known in his day.  But to say the man had bad luck is a ridiculous understatement.  He lost his collections, drawings, and notes repeatedly, first to lightning, then to fire, and finally and catastrophically to the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, which shattered just about every specimen bottle he had.

But Jordan refused to give up.  After the earthquake he set about rebuilding one more time, becoming the founding president of Stanford University and living and working until his death in 1931 at the age of eighty.  Miller's biography of Jordan looks at his scientific achievements and incredible tenacity -- but doesn't shy away from his darker side as an early proponent of eugenics, and the allegations that he might have been complicit in the coverup of a murder.

She paints a picture of a complex, fascinating man, and her vivid writing style brings him and the world he lived in to life.  If you are looking for a wonderful biography, give Why Fish Don't Exist a read.  You won't be able to put it down.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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