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.