Chasing Awe

Eclipse GlassesEvery eighteen months or so, the heavens align to give us a lesson in awe, desire, and addiction.

In February 1998 on the island of Aruba, science writer David Baron experienced a religious epiphany.

He gathered with others behind his hotel to stare at the sky with cheap dark glasses. When the lights went out, a cheer erupted from the beach. He had never seen a sky like it. Up above was a deep purple gray like twilight. Bright stars and planets came out. On the horizon it was orange like sunset in all directions. This glorious, bewildering thing looked like a wreath woven from silvery thread. He could see the sun and the planets and how the planets revolve around the sun. For the first time in his life he felt viscerally connected to the universe. Time was nonexistent. It felt like a vision. It was all over in 173 seconds. The world had returned to normal, but he had changed.

“I am not a spiritual person,” Baron said in his TedX talk. “I don’t believe in God. I wish I did. But when I think of my own mortality – and I do, a lot – when I think of everyone I have lost, my mother in particular, what soothes me is that moment of awe I had in Aruba. I picture myself on that beach, looking at that sky, and I remember how I felt. My existence may be temporary, but that’s OK because, my gosh, look at what I’m a part of.”

I won’t dispute Baron’s claim that, for him, a total solar eclipse is the most awe inspiring spectacle in all of nature. I won’t dispute the research on the psychological benefits of awe mentioned in The Greater Good Science Center’s The Science of Happiness course.

Awe has a way of lifting us out of self-preoccupation. It makes us feel more connected, more generous, gives us a sense that we have more time. Awe is especially helpful when we feel bogged down by everyday minutiae.

But, one aspect of the eclipse talk that made me uneasy was the advice to chase the path of totality. In eclipse lingo, that’s the trajectory that the moon’s shadow follows. While awe may unite us, the opportunity cost of the path of totality can be divisive.

In Oregon, access to the path for the April 21, 2017 eclipse led to hotels dropping reservations to re-book rooms at higher rates. One organic farm on the path offered four-night double occupancy accommodations with meals for $1200. Bring your own tent.

On an ordinary day, it would take me no longer than an hour to drive from Portland to the path of totality. But, with projections that the population of Oregon will increase by 25 percent, all vying to occupy the same moon shadow at the same time, I wouldn’t dream of getting in my car.

A few years ago, I did my best to chase awe by planning hikes in Glacier National Park. I booked a room at the lodge eleven months in advance. It is indeed an awe inspiring park as viewed from the car window through the rain. The trailhead to every hike I’d planned to take was full.

While awe may have its limited social benefits, awe in limited supply has its social costs. I don’t doubt that Baron’s Aruba eclipse had a profound impact on his perception of his role in the cosmos. But, the fact that it transformed him into an umbraphile, into arranging his work and finances to chase total eclipses around the globe simultaneously transformed that healthy sense of wonder into an addiction.

Dr. Kate Russo in her books Total Addiction and Being in the Shadow has classified human interaction with total eclipses under the acronym SPACED.
S: Sense of wrongness.
P: Primal fear.
A: Awe.
C: Connection to something greater than ourselves.
E: Euphoria.
D: Desire to repeat the experience.

The D in the acronym, desire, must always be accompanied by dissatisfaction. If there were something genuinely satisfying about the experience of witnessing a total solar eclipse, it wouldn’t leave us wanting more. We don’t usually think of desire as dissatisfaction, but if a desire is not satisfied, we feel disappointment. And, if a desire is satisfied, a new desire soon takes its place.

Author Robert Wright discussed an experiment that illustrates this endless cycle in his interview with Terry Gross.

Researchers put fruit juice on the tongues of monkeys and measured them for dopamine, a neurotransmitter that corresponds with the experience of pleasure. At first, the fruit juice led to a burst of dopamine. The researchers then linked the dispensing of the fruit juice to a flashing light. Soon the monkeys received their dopamine boost when the light flashed. But, the dopamine level associated with the actual contact with the fruit juice diminished.

While it would have been redundant for Baron to detail his experience of each total eclipse he has witnessed, the one he draws comfort from is his first. There’s no way to gauge whether he’s driven back to the path of totality again and again by anticipation or by the experience itself.
I don’t think that awe is a bad thing. I live in Portland, Oregon where I’m surrounded by every day awe. On a clear day, I can see Mt. Hood on my way to buy groceries. I can see Mt. St. Helens from a vantage point a couple blocks from my house. Every summer I try to get out to the Pacific Ocean. Living in the shadow of these giants gives me a sense of perspective. In “Forest Therapy-A Natural Antidepressant,” I wrote about a kind of awe I try to practice on a regular basis.

I have never in my life felt a sense of deprivation or resentment that no eclipse has ever crossed my path. But, to show I’m not anti-eclipse, this time I went to the library, got my free pair of eclipse glasses, and looked both ways before crossing the street to view the event with my neighbors in the field behind the school. It’s healthy to share in the delight of others, as I wrote in “Making Community Happen.”

Eclipse Neighbors

I chose to see my glass as 99.2% awe, and topped it off with gratitude. Seeing it as 0.8% empty would only have sent me chasing shadows.

Free Throws, Pizza, Neuroplasticity

When I set out to get my 10,000 steps in, I wasn’t expecting to stumble on two real-life examples of neuroplasticity at work.

But on one on-again off-again rainy-sunny October day, the sunshine won out long enough for me to decide to stretch my planned 5,000-step walk into a 10,000-step walk to get my daily exercise in one go.

As I approached the point of no return, my stomach growled. I hadn’t fueled up for a 10,000-step trek. There were plenty of places I could stop for food, but I hadn’t planned to spend money. If I had greater self-control, I could have sucked it up and taught myself the importance of properly fueling up for my exercise routine and sticking to my plans. But, just as I was thinking that, I passed Via Chicago, a place I visit when I have a craving for the Chicago-style pizza of my youth. For four bucks, which my empty stomach argued was reasonable, I could take on enough fuel (more than enough) to get me home.

Via Chicago Pizza

Since it wasn’t raining, I decided to grab a slice to go. I had intended to walk through Alberta Park anyway. My only change of plan was to park on a bench long enough to fill my belly.

The place was deserted except for a couple of guys practicing free throws on the covered basketball court. I had played just enough basketball and watch just enough games to realize that the shooter was sinking an unusually high percentage.

Even the pros practice to keep their free throw shooting sharp. They do this because with each shot, the brain associates the cause (the muscular movement) with the effect (the ball going through the hoop or missing). They’re not practicing their shooting. They’re making free throws a habit so they can make them without thinking.

The fancy name for free throw practice or anything practice is neuroplasticity: the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections. The muscular activity that propels the ball through the basket corresponds to an electrical pulse between specific neurons or nerve cells in the brain. Each time the muscular motion and neurological circuitry synch up with the intended result, a basket, the likelihood of that circuitry firing next time the shooter steps up to the line increases.

As I sat using my neuroplasticity to become more impulsive by rewarding my taste buds and tummy with a slice of yummy pizza, the shooter used his neuroplasticity to habituate his shooting skill. My habitually wandering mind moved on to other metaphors for the mental mapping process we were both practicing. Between the bench where I sat and the trash can by the court, many footsteps had worn a path through the grass: evidence that I wasn’t the first person to snack there. Neuroplasticity is why my high school band director admonished me not to practice my mistakes. The guy credited with engineering the mental wellness exercises that I practice every morning said something like “What we frequently think or ponder upon becomes the inclination of the mind.” It didn’t take neuroscientists to teach us that repetition leads to habituation. Their contribution was the discovery of how those habits form the brain itself.

When I finished my slice of pizza and approached the trash can to deposit the aluminum foil, I considered complimenting the shooter on his performance. But before I could, another “teachable moment” arose. As I entered his sight line, he missed a shot, then another, then another. Sinking a free throw when no one is looking is much easier than sinking one when the home crowd is watching and the outcome of the game is on the line.

I felt compassion for his plight. According to the article “The Science Behind Your Free Throws,” “The best way to prepare to make the big shot in crunch time is to learn to shoot and practice shooting under both pressure and adversity all the time. From now on, when practicing free throws, jack up the pressure and create high-tension scenarios.”

I guess the best way to stick to your exercise routine is to stick to your exercise routine. Don’t let the weather or a craving for pizza influence you. I took solace in the thought that at least the shooter and I both knew that we still had work to do.

Ten Minute Exercise
  1. Watch this brief YouTube video on neuroplasticity.
  2. Think of a habitual neural pathway you would like to re-route.
  3. Remember this video the next time your brain takes that path.

Taking Control of Your Emotional Playlist with Earworms

Cycles of depression are often accompanied by negative thought patterns that, once triggered, go on auto play. That’s something they have in common with those annoying songs that we can’t seem to shake: earworms.

The article “Play it Again, Brain” in New Scientist lists some earworm characteristics.
• About 98 percent of us are susceptible.
• They typically run between 15 and 30 seconds.
• We’re most susceptible to music that is repetitive and simple with unexpected variations in rhythm or melody.
• Triggers include songs we’ve heard repeatedly or recently, or associated with stressful or stimulating experiences.

Songs with lyrics are five times more likely to stick than commercial jingles, instrumental music is less sticky than jingles.

It’s possible that the part of the brain where earworms lodge evolved to receive the transmission of oral knowledge in verse form before people learned to read and write. When knowledge shifted to print books, the melodic and rhythmic shifts in “The Alphabet Song” became indispensable in reminding us how to look things up.

Like rumination, many earworms that stick in our heads are unwelcome. When Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy” lodges in my head, I worry that I won’t be happy until I can shake it.

Fortunately, the melody to “America” from West Side Story, is every bit as catchy, and, for me, significantly less annoying. It’s my go-to song for shaking unwelcome earworms, and since I’ve used it so often for this purpose, it quickly fades out and lets me get back to life as usual.

On The Hilarious World of Depression podcast’s listener coping songs volumes one and two I enjoyed some of the creative ways that people co-opted the refrains of catchy songs to ameliorate the negative thought loops in their heads.

One listener received frequent exposure to Chris Stapleton’s “Parachute” because it was featured on a Ram truck commercial.

You only need a roof when it’s raining
You only need a fire when it’s cold
You only need a drink when the whiskey
Is the only thing that you have left to hold
Sun comes up and goes back down
And falling feels like flying till you hit the ground
Say the word and I’ll be there for you
Baby, I will be your parachute

In searching for popular songs used in current TV commercials, I came away more frazzled than comforted. Most had serious earworm potential, but none struck me as good coping candidates.

The listener who found comfort in the theme from TV’s The Greatest American Hero had never watched the show and didn’t know where she’d heard it. I believe it got some radio air play when it came out, so maybe she heard it on the way to the job where it came in handy while she juggled abusive phone calls.

Believe it or not, I’m walkin’ on air
I never thought I could feel so free
Flyin’ away on a wing and a prayer
Who could it be?
Believe it or not it’s just me

None of the TV shows that I watch these days have themes with lyrics. If I were looking for a theme that could potentially motivate a shut-in to get out and spend time with friends, I might go with the theme from Cheers.

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.
Wouldn’t you like to get away?

Given the way that the music of The Beatles has lingered in popular culture, it’s not surprising that one of the listeners eventually came across the coping song refrain from “Here Comes the Sun.”

Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun
And I say it’s all right

During the era when MTV played music videos, the ear-wormy “Money for Nothing” got implanted in my brain. But it’s the refrain of “Why Worry” from their Brothers in Arms CD that I remember for its coping song potential.

Why worry
There should be laughter after pain
There should be sunshine after rain
These things have always been the same
So why worry now
Why worry now

It’s not surprising that a listener found a coping song in a Broadway musical or that the song stuck with her because she associates it with a very stressful part of her life. Sending audiences out of the theater at least humming if not singing a tune used to be part of the job description for musical theater composers. And even musical comedies feature darkest-before-the-dawn moments for their characters.

In “Hard Candy Christmas” from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas the out-of-work prostitutes have to start new lives, but the owner knows:

Me, I’ll be just
Fine and dandy
Lord it’s like a hard candy Christmas
I’m barely getting through tomorrow
But still I won’t let
Sorrow bring me way down

My favorite coping song from a Broadway musical first appeared in the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” is a cheerful parody of Broadway musical resilience songs. And it comes at a moment when all the characters are completely out of options.

Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke, it’s true,
You’ll see it’s all a show,
Keep ’em laughing as you go.
Just remember that the last laugh is on you!

A gentle reminder that even the direst situations can be hilarious.

Ten Minute Exercise
  1. Set a timer for ten minutes.
  2. Go to YouTube to search for songs with catchy refrains that you find comforting or reassuring and make a playlist.
  3. Listen as needed.

Taking Control of Your Emotional Playlist with Music Minus Words

Music has charms to soothe the savage breast. It seems reasonable that it also has potential to help us cope with depression.

The podcast The Hilarious World of Depression, where comedians discuss “the old Clinny D” with host John Moe, recently shared two between-season “placebo” editions where listeners offered up their favorite coping songs.

Volume One (16:06), and Volume Two (21:50), are both worthwhile if you can spare more than ten minutes. Listeners share both their songs and the reason they’re helpful. Because musical taste and forms of depression are so personal, coping songs are difficult to prescribe, but here are some suggestions to help you take control of your emotional playlist.

Environmental Music

One December afternoon, as I waited in line to buy some wooden hangers, the woman the cashier was ringing up went ballistic. She insisted that the cashier give her the violent computer games she was purchasing at half off because the signage had been misleading. I found myself growing agitated, but couldn’t figure out why.

Then, it dawned on me. The store’s speakers were piping in Andy Williams’s “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” This was the third time that day I had been subjected to holiday songs! The first had been in a veterinarian’s waiting room, the second had been in an urgent care waiting room, now I was stuck in line. I’ve never listened to these songs in a situation where I wouldn’t rather be doing something else.
Once I recognized this as a source of agitation, I was able to breathe through it and smile when I reached the cashier who said, “Thank you for your patience.”

A listener on the coping songs podcast said that sometimes cheerfulness when you’re in the middle of depression feels like steel wool on your skin. Since music can trigger unintended emotions, I try to be careful around environmental music that I can’t control.

I still listen to recorded music sometimes, as I mentioned in “Making Community Happen,” but I don’t turn on the radio, podcasts, or streaming services around the house or when I get in the car.
When I write, I listen to a playlist I choose to effect specific emotions without lyrics.

Major and Minor Emotions

A common criterion cited for selecting coping songs was finding something that acknowledged strong, painful emotions. In classical music, the most reliable indicators I use for emotional guidance are major and minor keys.      

The second movement of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (C minor) is melancholy while Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 16 (C major) is cheerful.

Christian Schubart’s 1806 mood analysis of the musical keys described C minor as “declaration of love and at the same time the lament of unhappy love. All languishing, longing, sighing of the love-sick soul lies in this key.” By contrast, C major is “completely pure. Its character is: innocence, simplicity, naïvety, children’s talk.”

For a dose of “deep depression, funereal lament, groans of misery and longing for the grave,” Schubart suggests F minor. Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony is one of my favorites for this form of depression. If you need to restore a little “complaisance and calm,” try “Autumn,” from Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons in F major.

One counterintuitive thing about music in minor keys that aligns well with the coping song selections is how surprisingly comforting they can be. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is in D minor, but its fourth movement, “The Ode to Joy,” may be the most emotionally uplifting piece of art man has ever created.

Emotional Temp Tracks

Film directors use temporary music tracks to inspire them while editing a film. Stanley Kubrick’s temporary track for 2001: A Space Odyssey worked so well with his images that when Alex North scored the film, Kubrick decided not to use it. Because of that, from 1896 to 1968, the introduction to Richard Strauss’s tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra, was known as “Sunrise.” Since 1968, it’s been known as “Theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 stuck in my memory as an example of C minor’s “declaration of love and at the same time the lament of unhappy love” because it was used as the score for Brief Encounter: a film about a British housewife who temporarily finds true romance outside her marriage, but decides to stay in the marriage because she’s frightened by genuine passion.

When I’m working on rewrites for a novel, I follow the film director’s lead and put together a temp score playlist. I lean heavily on film scores for this because film composers channel all their formal musical education whenever they have to create the mood for a specific moment. Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring contains many moods, but I’ll never forget the way John Williams channeled it for the shark’s theme in Jaws.

By listening to the playlist each time I write, I strengthen the association between the emotion these pieces created in their original context and the specific scenes I’m working to create. I’m not sure why this works as well as it does, but it’s the quickest, most effective way I know to remind me of what each scene needs to do and how it relates to the piece as a whole.

Since the coping song podcast listeners often cited tunes that reminded them they’d known better times and would know them again, I can see how something that conveys emotion as directly as music can be a big help in strengthening resilience.

Ten Minute Exercise
  1. Set a timer for ten minutes.
  2. Classical route: peruse Christian Schubart’s list of affective musical key characteristics. Type the corresponding key into Wikipedia, scroll down to the well-known compositions for that key, and jot down a list of promising titles.
    Movie soundtrack route: start with to search for films that resonate. You can use the “People Who Like This Also Liked” feature to make a list of similar movies.
  3. Enter classical titles or film names followed by “soundtrack” into YouTube and add them to a playlist. I like using YouTube for initial exploration because after a few searches, it starts offering helpful suggestions.
  4. Stop when the timer sounds and see what you have.
  5. In future ten-minute sessions, test your playlist and refine as necessary.

Once you find musical pieces that resonate with your emotions, you can assemble a more permanent, portable playlist in the format of your choice for future rainy days.