Last week I noticed some beautiful photos of sunsets shared on the DOBARA Whatsapp Group, apparently taken from the same westward facing window. Those photos took my mind back to the memory of the favorite sunset of my life. Then, I decided to share with DOBARA one of the brain exercises I developed for my students.
Let’s begin with a simple question that wouldn’t generate much brain activity:
When was the last time you saw a sunset?
Now a slightly different question and this one should make you think a little harder:
When was the last time you savored a sunset?
"One day," you said to me, "I saw the sunset forty-four times!" ―Antoine de Saint-Exupéry,The Little Prince
Before you reach for an answer, keep in mind that we don’t really “savor” every sunset, . . . at least not as the new field of Applied Brain Science defines it.
“Savoring” is a wonderful, emerging branch of this field research. The term was coined in 2005 by Fred Bryant from Loyola University in Chicago. His groundbreaking work led to a steady stream of solid studies that informs us how to prolong and leverage the brain-healthy benefits of certain types of memories.
Bryant offers this important definition of savoring:
Savoring is the capacity to attend to the joys, pleasures, and other positive feelings that we experience in our lives.
The “capacity to attend” . . . as in pay attention! As in . . . put down your Phone and pay attention to something that might bring you joy. Or, as I like to say … Sit! Stay! Savor!
Let’s go back to your sunset. Here’s what happens when these moments are savored. First, they’re encoded, stored and will remain stored within your brain for the rest of your life. During savoring, “doses” of brain-healthy neurochemicals are expressed throughout a savored sunset. Imagine each expression as a single expression. POP! What we call a NeuroSquirt.
When you invest those leisurely yet focused moments, minutes, or even hours of your time, . . . your brain’s neurochemical pharmacy will be delivering valuable compounds that cascade through your brain and body. Sometimes you feel a “glow”. The glow from those positive, sunset-triggered chemicals will linger in your system long after the actual experience ends. This is what is called the neurochemical cascade effect.
Then, whenever you retrieve that specific stored memory, . . . the same chemicals are expressed again! POP!
Here’s some more evidence-based good news about savoring. Richie Davidson and his team at the University of Wisconsin answered two questions:
What’s going on when you’re savoring something?
and How long do those emotions endure?
And guess what the subjects savored? Sunsets!
This research revealed that protracted activation of a brain region called the ventral striatum is directly linked to sustaining positive emotions and
their resulting rewards.
Davidson’s team used the viewing of beautiful sunsets to identify this important part of your limbic system that’s linked to sustaining the feelings and perhaps the benefits of the flow of positive neurochemicals that are being expressed.
They found that you generate those beneficial chemicals when you really focus on that sunset and continue to benefit when you linger.
Here’s two important facts: Savoring cannot be outsourced . . .
but savoring can be learned, practiced, and even mastered.
It’s a “Do It Yourself” (D.I.Y.) investment that will, if it’s done properly and regularly, pay dividends throughout your life.
A true pioneer in this field, Martin Seligman, gave us a wonderful book titled Flourish. Seligman advises that “practicing the technique of savoring (P) . . . intensifies and lengthens the positive emotion. That makes for wonderful days and afterglows.”
Afterglow – What a perfect word. Let me explain one personal case of an “afterglow” that has been with me since 2003. Our MemAerobics clinical trial was about to be published and I was still working as a full-time activity director. On June 21st, the longest day of the year, I drove 15 wonderful mature minds to a bird refuge with a panoramic view of Oregon’s Coast Range. Together we would be savoring the summer solstice sunset. As the sun’s final direct rays disappeared, the ladies began looking back at me as if to ask “OK. Now what?” I smiled and said “What are you looking at? The sunset is that way.” As I pointed to the west sky. “The sunset began when we quit squinting.”
For nearly an hour, we savored the marvelous, oh-so-gradual color changes.
During that hour, I learned a new term that we later added to our NeuroLexicon. As we watched the colors change, one of the ladies pointed out a part of the sky and said, “That’s a perfect “Blue Sky Pink.” “A perfect what?” I asked. “Blue Sky Pink.” She said said more slowly. Georgia explained that her family would often stop whatever they were doing and “just sit” together to enjoy a sunset. As the evening sky’s palette gently colored the clouds, the kids would search and search until one of them saw that first swath of Blue Sky Pink. I suddenly realized that Blue Sky Pink is like no other color. Since that moment, I have never savored a sunset without searching for a glimpse of Georgia’s Blue Sky Pink. Next time you stop your life to behold a sunset, wait for it, search for it. You’ll know it when you see it and your mind will react with a loud and clear “ah-ha! There’s Georgia’s Blue Sky Pink.”
A final question: What is your favorite sunset . . . of your entire life . . . so far? If you’ve got more than one, please continue thinking until you narrow it down to that one, maybe with your children, grandchildren or that one special friend. Do not rush your answer! . . . . Once you’ve got it, . . . those golden memories are ready to be mined.
The digging begins with the re-activation of your ventral striatum by focusing, really focusing on that sunset. If you were in an imaging machine right now, we’d see your brain lighting up as it reconnects with those gold-plated moments that you encoded years or decades ago.
As Dr. Bryant discovered, “Time is less likely to fly when one is aware that one is having fun, that is, when one is savoring.”
Happy brain-healthy savoring!