The anticipation response

January 14, 2011

Dear Rodney,

Feelings of pleasure are triggered in the brain by food, sex and illicit drugs. 
Dopamine, a "feel good" neurotransmitter, is released into the bloodstream from 
several parts of the brain. Researchers at McGill University in Montreal have now 
determined that the sound of music releases dopamine, too. It's that nice tingly 
feeling you get when your favorite music is playing, and it doesn't matter what 
kind of music you like--jazz, classical, rock and roll. The tests were done 
with music without lyrics--they wanted to make sure it wasn't the words that were 
turning people on.

Curiously, the most dopamine was released just before what people thought to be 
the best parts of their favorite music. That's often the part where the composer 
is building up to a theme--you know what's coming, and then it does, like the 
anticipated arrival of a haunting melody. Further, there is a parallel to the prior 
excitement generated in other experiences. For example, we often observe the 
condition of looking forward to eating, being oblivious while eating, and being 
satisfied after. The menu's the best part.

If you think this might apply to painting, you'd be pickin' up what I'm puttin' 
down. With no anticipated excitement before, there's no great art after. 

We have several ways of building anticipation at the easel. One is to always have 
something on the easel where the next bit of work is potentially pleasurable. In 
other words, put temporarily stuck or vexing paintings to the side and display only 
workable ones. Another ploy is to really steel yourself prior to beginning a new 
project. The prior mental caresses may well be so delicious that you are propelled 
to get on with it. However, don't be in a hurry. Take your time to enjoy the most 
pleasurable parts. Also, and this relates to the first idea, always leave something 
unfinished on your work so that it will be easy to pick up and get started again.

To get the dopamine flowing, you need a relationship with your work that is beyond 
obligation, expectations of perfection or cash flow. Profound creativity and steady 
work habits need a state of genuine desire. Aging, we may begin to lose some of that 
desire. But the dopamine flows for anyone who primes the pump. Anticipate. 

Best regards,


PS: "Ten to 20 seconds prior to the maximum [musical] pleasure there was a different 
dopamine response in a slightly different place in the brain." (Robert Zatorre, 
brain researcher, McGill University)

Esoterica: Another way of encouraging dopamine flow is to avoid the stuff that 
inhibits it. Talking about what you're going to do is one of them. Keep your 
pleasure a private event between yourself and your canvas. Also, watch out for 
static. Just as it interferes with music, cares and woes inhibit creative flow. 
Further, there's always the tendency to just start. I'm always recommending that 
ploy. But just starting includes a short interval, perhaps ten or 20 seconds, of 
anticipatory meditation. Then the nicest parts are even nicer.