When you hear the word labyrinth you probably think of either David Bowie in a pair of pants that should never be permitted in a children’s film, or of a maze. But while mazes and labyrinths have become somewhat synonymous, they are actually very different things.
Furthermore, where Bowie thrusting at you in ‘Magic Dance’ may give you nightmares to this day, labyrinths are actually supposed to be places of peace, quiet and zen.
The most important distinction to draw between a maze and a labyrinth is that while a maze is a puzzle to be solved – how to get out – a labyrinth is a single path without dead ends or a wrong way; the path leads you to the centre, which is halfway, and then takes you back out again.
And where there is a distinct possibility of getting lost in a maze, the aim of a labyrinth is to instead lose yourself.
“I would have a lot of difficulty trying to prove this as a research-based, double-blinded study,” Thomas Ferrara, an Indianapolis-based physician, told The Atlantic.
Nevertheless, Ferrara has referred patients to head to their local maze in favour of prescribing medication to reduce stress and anxiety.
While, as Ferrara said, the science behind labyrinths may not be entirely sound, they are being created in hospitals, schools and even prisons as a means of getting people in high-stress situations to take a breather.
And apparently it’s working.
“When it was time to walk the indoor labyrinth for the first time, I thought it was a joke. Grown men walking in circles, criminals at that,” Nelson Aponte, who is serving 10 to 12 years for larceny in a Massachusetts prison. wrote to The Atlantic.
Yet four sessions in, his attitude shifted dramatically.
“I was just thinking about my family, those I harmed, and what my life has become. I can honestly say that on my fourth visit, I had a sense of freedom.”
Apparently the small level of concentration required to stick to the path, as well as following an established pattern is what gives labyrinths their calming powers. Although according to the Labyrinth Society, “People walk the labyrinth for many reasons. Some do it to relax, some as a walking meditation, some just for fun.”
Of course this distinction between maze and labyrinth is a relatively new one. In Ancient Greek mythology the labyrinth housed the minotaur, and was built as a brilliant, confusing means for keeping the bull-headed-beast (who by all reports was not at all a chilled dude) at bay.
All this talk of labyrinths got you keen to walk one? Check out the World Wide Labyrinth Locator to find the closest one to you.
(Oh go on, I can’t write a piece about labyrinths and not put this video in it.)