Ghostbusters. What an awesome movie.

In the library scene quoted above, Ray (but not Peter or Egan) is experiencing an “orienting response”. His body stills, his breath quiets, and his attention is highly focused.

These are the same physiological responses that accompany inspired experiences that I’ve been writing about lately. Could this be the scientific explanation I’ve been looking for?

The orienting reflex (OR) is defined as:

an organism’s immediate response to a change in its environment, when that change is not sudden or loud enough to elicit the startle reflex.

Your breathing and heart rate decelerate. Your rapt attention focuses on the stimulus. Although it may later lead to feeling nervous (hide and seek), or spooky (a rustling of the trees while alone in the forest), it doesn’t always lead to a “fight or flight” response. In fact, it can often lead to a highly enjoyable experience.

My most enjoyable OR was my first glimpse of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers from across the National Gallery. It took my breath away.

What I love about the OR is that you don’t actually think about what you are seeing or hearing, but drop the mental chatter to deeply perceive.

This explains everything! Or does it?

After a number of similar repeated stimuli, the orienting response stops. Your mind becomes conditioned to ignore it. The rustling was only the wind. The strange light was only a car going by. I may become so used to the stunning presence of the Sunflowers that my breath would never again stop in amazement (but I can’t say this for sure!).

Despite all this, the OR gives us clues to understand how to get to an optimal performance space. By taking the cue from OR, we can extend the positive benefits of slowed heart and respiratory rates that lead to our best performances. We can get ourselves out of the way and stop overthinking (“Oh no! It’s the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man!”)

The key is perception.

Perception gives us something to hold on to. And inspiration always gives us something novel, something new that comes not from our own creation but from a deeper source.

Inspiration is ever-new joy.

Because inspiration is ever-new, our bodies can never become conditioned to ignore it. In fact, it leads to a lifetime of exploration.

The key to expanding perception is meditation.

Meditation opens the door to access and amplify your perception. This naturally enhances any listening, practice, or performance.

Here is what I want you to try, using your body’s natural orienting response:

  1. Sing or play 40 seconds of a piece that is most likely to elicit a strong response in you (use one of your all-time favorites).
  2. Immediately after, close your eyes and turn your awareness within.
  3. Expect that there is something novel to experience. Don’t try to define what it should be. Just become highly aware for a second, trying to perceive the tiniest spark or novel presence within.
  4. Repeat the music and again turn your awareness within, coaxing the OR response into helping you perceive even more deeply. This time, allow yourself to relax more and more into that perception.
  5. Repeat the music once more, but this time keep part of your awareness focused on the experience within.

The more you practice this, the easier this becomes. And I promise you, your audience will start to perceive more deeply as well.

And where do all these steps go?

“They go up!”

“Listen! You smell something?”

One thought on ““Listen! You smell something?”

  • August 23, 2015 at 3:53 pm

    What a great concept and I love your application to the musical experience. Is the OR similar to the “breathtaking sunset or seascape?” It would seem so!


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