April 24, 2018

Library Labyrinths Help Students Find Their Way to Calm

SONY DSCFinals are a stressful time everywhere on a college campus, from dorm rooms to dining halls. But it’s rare to find a building where more of that tension collects than the campus library, consistently a staging ground for late night study sessions and last minute edits to term papers. This year, a pair of university libraries in Oklahoma and Massachusetts have installed high tech versions of a labyrinth—one of the world’s oldest meditation techniques—with an eye to helping students take a moment to relax and recharge during their studies.

Dating back as far as the Bronze Age and found in the records of many cultures around the world, labyrinths are similar to normal mazes, with one important difference—while a maze branches off into multiple paths, a labyrinth offers only one long, winding path toward its center and out again. While a maze asks its travelers to puzzle over it, the point of a labyrinth is not to solve a problem, but to contemplate a solution already laid out before you, one step at a time. Labyrinths are often laid directly into floors of buildings or courtyards, part of the stonework itself. Institutions looking for a less permanent installation, though, now have a new option—SparqLabyrinth.

The tool is the brainchild of University of Oklahoma grad Matt Cook; the first prototype device was installed at his alma mater’s Bizzell Library, where he works as a library assistant. A philosophy major, Cook was looking for ways to put his grad work on mindfulness to practical use in the library, where he saw plenty of stressed out students in front of computers, but no clear way to help them relax. Cook came up with the SparqLabyrinth, which uses an iPad running specialized software to let users select from six different styles of labyrinth from distinct cultures and historical periods. Once a user has made the selection that most appeals to them, the design is displayed on the floor by means of a ceiling-mounted projector. User surveys showed that students were happy to have the new relaxation tool on hand. “We’ve had quite a lot of survey data from that first installation,” Cook told LJ. “People reported feeling more relaxed, less agitated, and the personal remarks were very encouraging.”

More recently, the SparqLabyrinth prototype was installed at the University of Massachusetts over the school’s spring break. Housed in a small room on the ninth floor, the installation was suggested by Donna Zucker, an associate professor of nursing at the school who has previously conducted research on the effects of mindfulness exercises in labyrinths in prisons.  After familiarizing himself with Zucker’s work, which suggests that regular mindfulness practice and meditation in a labyrinth can lead to higher levels of life satisfaction and even lowered blood pressure, Cook reached out to Zucker. She’s now using the SparqLabyrinth to prepare for a new study that could help to quantify the effects of labyrinth meditation for students. “We’ve been letting students get comfortable with it,” Zucker said. “Over the summer, we’ll start collecting data.”

While the first SparqLabyrinth helps Donna Zucker gather data at UMass, Matt Cook will be hard at work on a second prototype, which he expects to debut in the fall. UO has put some grant money behind the project and secured the intellectual property rights behind it, and Cook hopes that one day, SparqLabyrinth will be for more than just libraries. “The idea is that everybody who is in a stressful work environment or campus setting will be able to benefit from the SparqLabyrinth one day,” Cook told LJ.

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is a former editor at LJ and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics and on NPR.

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