Lion roaring

Circus Roncalli, Germany’s most beloved cir­cus, famous­ly replaced all of its live ani­mals with 3‑D holo­grams in 2018, a tech-savvy move to pre­serve the audi­ence-loved ani­mal acts while elim­i­nat­ing con­cerns of ani­mal cruelty.

I watched some YouTube videos explain­ing how they did it. The ele­phants are par­tic­u­lar­ly mes­mer­iz­ing; when the image of the ele­phant, shot from 11 enor­mous pro­jec­tors posi­tioned around the Big Top, flaps its ears, you can almost feel the breeze. I smiled as bears rode bicy­cles, as dogs walk­ing on their hind legs bal­anced plates on their noses. The lion tamer sat on his stool until it seemed the lion was close enough to eat him. At the last sec­ond, the enter­tain­er shot to his feet and slid the stool between his head and the lion’s gap­ing maw.

I won­dered why the lion tamer held no whip or stick to pro­tect him­self. Surely it wasn’t safe to poke a 400-pound wild cat with razor-sharp teeth? It took me a sec­ond to remem­ber that the lion was noth­ing more than light and shadow.

I shared the video with a friend of mine who loves the cir­cus. He has seen no few­er than 12 Barnum and Bailey shows, tak­en trapeze lessons, and dressed up as char­ac­ters from The Greatest Showman twice for Halloween. When I told him how I wor­ried for the lion tamer’s life, he laughed. He told me that a lion tamer’s whip was his­tor­i­cal­ly just a part of an enter­tain­ing cos­tume, a prop to add excite­ment and the whiff of pos­si­ble death to the act. He said that real lion tamers only ever need­ed a stool. When I asked why, he tasked me to fig­ure it out with­out googling the answer.

It took a while before the answer came to me. The calm­ing pow­er of dis­trac­tion is more pow­er­ful than the threat of pain.

If the lion tamer whips the lion, the ani­mal is more apt to grow angry and attack. But the stool, often held to one side, draws the lion’s atten­tion away from the tamer’s jugu­lar vein. My cat Monster reacts the same way when he sees a shaft of light on the floor.

Humans are wired sim­i­lar­ly. You might think you’re read­ing this and absorb­ing every word, but in fact, your brain is zoom­ing in and out of focus about four times each minute. And if you’re read­ing this on a screen with oth­er pop-ups? Forget about it. You’re read­ing with very sur­face-lev­el cognition.

In 1929, German psy­chi­a­trist Hans Berger fell off a horse and broke his leg. While recov­er­ing, he received a let­ter from his sis­ter pre­dict­ing he would break his leg. Berger became con­vinced that telepa­thy was pos­si­ble and began tin­ker­ing with machines that might be able to track psy­chic phe­nom­e­na. Further research into the brain’s elec­tri­cal activ­i­ty led to the inven­tion of the first elec­troen­cephalo­gram, or EEG, now the world stan­dard in dis­play­ing brain wave rhythms.

It was the EEG that dis­proved mul­ti­task­ing, show­ing over and over that humans actu­al­ly oscil­late between two brain states, one asso­ci­at­ed with focus and one asso­ci­at­ed with distractibility. 

That’s all bad news in a world that nev­er stops spin­ning. Neuroscientists believe that the aver­age human today is bom­bard­ed with as much data in a sin­gle day than some­one from the 1400s would have been exposed to in an entire life­time. Notice I said bom­bard with data and not processed data. In our cur­rent epi­dem­ic of over­whelm, we can­not pos­si­bly process all the infor­ma­tion being slung our way. 

We try to hold the lion tamer’s gaze, but find our­selves star­ing slack-jawed at the stool over there.

Distractions make us docile. Dumb. Disconcerted. Drained. Because atten­tion is a lim­it­ed resource. Every time we attempt to focus our atten­tion, we use a mea­sur­able amount of glu­cose and oth­er meta­bol­ic and ener­getic resources. So we focus on one thing and have less ener­gy to devote to focus­ing on the next thing. If we are tog­gling back and forth between screen and activ­i­ties all day, it’s going to leave us slack-jawed and spaced out.

So what do we do about it? The answer is real­ly sim­ple but not easy to insti­tute. Switch off every­thing except the one thing you’re try­ing to focus on. When I write, I turn off my wifi so email pop-ups don’t dis­tract me. I leave my phone in anoth­er room. I don’t play music or have the TV on for “back­ground noise,” as there is no such thing. 

I can’t remove all dis­trac­tions of course. Dogs bark, the door­bell rings, some­one wants to know what’s for din­ner. Life inter­venes as it’s wont to do. But we should attempt to con­trol what we can.

  • Erin Skinner Smith

    Erin Skinner Smith wants every­one to slow down, eat real food, move their bod­ies, go out­side, and hit the pil­low a lit­tle ear­li­er for a more pur­pose­ful exis­tence. She is a pub­lished writer, yoga teacher, and mind­ful­ness coach. When she’s not stand­ing on her head or typ­ing on her trusty lap­top, you’ll find her read­ing, play­ing gui­tar, enjoy­ing a glass of bour­bon, or snug­gling on the couch with her peo­ple and pets. Send her a dig­i­tal high five at erintheomplace.net.