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We have four dogs living at our house. Dogs, it turns out, have the equivalent neural network capacity of a two-year-old toddler. As you might imagine, four dogs, like four toddlers, are a handful. And like toddlers, dogs produce … a LOT of poop. Disposing of dog poop turns out to be a thing, a something thing that I sometimes get tired of dealing with. When I do, my moral compass occasionally takes me in a wrong direction: when I make my twice-weekly poo cleanup rounds, I sometimes find myself tossing a lot of dog poo into the neighbor’s salal that borders our property. 


Salal hiding a fertilizer surprise!

Such actions come with a lot of rationalizations, of course – no one will ever see it; it will break down over time; and besides, it’s good fertilizer. How can good fertilizer harm “the plant of persev-erance”? If all of this were actually true, a judge might ask, why not simply toss it into the salal … on my side of the property line? Good question, judge.

A True Tech Marvel

Well, there’s good news for me on the moral horizon – neuroscientists at the Harvard Medical School have at last come up with a non-invasive way to get the 80 pounds of monthly dog poo painlessly deposited on my side of the property line using … biomedical enhancement! Biomedical enhancement can be used to catapult any number of neural capacities beyond normal. Cognitive enhancement involves using drugs or non-invasive brain stimulation to improve things like memory, attention, executive functions, or other cognitive operations beyond how they usually operate. Here’s how the Harvard neuroscientists can already reverse my moral turpitude: they simply point a big magnet at my forehead. Which is a simple way to say that they used “repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) on my dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC).” When they do, I do the right thing with the poo. Does it work every time? No. But it works often enough so that I might grow my own wiring such that I no longer need to be a poo miscreant (a pooscreant?).

Now, if this kind of mechanical intervention can work to change my moral behavior – and repeated research evidence is increasingly suggesting that it can – the implication is that there’s a deficit in my brain wiring that ends up making me a pooscreant. I can’t help myself. My brain made me do it. And even though I know it’s something I wouldn’t like my neighbor doing – tossing her dog’s poo onto my property – when I’m out there making the rounds with the potty paddle, a complete lack of impulse control takes over. Especially if the dogs have deposited the poo close to the property line already. Then it’s just a simple flick of the poo paddle to toss it over the line. I can blame it on the dogs!

A Paradoxical Intervention

This ability to know what I should do, and at the same time often be unable to do, is a fundamental structural neural vulnerability – a wiring deficit for many of our brains. It’s poor impulse control feebly wired into the Executive Function area of the brain.


Olliebear made me do it!

It’s what makes me buy stocks at high prices and sell them when they go down. It’s what makes other people impulsively thumb-type tweets and send them at 3 o’clock in the morning. This struc- tural vulnerability is something I call The Prefrontal Paradox.   The good news is there  are things you can do to change your brain’s wiring without having to travel to Cambridge, MA and visit Harvard’s medical school. Go HERE to see a list of them.

Of course, if Executive Functioning is something that can be easily addressed and skillfully remedied, why am I still a pooscreant? Well, it turns out that … I’m not. I gave up that behavior about six months ago. We now have two plastic buckets to deposit dog poo in. Twice a month I gather them up and deliver them to our local dog park where they have waste receptacles for people like I’ve long longed to be and that my Vigilant Sentinel is glad I’ve become – morally integrated. At least where dog doody is concerned.

That all said, it’s time for another Enchanted Loom. Click HERE to enjoy a graphic review of Michael Lewis’s new book, The Undoing Project. To reflect the topic of this blog column, the book might be better titled: The UnDooDooing Project!  😉

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When I was 20 years old (but developmentally much younger) I lived in Burbank, California near Warner Brothers’ Studios and shared a house with two hyper-masculine aspiring Hollywood actors. One was a  black belt in karate; the other an off-road motorcycle racer. Both looked like magazine models. Over the six months we lived together, I probably saw three dozen women at least half-willingly cycle through their bedrooms.

images.jpgLate one rare evening when all three of us happened to be home there was a knock on our front door. I went to answer it and found an attractive  woman about five years older than me stand- ing at the door. She asked if she could come in and use the bathroom. She was supposedly walking home from a friend’s house and suddenly found herself with an urgent need to go. I invited her in and pointed her in the right direction.

When she came out of the bathroom, both my roommates began chatting her up in ways that made their motives seem obvious to me – it was a competition to see who could get her to spend the night in their bed. Once that dynamic became clear to me, I opted out and went to my own room to finish a project for work before I turned in for the night.

In the Still of the Night

I’d been asleep for much of the night, when I was awakened by someone next to my bed.

“Can I come in here to get away from those guys?” Without waiting for a reply, she pulled up the covers and slipped into the bed beside me. When I realized she was naked a rush of adrenaline flooded my body. The main thing I noticed was she smelled of B.O. and alcohol – all-too-familiar childhood smells. Almost immediately she was on top of me as I lay there frozen stiff. It was quickly evident that she was quite experienced in the bedroom. To my relief, before I knew it she rolled off of me onto the bed and fell asleep beside me.

I was still wide awake when she woke up several hours later and wordlessly tiptoed out of my bedroom. When morning came and I got dressed and ventured out into the living room, my housemates were waiting for me. “Hey Studman, how’d you like being the last man standing?” They both laughed at what was apparently a hilarious joke. I simply ignored them, left the house and went off to work.

Lost in the Rain in Juarez

On the morning commute I came to one basic truth: there was little enjoyable about the previous night’s experience. Although I didn’t know these words then, it was a disembodied, dissociative encounter. Fearful thoughts of STDs or of her getting pregnant filled my mind flooding my body with stress hormones. And yet, I felt ashamed that I did nothing to stop her, laying in rigid silence as I did. I was greatly relieved when she got up and left me alone in my room. Mostly though, I felt confused. Wasn’t sex – no matter what the circumstances – something men were supposed to unquestioningly pursue and greatly enjoy?

ptsd-cover.jpgWith the benefit of age and hindsight,   it’s clear to me that experience had many of the hallmarks of Post-Traumatic Stress. The elements of surprise, confusion, feeling overwhelmed and powerless, my brain and body flooded with stress hormones, a freeze response, along with my roommate’s demeaning remarks in the morning. Shortly afterwards, I found myself initiating a series of my own one-night stands. A compulsive, unconscious attempt to try and heal the trauma?

Help for the Shamed and Confused

Unfortunately, there was no organization like RAINN then for me to turn to in my numbed-out confusion. While originally formed to serve women, RAINN has since expanded to include services for male victims. Rape in western culture is generally thought of as something perpetrated against women. It’s surprisingly NOT. Lara Stemple, Director of UCLA’s Health and Human Rights Law Project, discovered that in all sexual violence reported to the National Crime Victimization Survey, 38 percent of victims were men. A 2012 study from the  National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions found in a sample of 43,000 adults little difference in the sex of self-reported sexual perpetrators. Of those who affirmed that they had “ever forced someone to have sex with you against their will,” 43.6 percent were female and 56.4 percent  were male! Clearly, there’s a need for Male survivor resources. Two more besides RAINN that I’m aware of are Male Survivor and Pandora’s Project, both greatly needed, for as Lara Stemple reminds us, “Compassion is not a finite resource.”

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I’ve always been a fan of creativity. I probably own and have read more than 100 books on the subject. I am familiar with most of the creativity gurus, know tons of creativity warmups and exercises, and even know what parts of the brain are mostly involved in the creative process thanks to University of Iowa neuropsychiatrist and creativity researcher Nancy Andreasen. It’s her research that is primarily responsible for making the links that frequently show up between creativity and madness.

Creativity Is…

University of Connecticut education professor Jonathan Plucker reviewed over 90 academic papers about human creativity and synthesized the following definition: “Creativity is the interaction among aptitude, process, and environment by which an individual or a group produces a perceptible product that is both novel and useful as defined within a social context.” Pretty dry academic-speak, right?

Of course, reading about and studying creativity academically is very different than being and doing creativity – in other words, actually making something, something novel and useful in our time. One requirement for creating such things seems to be developing the ability to think “unthinkable thoughts.” Many such thoughts are often lurking in The Unthought Known where zombie memories live.

Christmas Tree.jpgBefore I provide you with an instruction set for thinking unthinkable thoughts, let me provide you with some guidance to ponder (wrongly attributed to Lao Tzu): “If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.” It’s hard to be truly creative, to think unthinkable thoughts when I’m anxious or depressed. One reason: reduced neural network activity making insufficient network connections. A depressed or anxious brain is like a Christmas tree with many of the lights not working.

The Energy of Peace

Being at peace in the present, doesn’t mean that we don’t have a lot of furious thinking and the high energy of neural network activity flowing, however. Often we do. It can be like the quiet energy of the sun or a nuclear power plant. Especially when the thoughts we are thinking have previously been unthinkable. Ask any artist who’s been paid an unexpected visit from their muse.

Because of how the brain has evolved, many of the unthinkable thoughts most of us are walking around with live buried in the implicit memory networks of our right brain. The cells and connections in the human brain develop in sine wave fashion, with the right side growing and connecting first. And much of what it devotes that beginning attention to is … threat. Anything that shows up early – excessive stress in utero, malnutrition, maternal grief – our knowledge of the threats a child’s neurobiology is sensitive to in utero and records regularly is growing daily. sine-wave-brainAnd we know boys are much more susceptible to early threats than girls are (I could have told doctors, parents and researchers that!). 

Here Be Monsters

Reproductive biologist, David Bainbridge is quite familiar with the threat-memories that live in our right brain’s implicit memory networks: “The modern geography of the brain has a deliciously antiquated feel to it – rather like a medieval map with the known world encircled by terra incognita where monsters roam.So the challenge becomes, how does a creative artist begin exploring this unknown territory where monsters roam, begin thinking the unthinkable thoughts that are necessary to make contact with such monsters, and emerge with something novel and useful for our times? Not to mention remaining sane and healthy while we do it.

We probably are well-served to recruit a little help. It’s a bad idea to go crazy solo. When I decided I wanted to try my hand at novel-writing, I took advice from writing teacher, Natalie Goldberg to heart: “Write about what disturbs you.” Following that directive inevitably put me deep into the terra incognita of my own trauma-riddled right brain. I needed four friends and three therapists to help me surface and process the unthinkable thoughts contained in my first fictional work that became the prize-winning novel March Madness. Without their help I’m pretty sure I never would have found the energy to confront the painful memories that surfaced week after week, unearthed by the writing.

An Explorer’s Guidelines

So, where does that leave us in terms of taking on the task of thinking unthinkable thoughts? First off, you might want to consider: is this something you really want to do? Is it something you actually have time and space for in your life? If the answer is yes, here are three brief guidelines: 1. Recognize that you’ll be taking on Shadow Work. Shadow Work can often be very painful; 2. Recognize that Shadow Work is very hard to engage in skillfully without help; Shadow Work often contains elements of The Heroine’s Journey; 3. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel; the Common World is a place we can return to. But we will be forever changed by our travels.

To help with your exploration, check out this Enchanted Loom review of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book on thought-unthunk creativity, Big Magic.

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My father abandoned our family when I was four years old, leaving my mother, my two sisters and me to fend for ourselves. My brain wasn’t sufficiently developed at the time to fully understand the impact of his leaving. I had no way of knowing that my sisters and I would be consigned to being members of the 1 billion people raised in poverty, with little adult supervision and even less guidance and direction – that statistically, our lives would be short ones filled with poor nutrition, reduced educational opportunities, great pain and suffering. That one or all of us siblings would subsequently enjoy a greatly increased probability of ending up in jail, or worse.

dad-goneWe were fortunate in one respect, however, and that is our mother accurately assessed and reported that our father was seriously ill and unable to carry out parenting responsibilities. She encouraged acceptance and understanding, if not outright compassion. When friends or school officials asked about dad, she instructed us to simply say: “Parts Unknown.” Although I don’t recall my mother ever directly saying it, she seemed to feel that his leaving was the best thing that could have happened under the circumstances. She was probably right, but that didn’t make it easy for me to forgive him. It would take a lot of work on my part to neurobiologically, psychologically and spiritually get to that place. 

Forgiveness Job No. 1

Over and over again I had to make the connection that how my body is feeling is directly related to the thoughts my mind is generating. My thinking mind constantly operates on my neurobiology. For example, thoughts like, “My father was a dumb cracker and a coward. He was a quitter,” could not be thought without serious consequence to my body and brain. What those kinds of thoughts do is elevate the stress hormones required to generate and sustain such feelings.

How such thoughts do this is by making several muscle groups in my body contract – muscles in my abdomen, in my throat and across the back of my shoulders. The next thing I feel are waves of anger arising – small at first and then growing larger. Without dear old dad there when I was a kid to help contain, direct and express this energy in constructive ways, it headed in the opposite direction – hunting and killing rabbits, squirrels and lamprey eels for sport, vandalizing neighbors’ homes and school property, getting into fights with kids I knew I could beat up. Where the path of loss and non-forgiveness is heading without guidance or intervention becomes crystal clear to those familiar with its trajectory.

It’s About Me Mostly

Kathleen Singh, in her book, The Grace in Aging details a neurobiological developmental path that she extracted from years spent at the bedsides of people at the end of life. It essentially describes the healing process that must unfold in order for many of us to genuinely reach a place of authentic forgiveness:

We can see the psychological part of our path as wound healing – an important step, as stable growth beyond ego can’t occur without a healed foundation. The path goes beyond psychological when we begin to let go of the stories of the wounds. whole-earth-handsThe path enters depths of spirit when we begin to let go of the teller of the stories. In a beautiful synergy, the telling of the stories, the healing of the wounds, and the letting go of the stories work together to release the teller of the tales. It is a process that can occur in a microsecond or over years of mindful work. It’s a necessary process.

We share the story first as story. Each of us can find a trusted other with whom to do this. We share the story, conscious of it as story, but honest about the fact that we still believe much of it, and that we will continue to, until we have grown considerably in wisdom.

Having the courage to share our stories, to stop hiding both from ourselves and others, allows the healing experience of feeling understood and known. It allows connection through our vulnerability. We become spiritual friends, kalayana mitra in Sanskrit. We become soul friends, anam cara in Gaelic. We encourage each others’ boundaries to become more porous in the healing space of undefendedness and acceptance.   ~ Dr. Kathleen Singh, The Grace in Aging, pg. 235

Forgiveness Job No. 2

I believe the main reason most of us struggle to forgive is because, unless we can afford to hire professional listeners (psychologists, social workers, counselors, hair dressers), there simply aren’t enough people on the planet willing, trained and able to hear the stories of our wounding as many times and as many ways as they need to be told and we need to tell them. Forgiveness Job No. 2 then is to begin the work of training yourself in the art of becoming a spiritual friend. But first comes the creative requirement to work on our own forgiving – of self and other. Both are, above all, Listening Arts.

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“Consciousness presents us with an altered, subjective, tampered-with view of reality, but it rarely tells us so. ~ Tor Norretranders, The User Illusion

One of the great gifts Harvard neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor has given us is an intimate account of what it’s like to lose the language networks of the brain, but then to be able to closely attend as a neuroscientist and watch them regrow, reconnect, reanimate and come back online. I’ve excerpted Jill’s original brief account and posted it as a separate blog entry HERE. What I’ve learned from Jill – and continue to re-learn over and over again – is that if The Vigilant Sentinel my brain is not paying exquisite attention to what is unfolding moment by moment in the time and space right around me, there’s a high probability that my brain is making up a story. And it is most likely a Past Story or a Future Story, a Pleasant Story or a Painful Story. Many wisdom traditions refer to these stories as Daydreams and urge us to awaken from them.

jill-b-tWhat Are the Odds?

One reason to mindfully understand and not be captivated by these stories is that without, ongoing, directed, concentrated work, the vast majority of them can not or will not come true. Your brain and the world are too complex. It has 88 billion neurons making 100 trillion connections. Multiply this times the 7.5 billion other ever-changing human brains on the planet all making up their own pleasant or painful stories and the resulting complexity is beyond comprehension. Who really knows what’s going to happen from one day to the next?

To demonstrate for this blog post how my Storyteller frequently operates in pain-causing ways, I’m taking Jill’s account of her brain’s healing process, and I’m altering and editing it to fit current world conditions. See if it resonates at all.

Don’t Believe What You Think When It Hurts

One of the most prominent characteristics of our left brain is its ability to weave stories about Donald Trump. This story-teller is specifically designed to make sense of the world outside us that seems to be filled with Donald Trump. It functions by taking whatever minimal information it has to work with about Trump, and then weaves it together in the form of a Trump Story. Most impressively our left brain is brilliant in its ability to make stuff up about Trump, and fill in the blanks when there are gaps in factual data about a Trump whose brain is constantly changing.

As my left brain language centers recovered and became functional again, I spent a lot of time observing how my story-teller would draw conclusions about Trump based upon minimal information. Or second, or third-hand information. For the longest time I found these antics of my Trump storyteller to be rather comical. At least until I realized that my left hemisphere whole-heartedly expected the rest of my brain to believe all the Trump stories it was making up! . . . . I need to remember however, that there are truly enormous gaps between what I know and what I think I know about Donald Trump (my italics). I learned I need to be very wary of my storyteller’s potential for stirring up personally and politically painful trauma and drama.  ~ adapted and significantly modified from Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stroke of Insight

So does this mean that we’re never supposed to believe what we read online or see presented in the media? I can’t tell you. You’ll have to weigh the Opportunity Cost and decide for yourself. What I CAN tell you is that my own Storyteller is a VERY FORMIDABLE OPPONENT – clever, seductive, compelling, and it knows my every vulnerability, every desire, every bias, every weakness. Engaging skillfully and successfully with him day after day, week after week, month after month is more than a full-time job.

In the Beginning Was the Word

Neuroscientist and surgeon, Leonard Shlain wrote about the Storyteller in our brain in his book The Alphabet Versus the Goddess. Shortly after the human brain developed the ability to put the words it was speaking and hearing into a form that made speech visible – by creating alphabets – it shifted the dominant development of the brain’s hemispheres from the right to the left. brocas-areaThis was a profound transformation, shifting from a world in which Goddess theology predominated into one in which male monotheistic religions took center stage. The stories human beings’ brains began to make up – rooted primarily in the rigid, constricting confines of the left hemisphere – resulted in women’s rights taking a beating. In the beginning (of the left hemisphere’s ascension) was the Word and the Word was masculine. And the Word (born of Broca’s Area and Wernicke’s Area in the left hemisphere) was God. Image (feminine and born predominantly in the right hemisphere) was a blasphemy and fearsome. Scary images generate scary stories. They undermine cognitive and compassionate function. Scary stories and scary pictures hijack our adrenal glands. Ask any guy if he ever heard the story as a little kid that some women’s vaginas have teeth! Little good results when scary stories compel the adrenals to take overpowering command of and dominate the human sideshow.

To explore the way stories work to help form our sense of self for better or worse, check out this Enchanted Loom review of Bruce Hood’s book, The Self Illusion.

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“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths.” ~ Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

I confess: I’m a Face Man. I love looking at women’s faces. All kinds. If I look long enough, depending upon how the women who own them operate in the world, inevitably they all turn beautiful. For many years I was ashamed of this covert draw to women’s faces. Until I realized I was in very good company: Pope John Paul II. In 2000 he emailed UCLA neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel and told him he was very “interested in the mother’s gaze.” Apparently Pope John Paul was a Face Man as well!

Breast Generated View

Almost all of us come into the world and spend our early life experiences gazing at a single woman’s face, our mother’s. Over time our relationship develops and as we ideally learn to skillfully co-regulate one another, mother’s face takes on a unique a sumatran-orangutan-profile.jpgbeauty that emerges out of us being well cared for. The pleasure and reward circuits of our brain fire repeatedly in response to being bathed, fed, powdered, swaddled, soothed and snuggled. In the process they almost unavoidably become Pavlovily paired with mother’s face. Even the face of a woman homely by social convention, when she’s kind, considerate and loving in relationship, in the eye of the beholder, her face will morph into a thing of beauty. It’s something that our neural networks seem pre-wired to do. So it’s of little surprise that women too, love looking at a beautiful woman’s face. Like so much of early life, it traces back to mom.

In other face attraction research, Laura Germine, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital analyzed the preferences of people who looked at 35000 different faces. Her takeaway from the study: what people find attractive is primarily dependent upon their early life experiences. What she didn’t test, but what Craig Roberts at The University of Newcastle did, was when and if a woman’s face is more attractive at some times more than others. Turns out it is: when they’re most fertile women and men find women’s faces most attractive.

Eyes Beholding

One reason beauty is in the eye of the beholder is that we learn what’s beautiful by how it makes us feel – how it triggers the serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and other arousing pleasure bio-drivers in our body and brain. Scientists who know a lot about our brain’s draw to faces have long argued for the face-specificity hypothesis – that humans have specialized cognitive and neural mechanisms dedicated to the perception of faces. Most of their research has pointed, not unexpectedly, to the “fusiform face area (FFA).” I say not unexpectedly because this area was discovered to be the part of the brain damaged in people suffering from prosopagnosia or “face blindness.” Face blindness results in an inability to recognize the faces of people whom you’ve known for long periods of your life. You can even lose the ability to recognize your own face in a mirror if your FFA is sufficiently damaged.

One of the world’s leading fusiform face area researchers is MIT neuroscientist Nancy Kanwisher. Her discovery of the properties of the FFA has come from placing herself in a fMRI brain scanner over and over again while she looked a thousands of pictures of faces alternated with pictures of things that weren’t faces. Only while observing faces does the FFA light up. As Nancy so eloquently points out, while we all have a fusiform face area, each of our areas is unique to us – different in size and place in the brain. Presumably a large FFA would seem to account for me and Pope Paul being such “face men.”

nancy kanwisher.jpg

Dr. Nancy Kanwisher

It’s Not You, It’s Your Mother’s Face

And if you’re the beautiful woman being constantly stared at? Until someone actually spends time with you and gets to know you, how can it be the least bit personal? It’s not. It’s neurobiological (Neurobiology probably also accounts in some small degree for why MySpace and Linked In have become massively overshadowed by … FaceBook, which began as a tool called “Course Match” used to study and learn about art works for an art history class, but then morphed into a tool used to study and learn about art works called … people. With faces. Additionally, faces turn out to be the single most common image found in Western art).

So, if you happen to be a person blessed with a so-called beautiful face, recognized that every upside comes with a downside to it – both are inevitably your cross to wear for the world to see. Learn to live skillfully with people’s draw to it.

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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! ded529ccad1125791961b5ef0913ac9a.jpgWhen 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.


Could have used a little more bronze

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”).

Neuro-Parsing Beauty

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
  • Contrast
  • Isolation
  • Perceptual problem solving
  • Symmetry
  • Abhorrence of coincidence
  • Repetition, rhythm and orderliness
  • Balance
  • Metaphor

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. 85a9ec09893e78ac75bd67c88afe8b50.jpgIn 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.

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