It’s party time for Rainbow Lorikeets around my place. The wet summer has kept the callistemons (Red Bottlebrushes) flowering and providing an abundance of nectar. I was able to get this photo in minutes simply by walking into the front garden and pointing the camera at the source of excited screeching and whistling.
As you can see, the birds and the flowers make a colourful and interesting display. But from the Lorikeets’ point of view, the aesthetics of the colours don’t matter. It is what the colour is communicating (Here’s food) that interests them.
In nature, the function of colour is communication. Colour is the basic language of Nature – a language not of symbols, as with spoken and written languages, but of signals. (Although, as traffic lights testify, we humans have learned to use colours symbolically as well).
When we look at a scene like the one in the photograph, it is easy to think that colour is “in” nature. But that is not the case; colour is something that you, Lorikeets and I experience because our brains can read and interpret signals in the form of light waves emanating from the world around us. Colour is in the brain of the beholder.
And the same is true of beauty. Lorikeets, a sunset, a garden of flowers and all other of nature’s glories are beautiful only because there are brains that “see” them that way.
Actually beauty is more a matter of brain chemistry than it is of anything else. Sure, we can intellectualise about beauty all we like, but the basis of beauty is an outpouring of chemicals, mainly the natural opioids (endorphins) and dopamine, in our brain. These are the “feel good” chemicals that excite the emotions of pleasure and reward.
Beauty gives us an emotional “hit”, which is why I speak of the “beauty buzz”. The buzz can range from a “tingle” to a full-on high.
I can still remember, even after 40 years, the high I experienced when I first gazed on this scene. It was at the end of a long, hard day of trekking in central Nepal, I was walking a little ahead of my companions, weary and looking forward to reaching the campsite. I arrived at a small saddle and there it was – this view. I remember exclaiming to myself, “It can’t be true!”. Time stopped for me as I was totally caught up in the scene. I have no idea how long I remained there, utterly transfixed (I still get goose bumps recalling it). When I finally made my way to the camp, I had completely forgotten my fatigue and my mood had changed. Somehow the world seemed a better place.
This was an experience of the beauty buzz “writ large”. It is usually much less spectacular, but, even in its milder forms, the beauty buzz has the same emotional content – pleasure, reward and stimulation.
We are all born with the ability to experience the beauty buzz or aesthetic pleasure. We do not learn how to be aware of beauty. It is “knowledge” that is encoded in our genes and so comes naturally to us. We may acquire different tastes in beauty as we grow up and have different life experiences, but our shared basic sensitivity to beauty is innate. It is perhaps the most conspicuous feature of biophilia, the most convincing expression of our innate yearning for contact with the natural world.
But the buzz itself is only part of the story. What it can do for us I’ll talk about in my next posting.