Photo finish Friday (and haiku): “See me”

My beauty is now /
In this moment, at this place. /
See me; see yourself.
#haiku #poem #poetry #see #beauty #me #yourself #lily #oldnorthknoxville #knoxville #tennessee #flower

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Haiku to you Thursday: “Never ending”

You can have it all. /

Except not at the same time. /

The truth never ends.

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Writing tip Wednesday: “Your Ability to Focus Has Probably Peaked: Here’s How to Stay Sharp”

Eliminating distractions is as important as heightening your focus. And no, they’re not the same thing.

Nir Eyal

  • Chelsea Robertson, PhD

Here’s the Gist:

  • Researchers say our ability to pay attention is equal parts focusing and ignoring.
  • Irrelevant information bogs down our ability to suppress distraction, especially as we age.
  • To increase our ability to focus, researchers suggest both boosting our ability to concentrate as well as reducing distraction. Here’s how:
  • To reduce distraction…
  • Use one screen, one browser window, and one computer program at a time.
  • Keep your physical and virtual desktop tidy.
  • To increase our ability to concentrate…
  • Exercise, meditation, and spending time in nature may help boost cognitive control.
  • Some cognitive exercises and immersive action video games also seem to improve our ability to focus.

Having a hard time focusing lately? You’re not alone. Research shows interruptions occur about every twelve minutes in the workplace, and every three minutes in university settings. In an age of constant digital interruptions, it is no wonder you’re having trouble ignoring distractions.

In their book, The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, Dr. Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist, and Dr. Larry Rosen, a psychologist, explain how our ability to pay attention works and what we can do to stay focused.

It turns out, attention isn’t as simple as it seems. In fact, paying attention involves two separate functions: “enhancement” (our ability to focus on things that matter) and “suppression” (our ability to ignore the things that don’t). Interestingly, enhancement and suppression are not opposites, they are distinct processes in the brain.

From The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World:

“Although it may seem counterintuitive, we now appreciate that focusing and ignoring are not two sides of the same coin […] it is not necessarily true that when you focus more on something, you automatically ignore everything else better. We have shown in our lab that different [brain] networks are engaged when we focus compared to when we ignore the same thing.”

These processes are so separate, in fact, there are different networks of brain structures that carry out their respective functions, each of which is critical for attention.

If either of these brain processes is impaired, we lose focus. For example: we struggle with attention when we are tired, drunk, and, most notably, as we age.

Older adults are biologically more distractible than young adults. Personal anecdotes and scientific evidence demonstrate that our attentional capacity peaks near age twenty and diminishes over time. Gazzaley discovered that age-related declines are caused by a deficit in the suppression (ignoring) process.

From The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World:

“Our main finding in this study was that, interestingly, older adults [focus on] relevant information as well as twenty-year-olds. Where older adults suffered a deficit was in suppressing the irrelevant information … We discovered that their main attentional issue was that they are more distractible than younger adults.”

The attentional decline we experience as we age has more to do with our inability to filter out distractions, not our lack of concentration. If you think it’s hard to pay attention now, just wait until you age a few more years.

To improve our ability to pay attention, we need to both remove distraction (especially as we age) as well as boost our capability to focus on one task at a time. Here’s how…

How to Eliminate Distraction

Have you ever noticed someone squinting their eyes in an attempt to recall something? Turns out closing your eyes to remember may actually work. Why this quirky technique is effective tells us something important about how the brain filters information. When your eyes are closed, your brain isn’t working as hard to filter out visual information. Instead of struggling to ignore everything in your field of view, your brain can devote more attention towards scanning your memory. Gazzaley conducted an experiment to see what type of visual information is the most distracting. He and his team asked volunteers to remember details while looking at one of three visual scenes: a plain grey screen, a busy picture, or with their eyes closed. From The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World:

“The results of this experiment revealed that their ability to remember details [ …] was significantly diminished when their eyes were open and there was a picture in front of them, compared to either their eyes being shut, or their eyes being open while they faced a grey screen”

This experiment, along with others, provides evidence that cluttered and disorganized environments are more distracting than organized ones. Spaces filled with visual distractions force our brains to work harder to filter out superfluous information. When facing a pending deadline that you desperately need to focus on, clearing your desk and workspace to make it like the grey screen can increase your focus. Try clearing your virtual desktop of clutter as well. Limit yourself to one monitor, one browser tab or window and one computer program or app at a time. For more on “How to Clear Your Computer of Focus-Draining Distraction” click here. Removing distraction is important to maintain our focus as we age, but we also need to boost our capability to concentrate on one task at a time. Here’s how..

How to Boost Focus

Gazzaley and Rosen say some activities may boost cognition and attention by stimulating the brain’s ability to strengthen and reorganize existing neural connections, a process called neuroplasticity.

Activities that may boost cognition include physical exercise, meditation and spending time in nature. Recent research also finds that some cognitive exercises may also help. Although there are many brain training programs, some of which have over-promised and under-delivered, some scientists believe a new crop of clinically validated programs may soon come online.

From The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World:

“Cognitive exercises are an attempt to improve brain function by harnessing our brain’s inherent plasticity, rather than by explicitly teaching a strategy or a skill. Most training programs attempt to accomplish this goal not just through repetitive task engagement, but also through adaptivity.”

For Gazzaley and Rosen, adaptivity is key. Just as athletes must adjust their exercise routines as they grow stronger; cognitive exercise programs must also adjust to how well, or how poorly, the participant is doing in the task. Personalized adjustments make the training more successful.

New research shows the of cognitive exercise programs in older adults and healthy populations. Gazzaley and Rosen caution that while the research is encouraging, more clinical trials are needed to prove medical benefits. However, many in the industry are hopeful doctors will one day prescribe game-like cognitive exercises as part of a healthy brain training regimen.

In the meantime, certain currently available video game titles may actually be good for brain health and improve cognition.

From The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World:

“They are designed with a primary goal of engendering high levels of immersion, engagement, and enjoyment for the players, […] They do not tend to focus on one specific cognitive skill, as exercises usually do, but rather expose players to multiple demands that challenge a broad range of abilities. ”

A 2003 study of video-game play linked better cognition and higher scores on attention and memory tests in gamers vs non-gamers. But not all video games are created equal.

Non-gamers who played the first person shooter game, Medal of Honor, one hour per day for 10 days showed improvements in cognition, while the ones who played Tetris did not.

From The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World:

“[The researchers’] conclusion was that the nature of action video game play was critical in ‘forcing players to simultaneously juggle a number of varied tasks (detect new enemies, track existing enemies and avoid getting hurt, among others)…”

Video games may give you a boost, but not every off-the-shelf game will do the trick. The difference between the games that work and the ones that don’t gives us information into how the brain changes in response to its environment.

Video games good for building focus create environments that are fast-paced, interactive, adaptive and have complex reward and gaming structures. Like a brain playground.

In 2013, Gazzaley verified that a custom-designed cognitive video game, NeuroRacer, improves cognition in older adults. Dr. Gazzaley’s research led to a proprietary technology platform to measure and improve certain executive functions.

In the future, cognitive video games will be like “Neuro Cross Fit Training” as Gazzaley calls it. They will combine elements of physical activity, meditation, and cognitive exercise, rolled into one game.

In the meantime, we can do our part to keep our attentional focus sharp by first reducing distractions to improve our suppression capabilities, and then beefing-up the brain’s enhancement functions through activities like exercise, meditation, outdoor time, and immersive video games. We can boost our ability to concentrate by doing just one thing well at a time.

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His and her plugs, no less.

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Monday morning writing joke: “Writer from St. Paul”

There once was a writer from St. Paul

Who could only write well in the fall.

With the leaves off the trees

She saw her neighbors with ease.

And then she could record it all.

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Monday morning writing joke: “Writer from Maine”

There once was a writer from Maine

Whom everybody thought was insane.

He wrote big books on evil

and owned pet boll weevil.

No one could cotton to him or complain.

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Archaeology Is Revealing New Clues About Shakespeare’s Life (And Death)

New technology is helping archaeologists uncover details of the playwright’s home, workplaces and his final resting place.

The Conversation

  • William Mitchell

Waxwork of Shakespeare by Madame Tussauds in Berlin. Photo from Anton Ivanov via Shutterstock.

William Shakespeare is widely regarded as one of the greatest authors of all time and one of the most important and influential people who has ever lived. His written works (plays, sonnets and poems) have been translated into more than 100 languages and these are performed around the world.

There is also an enduring desire to learn more about the man himself. Countless books and articles have been written about Shakespeare’s life. These have been based primarily on the scholarly analysis of his works and the official record associated with him and his family. Shakespeare’s popularity and legacy endures, despite uncertainties in his life story and debate surrounding his authorship and identity.

The life and times of William Shakespeare and his family have also recently been informed by cutting-edge archaeological methods and interdisciplinary technologies at both New Place (his long-since demolished family home) and his burial place at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon. The evidence gathered from these investigations by the Centre of Archaeology at Staffordshire University provides new insights into his interests, attitudes and motivations – and those of his family – and shows how archaeology can provide further tangible evidence. These complement traditional Shakespearean research methods that have been limited to sparse documentary evidence and the study of his works.

Archaeology has the ability to provide a direct connection to an individual through the places and objects associated with them. Past excavations of the Shakespearean-era theatres in London have provided evidence of the places he worked and spent much of his time.

Attributing objects to Shakespeare is difficult, we have his written work of course, his portrait(s) and memorial bust – but all of his known possessions, like those mentioned in his will, no longer exist. A single gold signet ring, inscribed with the initials W S, is thought by some to be the most significant object owned and used by the poet, despite its questionable provenance.

Shakespeare’s House

Shakespeare’s greatest and most expensive possession was his house, New Place. Evidence, obtained through recent archaeological investigations of its foundations, give us quantifiable insights into Shakespeare’s thought processes, personal life and business success.

The building itself was lost in the 18th century, but the site and its remains were preserved beneath a garden. Erected in the centre of Stratford-upon-Avon more than a century prior to Shakespeare’s purchase in 1597, from its inception, it was architecturally striking. One of the largest domestic residences in Stratford, it was the only courtyard-style, open-hall house within the town.

This type of house typified the merchant and elite classes and in purchasing and renovating it to his own vision, Shakespeare inherited the traditions of his ancestors while embracing the latest fashions. The building materials used, its primary structure and later redevelopment can all be used as evidence of the deliberate and carefully considered choices made by him and his family.

Shakespeare focused on the outward appearance of the house, installing a long gallery and other fashionable architectural embellishments as was expected of a well-to-do, aspiring gentleman of the time. Many other medieval features were retained and the hall was likely retained as the showpiece of his home, a place to announce his prosperity, and his rise in status.

It provided a place for him and his immediate and extended family to live, work and entertain. But it was also a place which held local significance and symbolic associations. Intriguingly, its appearance also resembled the courtyard inn theatres of London and elsewhere with which Shakespeare was so familiar, presenting the opportunity to host private performances.

In Search of the Bard

Extensive evidence of the personal possessions, diet and the leisure activities of Shakespeare, his family and the inhabitants of New Place were recovered during the archaeological investigations, revolutionising what we understand about his day-to-day life.

An online exhibition, due to be made available in early May 2020, presents 3D-scanned artefacts recovered at the site of New Place. These objects, some of which may have belonged to Shakespeare, have been chosen to characterise the chronological development and activities undertaken at the site.

Open access to these virtual objects will enable the dissemination of these important results and the potential for others to continue the research.

Here Lies …

Archaeological evidence recovered from non-invasive investigations at Shakespeare’s burial place has also been used to provide further evidence of his personal and family belief. Multi-frequency Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) was used to investigate the Shakespeare family graves below the chancel of Holy Trinity Church.

A number of legends surrounded Shakespeare’s burial place. Among these were doubts over the presence of a grave, its contents, tales of grave robbing and suggestions of a large family crypt. The work confirmed that individual shallow graves exist beneath the tombstones and that the various members of Shakespeare’s family were not buried in coffins, but in simple shrouds. Analysis concluded that Shakespeare’s grave had been disturbed in the past and that it was likely that his skull had been removed, confirming recorded stories.

These family graves occupy a significant (and expensive) location in Holy Trinity Church. Despite this, the simple nature of Shakespeare’s grave, with no elite trappings or finery and no large family crypt, coupled with his belief that he should not be disturbed, confirm a simple regional practice based on pious religious observance and an affinity with his hometown.

There is still so much we don’t know about Shakespeare’s life, so it’s a safe bet that researchers will continue to investigate what evidence there is. Archaeological techniques can provide quantifiable information that isn’t available through traditional Shakespearean research. But just like other disciplines, interpretation – based on the evidence – will be key to unlocking the mysteries surrounding the life (and death) of the English language’s greatest writer.

William Mitchell is a Lecturer in Archaeology at Staffordshire University.

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