A number of years ago I had an opportunity to visit a Waldorf Camp Hill facility for developmentally delayed people. The moment I walked onto the property I could feel my brain and body begin to relax into a kind of ancient remembered ease. As I looked around me the feeling evoked was “safety.” It arose first from members of the community paying exquisite attention to visitors’ needs. From the landscaping, to the way the buildings were designed and maintained, to the clean and simple way the people dressed – it all communicated one message: “This is a safe and protected place.”
A Place for Everything
When I visited the woodshop where the community crafted wooden building blocks for the nation’s elementary school children, I found myself absolutely astonished: every tool had a place, and every designated place for a tool had one in it! When I thought about my own home and my own workshop, it became clear to me that something was organizationally very different about my brain and the brains of the people living in this community. I was simply not ready or able to operate with this degree of attention and mindful awareness in my everyday life. This community was answering The Big Brain Question in nuanced ways that I didn’t even realize it was possible or important to do. If there’s one thing that stands out in memory in the welfare housing projects I grew up in, it’s that they weren’t beautiful. They were ugly: Morning Glory flowering vines dying from lack of water and care, broken doors and windows, graffiti everywhere, discarded whisky bottles and beer cans and fast food wrappers lining the sidewalks and streets.
Calm Before the Rush
The one thing you notice about unsafe, dangerous environments: they are often dirty, disorderly and ugly. Having sufficient money to meet our daily needs allows us to look beyond ourselves at the world around us. And then get busy doing our best to beautify it.
“There’s a certain Buddhist calm that comes from having money in the bank,” novelist Tom Robbins reminds us in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. That calm seems to be a first, fundamental requirement for being able to fully apprehend beauty and art. I think of it as a vulnerability of the brain, one that won’t allow us to even begin to notice the 10 intrinsic neural substrates that will draw us to people, places and things of beauty when we aren’t constantly flooded with stress hormones, especially money stressors.
Camp Hill was a beautiful, wealthy community. And beauty has great potential to massively stir the pleasure centers in the brain. It’s not an accident, I don’t think, that so many millionaires and billionaires become art collectors in later life – paying, for example, $141 million dollars for Giacometti’s bronze sculpture “L’Homme au Doigt” (“Pointing Man”).
In case you were wondering about those neural substrates, here’s U. C. San Diego neuroestheticist, V. S. Ramachandran’s list of them: “10 Principles of Artistic Experience.” I’m not going to go into a long explanation of each of them. Visit the link if you’re curious as to how they apply to artistic appreciation:
- Peak shift
- Perceptual Grouping and Binding
- Perceptual problem solving
- Abhorrence of coincidence
- Repetition, rhythm and orderliness
Growing Beauty Brain
But the question is, if we currently have little interest or appreciation of beauty right now, can we really grow that capacity? And if so, how? This is mostly conjecture on my part, but somewhat informed.
If we assume that appreciation for beauty is learned, then it stands to reason that we will have to design and engage in activities that change our brain the way learning anything new works to change our brain. In this case, we will have to immerse ourselves in engaging with beauty of one sort or another. We may take up watercolor landscape painting that forces us to visit beautiful natural environments. We may be drawn to photography where we train our eyes to begin to see our everyday world through a series of captivating frames. It could be portrait painting where we sit and stare all day at unique and beautiful people of one sort or another. Or it could be something as practical as learning about nutrition and compelling meal presentations.
The basic premise is this: whatever we pay ongoing, immersive attention to, tends to increase and expand the neural network resources our brain devotes to those things we regularly attend to. It’s simply learning at the most fundamental cellular level. And learning seems to be one of the things this life is for. Why not learn to make life beautiful?
To help encourage such possibility, here’s an Enchanted Loom review of Leonard Shlain’s book, Leonardo’s Brain. In that book we discover a number of ways Leonardo’s brain is something the marvel of neuroplasticity allows us all to aspire to.