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Image: Teachers Pay Teachers.
Why we doodle.

I keep a list of potential posts, but since the pandemic, many of them feel out of date. There’s one, for example, that I’ll put up when things return to normal, but if I tell you now about a rug market in Morocco run by women, how do I know that it’s currently operating?

Fortunately, there are some topics that work for both normal times and times of isolation. Today we consider what the act of making art can do for the brain.

“A lot of my free time is spent doodling,” writes Malaka Gharib. “I’m a journalist on NPR’s science desk by day. But all the time in between, I am an artist — specifically, a cartoonist. I draw in between tasks. I sketch at the coffee shop before work. And I like challenging myself to complete a zine — a little magazine — on my 20-minute bus commute.

“I do these things partly because it’s fun and entertaining. But I suspect there’s something deeper going on. Because when I create, I feel like it clears my head. It helps me make sense of my emotions. And somehow it makes me feel calmer and more relaxed.

“That made me wonder: What is going on in my brain when I draw? Why does it feel so nice? … It turns out there’s a lot happening in our minds and bodies when we make art.

” ‘Creativity in and of itself is important for remaining healthy, remaining connected to yourself and connected to the world,’ says Christianne Strang, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Alabama Birmingham and the former president of the American Art Therapy Association. …

” ‘Anything that engages your creative mind — the ability to make connections between unrelated things and imagine new ways to communicate — is good for you,’ says Girija Kaimal. She is a professor at Drexel University and a researcher in art therapy, leading art sessions with members of the military suffering from traumatic brain injury and caregivers of cancer patients. But she’s a big believer that art is for everybody — and no matter what your skill level, it’s something you should try to do on a regular basis. Here’s why. …

“Art’s ability to flex our imaginations may be one of the reasons why we’ve been making art since we were cave-dwellers, says Kaimal. It might serve an evolutionary purpose. She has a theory that art-making helps us navigate problems that might arise in the future. …

Her theory builds off of an idea developed in the last few years — that our brain is a predictive machine. The brain uses ‘information to make predictions about we might do next — and more importantly what we need to do next to survive and thrive. …

” ‘So what our brain is doing every day, every moment, consciously and unconsciously, is trying to imagine what is going to come and preparing yourself to face that. … This act of imagination is actually an act of survival,’ she says. ‘It is preparing us to imagine possibilities and hopefully survive those possibilities.’ …

“For a lot of people, making art can be nerve-wracking. What are you going to make? What kind of materials should you use? What if you can’t execute it? What if it … sucks?

“Studies show that despite those fears, ‘engaging in any sort of visual expression results in the reward pathway in the brain being activated,’ says Kaimal. ‘Which means that you feel good and it’s perceived as a pleasurable experience.’

“She and a team of researchers discovered this in a 2017 paper published in the journal The Arts in Psychotherapy. They measured blood flow to the brain’s reward center, the medial prefrontal cortex, in 26 participants as they completed three art activities: coloring in a mandala, doodling and drawing freely on a blank sheet of paper. …

“Although the research in the field of art therapy is emerging, there’s evidence that making art can lower stress and anxiety. In a 2016 paper in the Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, Kaimal and a group of researchers measured cortisol levels of 39 healthy adults. Cortisol is a hormone that helps the body respond to stress.

“They found that 45 minutes of creating art in a studio setting with an art therapist significantly lowered cortisol levels.

The paper also showed that there were no differences in health outcomes between people who identify as experienced artists and people who don’t. So that means that no matter your skill level, you’ll be able to feel all the good things that come with making art. …

“Ultimately, says Kaimal, making art should induce what the scientific community calls ‘flow’ — the wonderful thing that happens when you’re in the zone. ‘It’s that sense of losing yourself, losing all awareness. You’re so in the moment and fully present that you forget all sense of time and space,’ she says.

“And what’s happening in your brain when you’re in flow state? ‘It activates several networks including relaxed reflective state, focused attention to task and sense of pleasure,’ she says. …

“A number of studies have shown that coloring inside a shape — specifically a pre-drawn geometric mandala design — is more effective in boosting mood than coloring on a blank paper or even coloring inside a square shape. And one 2012 study published in Journal of the American Art Therapy Association showed that coloring inside a mandala reduces anxiety to a greater degree compared to coloring in a plaid design or a plain sheet of paper.

“Strang says there’s no one medium or art activity that’s ‘better’ than another. ‘Some days you want to may go home and paint. Other days you might want to sketch,’ she says.”

More at NPR, here.

The NPR reporter in today’s post wrote this book.

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Photo: Pinecone.org
Becoming a musician should not stress students out. That’s why students at a music school in Manchester, England, are encouraged to take time for a well-rounded life.

Our niece is a music teacher and youth orchestra conductor in North Carolina. Her husband and all three of her children are also accomplished musicians. One thing that’s hard to remember now is that when she was studying music in college, she was very stressed out.

That’s something a music school in Manchester, England, is determined to prevent as it launches its new wellness program.

Photo: UIG/Getty Images 
The Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, which has about 800 students, is promoting physical and mental wellness for students.

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Sally Weale writes at the Guardian, “The Royal Northern College of Music has become the first conservatoire to appoint a lecturer in musicians’ health and wellbeing, to help equip students to deal with the pressures of a career in music.

“The number of students reporting mental health concerns has risen sharply across higher education in recent years, and the RNCM is concerned its students have to deal with the additional pressure of concerts and recitals as well as long hours of practice.

“Sara Ascenso, a clinical psychologist and trained pianist, will start at the college in January. Her role will include lecturing and research, and she will also develop the health and wellbeing provision across the college, ensuring it is tailored to musicians’ needs.

“Kathy Hart, the RNCM students’ union president, said … ‘The work needed to build such a difficult career can come at a price, both physically and psychologically. … The more work we put in, the higher the stakes become – and the more devastating the impact if we are held back by injury or mental health struggles.’

“The Manchester college plans to lay on extra counselling sessions for students, particularly when performance pressures are at their peak, plus wellbeing activities such as yoga to help prevent injury. The RNCM also intends to extend its community outreach so more students get to work with people in need.

Ascenso said: ‘We want our students to learn how to make music with excellence, but also how to live fulfilling lives as musicians and as human beings more generally.’

More at the Guardian, here.

Photo: Mark Bell
A relaxed family recital communicates even to the dogs that music is something to enjoy.
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Photo: WideOpenPets.com
The University of Maine used baby goats to calm student stress during finals. Valley Edge Farm, which specializes in Nigerian Dairy Goats, provided the rambunctious kids.

This is exactly the sort of offbeat story I love. (Feel free to send me other kooky stories.)

Emily Burnham writes at Bangor Daily News, “For the past few years, the University of Maine has brought in therapy dogs — mostly cuddly golden retrievers and adorable Pomeranians — to soothe the frazzled nerves of students during finals week.

“This spring, however, it decided to try something a little different: baby goats.

“Brittany Smith, a staffer with UMaine’s campus activities board, got the idea when a co-worker mentioned that her sister, Abby Skolfield, owned and operated a goat farm, Valley’s Edge Farm, in the western Maine town of Strong. …

“A few quick phone calls later, a truckload of baby goats was on its way to UMaine, bound for an afternoon visit with students — most of whom had no idea they were going to hang out with month-old Nigerian Dwarf goats. Once word got out, a line stretched all across the mall, full of students waiting for their chance to pet a goat.

“ ‘I thought maybe 30, 40 people would show up, but this is ridiculous,’ said Smith. …

“Skolfield’s goats are old hands at dealing with crowds. Her goats are mostly for show, and they visit daycares and walk in parades regularly.

“ ‘I get hit up for goat yoga more times than I can count,’ said Skolfield. ‘I don’t see how that’s relaxing, but hey, whatever works.’ …

” ‘They come when called. Their little tails wag,’ she said. ‘They are the most dog-like of all livestock.’ ” More here.

I had actually heard of goat yoga! The goats stand on yoga students’ backs.

Video: CBS News

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You probably don’t need to be told this, but bathing yourself in nature can help you calm down, reduce stress. When I was a child, I lived near forest and could take a walk in the woods almost anytime. Not everyone can do that, which is why it’s so important to bring nature into cities and towns as much as possible. Even listening to recordings of nature can be soothing.

Anjali Nayar at Motherboard writes, “When Cale Holmes moved from Virginia to New York City for grad school, he started to have trouble sleeping. All night long the trains thundered past his building, garbage trucks groaned, and police sirens wailed. …

“One night, Holmes recalled how calm he used to feel whenever he visited a beach. He went to YouTube and ran a search for ocean sounds. Innumerable recordings of ocean waves popped up, some as long as 12 or 14 hours. He selected a nighttime version and let his room fill with the sound of the crashing of waves. …

“The next thing he knew, warm sunlight was filtering in through the curtains. When he checked his laptop, he saw that the recording had paused at just after four minutes when the laptop had powered off. … How had the recording helped him so much? …

“Jake Benfield, soundscape researcher and professor of Environmental Psychology at Penn State University, has been studying nature sounds for over a decade. … In 2014, Benfield led a research study to examine whether natural sounds had any impact on participants’ moods. The researchers first evaluated the volunteers’ moods and then deliberately spoiled their moods by showing them disturbing medical videos of hand surgeries. ‘As we would expect,’ Benfield said, ‘watching medical videos makes people disgusted, negative, and generally in a bad mood.’

“The researchers then randomly assigned the volunteers to three groups and made them listen to different soundscapes. One group was made to listen to city sounds and traffic. Members of this group reported that their moods became worse. Another group listened to mixed environments containing nature and city sounds, and this group reported no significant mood changes.

“The third group, however, listened to purely natural sounds — like the sound of the wind rustling through trees or the chirping of birds. Participants in this group reported a complete mood recovery.”

In another study, Benfield told Motherboard, “Researchers at University of Gavle, Sweden [designed] an ambiguous, fuzzy sound, which wasn’t entirely discernible, and hence open to interpretation. The researchers then enlisted participants and told half of them that the sound was that of a waterfall while telling the others that it was from an industrial source.

“What they discovered was that the first group, the one that had thought that the sound was that of running water, showed remarkable mood recovery. On the other hand, the second group that had assumed the sound was unnatural, reported no mood recovery.”

Several related studies are described at Motherboard, here. Enjoy!

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Photo: Joe Suarez for NPR
Las Cruces High School has one napping pod, which students use for 20 minutes when they are tired, stressed or angry.

In my family, we are big believers in naps. Long naps, short naps, any kind of nap. I don’t take a nap every day, but when I’m feeling exhausted for any reason, I find that 15 or 20 minutes of sleep really refreshes me.

Interestingly, 20 minutes is what teachers prescribe for students at Las Cruces High School in New Mexico.

Patti Neighmond reports at National Public Radio, “Studies have shown teenagers actually need between nine and 10 hours of sleep a night. But the vast majority (69 percent) aren’t getting it.

“Enter ‘napping pods.’ They’re essentially egg-shaped lounge chairs that recline, with a circular lid that can be pulled over the chest to shield against light.

“It just sort of envelops you in a really nice darkness, with soft lighting behind you,” says [18-year-old Hannah] Vanderkooy, a frequent user of the pods. She says she typically gets only four to five hours of sleep a night.” She’s a senior and working hard to get good grades and maybe college scholarships.

“There’s soft music playing in the pod and ‘you just feel extremely relaxed,’ she says. …

“A nap can’t substitute for a good night’s sleep, but it certainly can help, says Dr. Nitun Verma, a sleep specialist and spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

“A short nap for a teenager ‘can give a boost to memory and attention during the day, and it can increase school performance,’ he says, adding that in a perfect world, schools would roll back their start times. …

“Several public schools in New Mexico are trying to tackle the problem by providing napping pods for their students.

” ‘We know lack of sleep changes mood and makes you more anxious,’ says family nurse practitioner Linda Summers, who is an associate professor at New Mexico State University’s school of nursing in Las Cruces.

“Summers also works with the nearby Las Cruces High School health center, and has seen firsthand the effects of sleep deprivation on students there. So she decided to apply for a federal health grant to buy the pods, which, at the time, cost $14,000 each. They were installed in four high schools.

“And while the Las Cruces school napping pods were bought to remedy sleep deprivation, Summers says, ‘it also turns out to be good for anger and stress.’

“Even if kids don’t fall asleep, but simply ‘zone out,’ she says, they emerge saying they feel ‘refreshed and calm.’ ” More here.

Summers has conducted a study that has been accepted by a peer-reviewed journal, so expect to hear more on this topic anon.

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Photo: Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
Visitors play music and talk together in a Cairo, Egypt, bookshop where the new “scream room” is found.

There’s a rather unusual bookstore in Cairo: one that offers customers a room where, if they feel the need to scream, they can just let it rip. No charge for ten minutes.

“Visitors to a bookshop in Cairo are being invited into a dark, soundproof room to scream at the top of their lungs in an effort to relieve their frustrations and escape from the stresses of daily life.

“The new ‘scream room’ is tucked away in the ‘The World’s Door’ bookshop and is also equipped with a full drum kit allowing customers to let go of their worries …

“Owner AbdelRahman Saad offers each visitor ten minutes inside the private scream room, free of charge. He believes it is the first room of its kind in the Middle East.

” ‘I entered it at a time when I was really stressed and came out much more relaxed,’ said frequent visitor Mohamed el-Debbaby. ‘What’s even better is that I was able to find solutions to the problem I was facing.” More here.

(Reporting by Reuters Television; Writing by Adela Suliman; Editing by Patrick Johnston/Jeremy Gaunt)

Photo: Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
Mohamed el-Debbaby, a dentist, screams in a soundproof room inside a bookshop in Cairo in an effort to escape from the stresses of daily life.

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There’s nothing like concentrating on something completely “other” to calm one down. Here, at the tension-filled demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, soldiers take a break to concentrate on ballet.

Kim Hong-Ji reports at Reuters the Wider Picture,”The 15 male ballet students groaned as they strained to do the splits and laughed with relief after their teacher counted to five and let them relax.

“Once a week, a group of South Korean soldiers near the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that divides the Korean peninsula trade army boots for ballet shoes in a class intended to ease the stress of guarding the world’s most heavily fortified border.

” ‘There’s a lot of tension here since we live in the unit on the front line, which makes me feel insecure at times,’ said Kim Joo-hyeok, a 23-year-old sergeant doing his nearly two years of military service that is mandatory for South Korean men.

” ‘But through ballet, I am able to stay calm and find balance as well as build friendships with my fellow soldiers,’ said Kim, who is learning ballet for a second year and plans to continue when he is discharged from the army. …

” ‘Being in the army itself can be difficult, so I wasn’t sure what kind of help I can be here,’ said Lee Hyang-jo, a ballerina at the Korean National Ballet who visits the base once a week to train the soldiers.

” ‘But as the soldiers learn ballet little by little, they laugh more and have a great time and seeing that makes me think that coming here is worthwhile,’ she said.”

I suspect it is fun for her, too, in the same way that teaching English lit to a class of engineers was fun for one professor I heard about. The fresh perspectives of those who come from an entirely different discipline has to be rewarding for a teacher.

More at Reuters.

Photo: Reuters

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Tim Jonze wrote a funny story at the Guardian about hiring a therapeutic opera singer to deal with his anxiety about becoming a father.

“The soprano reaches a dramatic climax, demonstrating impressive lung power as she sustains the dizzying peak note, before bringing Quando me’n’ vo’ to its close. It is a powerful, emotionally draining performance, and one that seems to resonate around the room for some time after she has finished. Which is why I get up off the sofa and ask her if she would like a cup of tea.

“This, as you might have guessed, is not your typical night at the opera – and not only because it’s only just gone 11 am. It is called Opera Helps, and is a project dreamed up by the artist Joshua Sofaer. The gist is this: contact the Opera Helps phoneline with a personal problem, and they will endeavour to send a singer to your house. Said singer will briefly discuss the issue with you, select a suitable aria that addresses it, then perform it for you while you relax in familiar surroundings: on a comfortable chair, for instance, or even in bed.

“It’s not therapy as such – in fact, they are very keen to stress that their singers are not trained therapists – but the project does aim to help you look at your problem from a new perspective and, hopefully, experience the healing power of music.

“ ‘It’s about giving someone the space for reflection, the same way having a chat with a friend might give you fortitude to carry on,’ says Sofaer, who found success running the project in Sweden before bringing it to the UK. …

“ ‘In my experience, you either respond to the music or you don’t – I don’t think it is based on your musical education or what class you’re from or how much money you’ve got, which is the common perception. The idea that opera needs an expert audience is a complete misnomer.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

Photo: David Bebber for the Guardian  
Opera singer Caroline Kennedy sings to Tim Jonze to relieve his stress.

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John-E-tughole

An article by Gretchen Reynolds at the New York Times “Well” blog details new research on the stress-reducing effects of walking in nature.

Reynolds writes, “City dwellers [have] a higher risk for anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses than people living outside urban centers …

“Various studies have found that urban dwellers with little access to green spaces have a higher incidence of psychological problems than people living near parks and that city dwellers who visit natural environments have lower levels of stress hormones immediately afterward than people who have not recently been outside.

“But just how a visit to a park or other green space might alter mood has been unclear. Does experiencing nature actually change our brains in some way that affects our emotional health? That possibility intrigued Gregory Bratman, a graduate student at the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources at Stanford University.

In his “new study, which was published last week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Mr. Bratman and his collaborators decided to closely scrutinize what effect a walk might have on a person’s tendency to brood. … Such rumination [is] strongly associated with increased activity in a portion of the brain known as the subgenual prefrontal cortex.”

The results: “As might have been expected, walking along the highway had not soothed people’s minds. Blood flow to their subgenual prefrontal cortex was still high and their broodiness scores were unchanged. But the volunteers who had strolled along the quiet, tree-lined paths showed slight but meaningful improvements in their mental health, according to their scores on the questionnaire. They were not dwelling on the negative aspects of their lives as much as they had been before the walk.” More here.

As we used to chant to our overexcited dog when we picked her up after a grooming, “I’m calm, you’re calm.”

Try out this Derek Wolcott poem for your walk in the woods. It is read on SoundCloud by my husband’s college classmate, Jon Kabat-Zinn.

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