Benefits from fixed quiet points in the day

On my walk today, I listened to a downloaded interview from the On Being website. The interview was with ‘vocal magician and conductor’ Bobby McFerrin, and something he said early on in the interview really caught my attention.

In response to a question about why he’d once (in his teens) contemplated joining a monastic order, he said that the quiet really appealed to him, and also ‘the discipline of the hours … there’s a rhythm to the day. I liked the fact that you stopped whatever you were doing at a particular time and you reminded yourself, you brought yourself back to your calling’.

Those words resonated with me, and they made me think of the Moslem habit of prayer. Of the idea of having specified times during the day when you stop your ‘ordinary’ life, and touch base, as it were, with something that is central to your being.

I don’t think you need to be a monk or a Moslem to find value in such an activity! Nor does the activity need to be overtly religious.

Because this idea struck another echo in me — some time ago I wrote a brief report on how even a short ‘quiet time’ can help you consolidate your memories. It strikes me that developing the habit of having fixed points in the day when (if at all possible) you engage in some regular activity that helps relax you and center your thoughts, would help maintain your focus during the day, and give you a mental space in which to consolidate any new information that has come your way.

Appropriate activities could include:

  • meditating on your breath;
  • performing a t’ai chi routine;
  • observing nature;
  • listening to certain types of music;
  • singing/chanting some song/verse (e.g., the Psalms; the Iliad; the Tao te Ching)

Regarding the last two suggestions, as I reported in my book on mnemonics, there’s some evidence that reciting the Iliad has physiological effects on synchronizing heartbeat and breath that is beneficial for both mood and cognitive functioning. It’s speculated that the critical factor might be the hexametric pace (dum-diddy, dum-diddy, dum-diddy, dum-diddy, dum-diddy, dum-dum). Dactylic hexameter, the rhythm of classical epic, has a musical counterpart: 6/8 time.

Similarly, another small study found that singing Ave Maria in Latin, or chanting a yoga mantra, likewise affects brain blood flow, and the crucial factor appeared to be a rhythm that involved breathing at the rate of six breaths a minute.

Something to think about!