Juggling and Health
by George Niedzialkowski
A treatise on juggling and health
Playing its part in the transition to a holistic society
"Juggle three of these and call me in the morning..."
Wouldn't you love to hear your doctor say those words and mean it? Well, apparently there is a lot more to this business of juggling than meets the eye. Here and there, researchers are finding out things about our brains and bodies that indicate juggling can be a valuable creator of sound physical and mental health.
A Princeton researcher, Les Fehme (see Brain/Mind Bulletin vol. 8, no. 9. May 1983), suggest we can optimize our overall performance in life by broadening our focus. Juggling is one excellent way to do that. He claims most people have a narrow focus, a lack of awareness of their own body sensations or emotions. This narrow focus can be very absorbing and useful, as when talking on the telephone, driving a motorcycle or getting a massage. It is as if nothing else exists except that. When learning how to juggling, the narrow focus can be directed at a certain ball or pin.
This narrow focus agrees with observations that we live in a society which sees things as fragments rather than holistic. But things are changing. And just maybe, juggling is helping to change it.
In 1983 a Canadian researcher, Justine Sergent, from McGill University in Montreal, found evidence which challenges the notion of left brain being analytic and right brain being holistic. Instead, her findings show the left hemisphere better at detailed processing (the narrow focus) and the right hemisphere better at larger aspects of perception. The findings found also both sides of the brain were analytic and holistic.
The study further suggested, because as a society we "see" life and things as fragments (a ball or pin instead of the pattern), this may explain why there are more right-handed people.
But, don't despair. A recent "striking" discovery according to one researcher, Brenda Spiegler of Children's Hospital in Washington, D.C. (see Brain/Mind Bulletin vol. 19, no. 6. March 1984) showed left-handedness on the increase. Not only that, but according to a test performed at Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio (see Perspective vol. 2, no. 4. August 1980), lefties scored higher in creativity than right-handers regardless of age. It went on to explain four aspects of creativity -- flexibility, fluency, originality and elaboration.
Since the right hemisphere is normally associated with creativity, then any activity which helps to awaken this suppressed hemisphere is certainly welcome. Enter juggling. Who could argue juggling does not use both sides of the brain? Both hands are used in juggling, aren't they?
Jugglers learn in a narrow focus situation. Recall how most people learn to read. First, they learn to recognize the letters (the ball or pin). Then they learn to recognize the word (the juggling pattern). However, once this basic juggling "pattern" (the word) has been learned, then the focus can shift to a higher level still (the words become a sentence). An example of this would be a juggler on a rola-bola.
If an accomplished juggler now wants to learn a new trick, once again the focus must become narrow, the ball or pin must capture the attention (enter left-brain activity). Like a beginning new juggler, he or she must focus on throwing a double flip with the right hand before the left hand can throw a pin behind the back.
It appears juggling, like life itself, is a paradox. To catch we must not reach. To see the pattern we must not look at its parts. To learn we must unlearn.
Unlearn what? To stop doing habitual things. To stop and become aware when you've done something correct, but be able to pause when you detect it not being correct. This crucial moment of pause, according to Michael Gelb, author of Body Learning (see Brain Mind Bulletin vol. 9, no. 3. January 1984), is when a thought begins, and it is these thoughts that will break our old habits. We need also to observe others who are skilled, "images of excellence should always have a quality of ease. Experts always make what they do look easy," says Gelb. Next, see how it feels to do the task, learn with our bodies. Could you juggle if you read three books on juggling... five... twenty?
In teaching people to juggle, they learn faster when asked to tell each time they have done something wrong. At first, they have no awareness of wrong movements. Once they recognize them, they can eliminate them.
Is it possible I am making more of this business of juggling than is really so? In October and November 1984, the Public Broadcasting System filmed a series of eight programs entitled "The Brain." On one particular evening they showed how energy moves along neurons horizontally from back to front of the brain for the sense of sight. Also, energy moves from top to bottom, or vertically, for movement. While all this was being explained, a juggler was seen on the screen. I wondered why they used a juggler to illustrate this delicate brain relationship.
According to Bonnie Benjamin, a spokeswoman for the producers of the series, WNET, the scene was used to illustrate two pathways in the brain meeting: vision and movement.
To quote George Page, narrator of the series, "Pathmaking is at the heart of all learned movement. The brain must experiment over and over again before it can discover the best route from one nerve cell to another. In performing a task at which vision is important, two systems, vision and movement, must find where and how to intersect. One by one, neurons connect with each other. A connection is extended. Soon it's a trail, ultimately a pathway. Cooperation between these two pathways can only be achieved through repetition."
Therefore it is essential to practice in order to learn juggling. The simplest movement requires complex electrical/chemical circuitry within the brain. The study of this circuitry is fast becoming an important field of neuroscience.
Perhaps some day neurosurgeons will electronically "hook up" a juggler and monitor the neuron action which travels back and forth between the two hemispheres during juggling... on that greatest of all pathways in the brain -- the corpus callosum.
It appears a key word in all this juggling business is practice. Neuroscience tells us practice creates or builds the desired pathways in the brain. But is there even more to it than this?
Possibly. Morphogenetic fields. Morphic resonance. Nicknamed M-fields. It is a theory being scientifically tested by Dr. Rupert Sheldrake of Nottinghamshire England. In essence, Dr. Sheldrake is saying not only does "creating" a physical pathway in your brain allow you to become a better juggler, but it allows others to become better also, through the M-field. (For information regarding this M-field theory, contact the author through Juggler's World.)
But we are a people who love to place stress on ourselves, even when we know it is only a game. How can we then learn to juggle, to take in this new information, with less stress?
Well, there are at least two doctors who have an opinion or feeling about that. At a 1983 conference entitled "The Healing Power of Laughter and Play" in Chicago, Dr. O. Carl Simonton began his lecture to approximately 750 people by giving them a few moments of instruction on how to juggle. Then three marshmallows were passed out to every person. On cue, 2250 marshmallows were flying around looking for the M-field pattern! Needless to say, Dr. Simonton had made a point. Juggling is fun.
Likewise, Dr. Steve Allen Jr. conducts workshops in stress management. Not only does he employ juggling as a major ingredient for relieving stress, but he adds, "there is something powerful about repetitive exercises such as juggling," as they pertain to health.
In addition, Dr. Allen uses juggling to reduce stress because, "it brings forth the creative use of silliness," which was originally defined as "blessed, prosperous and healthy." Yet, Dr. Allen's most important point for his clients/patients is "just keep it fun... and play!"
There will always be those who want or need a very definite purpose for juggling before they try it out. So how about this... Healthwise magazine reports Dartmouth Medical School has shown that rowing is the best exercise as far as maximal aerobic stimulation is concerned. Their reason for investigation was to find out what ripe old people (85 and up) did as activities that may have contributed to their longevity. They looked at joggers versus orchestra conductors also. The conclusion the writer drew from the Dartmouth investigation was, "it would be prudent for us to give it the benefit of the doubt by performing arm exercises every day and even 'conducting' the music we listen to at home."
Enter again juggling... arm exercise if there ever was any!