Walking in my neighbourhood yesterday, here in Melbourne inner north, I was caught by surprise by the beauty of the moment I was experiencing – not because anything in particular was happening, but because of the beauty of the place. Imagine: the sun setting gently against some dark clouds on the horizon, giving the light a golden glow, the Merri Merri creek flowing through a dense patch of vegetation, where oak trees seem to reach forward to touch the waters. Silence, broken only by the song of some birds.
It has happened to me many times before – on the shore of the ocean at Bondi beach or in Ireland, in the woods and mountains in Italy where I come from… struck by beauty, all of a sudden, a state of no mind, a warmth in my heart.
Beauty can be experienced through our senses – a beautiful image or landscape we admire, the taste of a lovely meal, a piece of music that brings us to tears, a fragrance we feel drawn to.
Experiences can be beautiful, like the moment I had yesterday along the creek – but also challenging experiences have the potential to be filled with beauty, despite the pain and struggles – if we live them fully and allow the full spectrum of emotions that may arise in us. Think big storms – threatening black clouds rolling in, the strength of nature in its full power. It is beautiful.
“An appreciation for beauty is simply an openness to the power of things to stir the soul. If we can be affected by beauty, then soul is alive and well in us, because the soul’s greatest talent is for being affected. The word passion means basically ‘to be affected’, and passion is the essential energy of the soul”
Beauty belongs to the realm of the soul.
It also lives in our brains.
Beauty has been explored for centuries as a concept and an experience, but it is only recently that science caught up with some of the insights gained by artists, writers, art historians, spiritual seekers and philosophers.
Neuroaesthetics is a new branch of neuroscience concerned with the neurobiological study of the aesthetic experience (read: the experience of beauty).
We know, through interpersonal neurobiology, that the experience of a sensation (e.g. beauty) corresponds to a particular firing of a specific area of our brain, and viceversa, the increase in brain activity in this area is directly correlated to the intensity of the experience.
So what are the areas in our brains involved in the experience of beauty?
Beauty lives in the medial orbital prefrontal cortex, the area of our brain just behind the eyes. And in particular, in the same spot that fires up when we see the face of someone we love. It triggers the reward system and the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter connected with pleasure, motivation, but also sleep, mood, memory and learning.
On the contrary, when we experience something we perceive as not beautiful or ugly, our amygdala and motor system fire up, as if we get ready to move away and protect ourselves.
Recent studies agree that participating in cultural and artistic activities reduces levels of anxiety and depression
Because of its capacity to activate the reward centre of our brains and to release dopamine, the experience of beauty through the participation in artistic activities – such as going to the theatre, listening or making music, painting or going to art exhibitions – improves wellbeing and increase satisfaction with our lives.
It can be use preventatively to maintain good mental health, or to connect us with something bigger than us when trauma shutters our perception of reality.
The neural experience of beauty and the consequent release of dopamine is also only partially pre-determined by our genetic profile – it is also affected by environmental factors like exposure or education.
In other words, it’s possible to be ‘educated’ to perceive beauty, as for example when we learn about the artist’s process and the meaning behind their creations, or when we learn to turn our attention to it, actively seeking and savouring any aesthetic experience.
So why not make the experience of Beauty and, broadly, Art part of our mental health prevention and intervention?
Mandala painting, an education to the healing power of Beauty
The single word most uttered by people seeing my mandalas is a loud WOW, as they get caught by surprise by their beauty.
It often stops them in their tracks, not expecting such a lovely piece of visual art, generating awe and, as we now know, firing up their dopamine system. I have a few of of my mandalas framed around the house and they never stop to touch that note of beauty every time I look up to them.
It’s important for me that my work with mandalas involves beauty in all its aspects:
- in my workshops, in the way the process is designed, paced, shared; in the sense of community created where every participant can share in the beauty of the others; in details such as the choice of background music
- but also in my artworks, in the end product, the creation itself, through the choice of colours, the harmony of shapes – the technique I use and teach a vehicle for the transcending power of beauty, experienced by all who use it and those who see the artworks.
Mandala painting is therefore not only a mindfulness tool, or a way to reconnect with our capacity to create our lives (our creativity) – it’s also an education to the healing power of beauty.
More about Neuroaesthetics: