In our media-saturated world in which individuals must manage excessive demands on their time and attention, we praise the skill of “multi-tasking,” which is often metaphorically referred to as “juggling.” It’s an ironic conceit, considering people use the term for when individuals are almost overwhelmed, but actual jugglers are in complete control of their act. Thanks to Cirque du Soleil and the New Circus Movement, cultural perceptions of circus performers have shifted dramatically, and now, too, the modern juggler is at last receiving acknowledgment for their signature blend of athleticism and artistry. The awe a casual audience member feels while watching a talented performer throw and catch 3, 5, and upwards of 7 balls in precise patterns can be intimidating to those of us who struggle to hold on to care keys and a cup of coffee. We see the act almost as if it were magic. Thom Wall, with his new book, “Juggling: What It Is and How to Do It,” a new book by Modern Vaudeville Press, dispels that myth and invites us behind the curtain to see the steps any of us can take to learn to juggle, too. Not only is Thom Wall an expert juggler with over five years performing a solo act with Cirque du Soleil, he also holds teaching credentials from Cambridge University, and is a highly sought after instructor by circus schools around the world.
Juggling is its own obvious reward as a party trick to entertain, but the unseen neurological and emotional benefits far outweigh the any applause a juggler might receive. The potential mental health benefits of juggling was explored as early as 1903 by Dr. James Swift, but contemporary studies have discovered what circus performers have always known: juggling leads to increased memory, improved hand-eye-coordination and bodily awareness, and a general sense of well-being. “Mindfulness” is very much in vogue, but as anyone who has attended a seminar mandated by corporate headquarters, passive meditation is not for everyone. Active meditation, like yoga, can be more accessible, but still requires joining a community in which not everyone feels comfortable. Active meditation, in essence, is a “simple task that requires repetitive motion,” and this concentration “replaces negative thoughts and creates a sense of peace” (Psychologies, 2014).
Many people pursue active meditation with doodling or going on evening strolls, but science indicates that juggling is the epitome of active meditation. Even better, it is ideally suited for our current existence of extended quarantine and social distancing. No classes or spandex required.
Considering the mental fatigue of worrying simultaneously about personal health and family finances, the fact that juggling has also proven to lower anxiety, as well as depression and anger is also welcome news (Nakahara, et. al., 2007). For families hunkering down with several generations of relatives, it is worth noting that juggling has substantial benefits for both the developing and the aging mind. Juggling leads to growth of both gray and white matter in the brain. White matter is found in the brain’s parietal lobe, and it is responsible for our understanding of our environment and our movements through our surroundings, which is referred to as proprioception. In only six weeks of practicing juggling, scientists in Oxford observed substantial growth in the white matter of participants. Even more comforting, this growth occurred regardless of the participant’s level of achievement. You don’t even have to be good at juggling to experience its positive effects (University of Oxford, 2009). Gray matter, which appears in the parts of the brain associated with visual motion functions, senses, and memory, also expand after only seven days of practice (CNN, 2007), and this growth was also observed in the brains of senior citizens (Boyke, Driemeyer, Faser, Buechel, & May, 2008).
Quarantine and social distancing has taken a toll on us all, but unconventional times require creative solutions. With the help of Mr. Wall’s book, you and your family could try to learn this timeless skill together, and, while enjoying the fun of learning together, also experience these cognitive benefits of which we are all in such desperate need. Perhaps you son hasn’t been able to play soccer or football in months, or your daughter has grown weary of playing tennis off the wall of the garage. The daily negotiation of screen time and video games has raised your blood pressure. Grandparents miss their bingo tournaments and weekly bridge games. Send little Johnny and Pop-Pop to the backyard to juggle and give yourself a moment’s peace. Or, alternatively, you can go to the backyard alone. You’ve always been juggling the burden of unfair expectations and suffered the toll. Wouldn’t it be nice to juggle and feel better for once? Try it out. In the very least, you might be able to join the circus if it ever runs again.