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Wanted: Frequent, Intense Aesthetic Chills
Lessons on Living a Psychologically Rich Existence
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I’m going to share something that only my closest friends and family members know. Since my mother died, there is only one thing that inevitably leads to instant reminders of her.
A mere whiff of fresh cow manure and I am instantly transported to long car rides to Jones Beach (in Long Island, New York) and the thrift shop version of Disneyland - Dutch Wonderland (in Lancaster, Pennsylvania).
On those drives, my mother would do the opposite of every other passenger and roll down the window when passing cow pastures. She loved the smell of manure. I could picture her head tilting out of the car, to feel the wind and be fully absorbed in the world outside the vehicle. Sometimes her sunglasses would fall off. Sometimes her long black hair would whip against the skin causing a jolt. Mostly though, with eyes closed, she smiled contentedly. It’s a favorite image of childhood.
You can hear more experiencing a mere 13 years with my mother in this Hidden Brain interview:
Try to withhold judgment about my mom’s unusual pleasure. There’s something beautiful of knowing exactly what tickles your sensory system and leaning in despite the strangeness and disapproval of others. It was a lesson that influenced my own willingness to say “hell’s yes” to things that I enjoy even if others hold that same activity in disregard (conducting regression analyses on a laptop at a vacation resort’s pool, reading young adult fiction) or “hell’s no” to events that to me, are the trans-fatty acids of socializing (somber high-stakes poker games, staring inside the hoods of antique or sports cars).
Two types of sensory experiences serve as nostalgic portals.
Scent Driven Awe Experiences
First, there is our olfactory system. Scent-based cues are a medium of perception. Scents provoke vivid feelings of pleasure or disgust in the present but also the past. A wave of scientific evidence supports the link between cow manure and my mom. A relationship referred to as The Proust Effect:
The Proust Effect refers to the emotionality and vividness of re-experiencing autobiographical memories triggered by the senses, such as the recollection of a past holiday when eating grandmother's blueberry pie or reliving a scene from elementary school triggered by a smell (e.g., cleaning products, cut grass on the field). The Proust effect gets its name from prolific French writer Marcel Proust’s monumental and influential seven-volume work Remembrance of Things Past (A la reserché de temps perdu). In the most famous passage, Proust recounts eating and smelling a madeleine cake dipped in tea, which suddenly and powerfully transports him back to his childhood, triggering a series of recollections about his aunt, her house, and her village. It was a vibrant multi-sensory experience for him.
Music Driven Awe Experiences
Second, there is the power of music-based nostalgia. Certain sounds and music lyrics are strongly associated with emotionally intense memories. In one study, researchers shared 6,720 popular song excerpts and asked people, “How nostalgic does this song make you feel?” Nearly 26% of these songs elicited strong autobiographical memories.
As a rock music fanatic (see my ode to Pearl Jam), there are a vast number of songs liked to trips taken, women dated, parties attended, heartbreak, exuberance, intrigue, awkwardness and more.
“If the stars had a sound they would sound like this”
–Mari Myren, in reference to the Scottish post-rock band Mogwai
Own personally selected music, and what happened to be playing at the time of important events, serves as bookmarks allowing for easy time traveling back to what we thought and felt. Do not underestimate the power of this gift.
Intentionally Seeking Moments to Be Moved
Knowing feelings of awe and wonder from aromas and sounds are important to our sense of identity is valuable. Go a step further and there’s a wealth of research showing that scent and music evoked awe also produce desirable outcomes. These emotionally intense states (not just pleasurable) reduce the physiological and psychological toll of stressful events, diminish concerns about the ego, provide a sense of meaning in life, and induce a desire to connect with others and feel a sense of belonging with them.
And this brings me to a change in my habits that I hope inspires a change in yours. I am actively seeking out these moments more often. I used to escape the smells of manure because I didn’t want feelings of loss to intrude on the present. No longer. When those smells appear, you will find me standing in place with eyes closed taking in whatever memories transpire. Searching for details that I might have forgotten or a story that I might retell.
As for music, no partner is required for my concert attendance. I’ve been savoring a series of classical musicians in non-traditional venues playing hard rock on strings. The last event was held in the National City Christian Church in Washington, D.C. with the Listeso String Quartet playing the following 13 colossal tunes.
One song on this list is intimately tied to my job working as a Pathmark grocery store cashier at 15 years old. I just earned the incredibly prestigious monthly award of greatest percentage of shopping cart goods scanned per minute. You can probably guess what older workers said to me - “Slow down $#@%, we all get paid the same no matter how fast we go!” I was too young to understand much less loathe the oppressive management style of Taylorism. What I do remember is my manager telling me I earned an extra 15 minutes to my lunch break. So I went next door to the record store where they played Sweet Child o’ Mine. I stopped and might have said aloud, “Whoa, what is this?” I’m sure you could see goosebumps on my arms and I felt a slight shiver down the spine.
An experience I felt anew with this, my gift to you, Sweet Child o’ Mine surreptitiously recorded while the string quartet reached a state of flow for four minutes. Press play. Close your eyes. Let me know what feelings and memories emerge.
Let’s commit to bringing more spiritual moments into mundane routines.
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Enjoy this great conversation on how I moved from my family tradition of working on Wall Street to the field of psychology.