When I woke up one morning and suddenly found my twenties coming to a precipitous close, I decided to embark upon a spiritual quest of sorts: I went around the country visiting a number of contemporary American spiritual communities. I visited the Sufi community, The Abode of the Message. It was founded by Pir Vilayat Khan in an old Shaker settlement in New Lebanon, New York. I also visited Odiyan, a Buddhist center at Sea Ranch, California; Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophical Camp Hill Village for developmentally disabled young adults in Copake, New York; and the Woodcrest Bruderhof in Rifton, New York. I visited a number of other communities as well. Unexpectedly, those visits ended up becoming an integral part of my doctoral dissertation research.
One thing struck me profoundly about each of these communities; and it let me instinctively know that I would not be a good fit for any of them: each community paid painstaking attention to the physical environment. Extreme, caring attention to order and detail was evident everywhere: A place for beautiful things and all beautiful things in their place (What’s interesting, ironic and makes total sense from a brain growth and development perspective, is that many years later, with Ph.D. in hand, I made the “crazy” decision to take a job as the maintenance man for a Think Tank at Stanford, charged with bringing a similar detailed level of order and functionality to that environment!).
Hyperthymesia, Oh Wherefore Art Thou?
I’m writing about this now in response to the program aired on 60 Minutes last Sunday about Super Autobiographical Memory. On the show Leslie Stahl presented six people who can recall details from every single day of their lives! Pick a date – July 27, 1986 – they can tell you the exact day of the week it fell upon and what happened in pointed detail with 99.9% accuracy. When placed in a functional MRI scanner by Professor Jim McGaugh at the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at UC Irvine, the brains of these folks displayed some very specific anomalies – two areas were seven standard deviations larger than normal. These were the temporal lobes and the caudate nucleus. Compared to height in our culture, these parts of their brains would make them the equivalent of being ten feet tall!
McGaugh is the world’s leading researcher on hyperthymesia – the scientific name for super autobiographical memory – and he’s curious about a chicken/egg problem. Do these people have such larger areas because they’ve used them a lot, or were these areas larger to begin with? I would argue for both possibilities, since we know from apoptosis studies that with brain neurons it’s either use it or lose it. So, those areas probably started out larger than most initially and increased their neuron numbers and connections going forward.
This chicken/egg problem becomes an interesting research question, particularly when we consider the larger caudate nucleus. This part of the brain has been implicated in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. In people afflicted with this condition researchers have found significantly increased volumes of gray matter. What was interesting to me on the 60 Minutes segment was when they showed hyperthymesic TV star Marilu Henner at home in her bedroom closet. Every skirt and dress was hung in its “proper place.” Blouses were placed together in color groupings. Each pair of shoes was housed in its own individual cubby, with one toe in and one toe out. Her organization and order were off the charts. One primary difference between Marilu though, and someone suffering from OCD, is that she seems to have a meta-awareness of this compulsion such that she’s able to laugh about it.
A Certain Buddhist Calm
Being in beautifully organized environments brings a certain Buddhist calm. It’s not an accident that healthy spiritual communities pay attention to such things. As someone who has made many home visits to the poor and the emotionally disturbed, I can tell you that one thing that’s hard not to notice is the amount of clutter and chaos in their living space. Apparently, as within, so without.
But I also suspect that by beginning early, and making a game of being neat and organized, we can grow the caudate nucleus in our children’s brains such that order and beauty are something that simply unfolds as a matter of course. And with it also, perhaps by introducing a nightly ritual of a Day Review, help them develop an increasing ability to more easily recall many more days of their lives. It certainly seems like an experiment worth pursuing, yes?