When was the last time you looked at a sunset? That’s an easy-to-answer question that would not generate much brain activity. But a slightly different question will make your brain a smidgen healthier: When was the last time you savored a sunset? Take some time before you answer because we don’t really “savor” every sunset, at least not as applied brain science defines it.
“Savoring” is a wonderful, emerging branch of brain research. The term was coined a decade ago by Dr. Fred Bryant from Loyola University in Chicago, whose groundbreaking work led to a steady stream of solid studies that can inform us how to prolong and leverage the brain-healthy benefits of certain types of memories. Bryant offers this definition of savoring: the capacity to attend to the joys, pleasures, and other positive feelings that we experience in our lives. “To attend,” as in pay attention! As in put down the iPhone! Or, as you might say to your dog … Sit! Stay!
When memories are savored, they will be stored and will remain wired in your brain for the rest of your life. “Doses” of brain-healthy neurochemicals are expressed and flow during a savored sunset, as multiple memories are permanently encoded in your brain. As you invest those leisurely yet focused moments, minutes, or even hours of your time, your brain’s neurochemical laboratory will be delivering valuable compounds that cascade through your brain and body. The glow from those sunset-triggered chemicals then linger in your system after the actual experience ends through what is called the neurochemical cascade effect. Whenever you retrieve that stored memory, the same chemicals flow again!
There’s even more evidence-based good news. Dr. Richard Davidson and his team at the University of Wisconsin looked at both how much emotion was involved in savoring something, and how long those emotions endure. Research revealed that protracted activation of a brain region called the ventral striatum is directly linked to sustaining positive emotions and reward. Davidson and team used the viewing of beautiful sunsets to identify this important part of your limbic system that is linked to sustaining the feelings and perhaps the benefits of the flow of positive neurochemicals being expressed. You generate those beneficial chemicals when you really focus on that sunset and when you linger.
Fact: Savoring cannot be outsourced. But savoring can be learned, practiced, and even mastered. It’s a D.I.Y. investment that that will, it it’s done properly, pay dividends throughout your life. Martin Seligman, author of Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, advises that “practicing the technique of savoring intensifies and lengthens positive emotion. That makes for wonderful days and afterglows.”
In one case, the afterglow has lasted since 2003. That year, as part of a clinical trial at Western Oregon University we savored a summer solstice with 15 wonderful mature minds. As the sun’s final direct rays disappeared, participants 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. It began as soon as you quit squinting.”
For nearly an hour, we sat and savored the marvelous, oh-so-gradual color changes. That’s when I learned a new term that I added to my NeuroLexicon. Georgia pointed out a part of the sky and said, “That’s a perfect “Blue Sky Pink.” “A perfect what?” I asked. She 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 as I looked up 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 “a-ha!”
Final question: What is your favorite sunset of your entire life . . . so far? If you have more than one, please continue thinking until you narrow it down to that one, maybe with that one person. 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 single 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 you encoded years or decades ago. Or as Dr. Bryant offers, “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!
Roger Anunsen is a brain health educator and program consultant based in Portland, OR where he teaches college gerontology courses including The Aging Mind. Roger has been working in the field of memory and aging since 2001 and is a co-founder of MINDRAMP Consulting that provides nationwide brain health events, staff training and educational courses.