DSC00865We are hard-wired for green. It’s a phrase I heard for the first time this week, and it is lodged in my brain at the moment like an advertising jingle I secretly like. Hard-wired for green: meaning, you can strip away everything you’ve learned since birth and you will still primally, viscerally, respond like a seedling in the sun to the sight of new green growth. You will feel reassured by this evidence that the planet, or at least one bit of it, is still alive and well. You will feel energized—if these plants can grow, then I can too.

You might think I heard this in some sort of eco-oriented setting, and you’d be right, if you stretched your notion of ecology to include the complex landscape of the brain. It was the keynote speaker at the regional Alzheimer’s conference who planted the “hard-wired for green” seed in my head. Sociologist and author John Zeisel was talking about what people with Alzheimer’s don’t lose as the disease goes about its inexorable business. What they don’t lose is what is “hard-wired;” so deeply embedded that we’re born with it. Positive feelings about green, especially trees, were at the top of his list, which also included: universal facial expressions—smiles, frowns and the look of disgust; response to touch, especially anything resembling a mother’s touch; the learning and use of landmarks; and, finally, creative expression: art, poetry, music and dance.

Zeisel is a tireless advocate for the “personhood” of the person with dementia, as reflected in the title of his book, I’m Still Here—a New Philosophy of Alzheimer’s Care. His credo is to focus not on what’s lost to Alzheimer’s, but on what’s left. He likes to throw around phrases like, “People with Alzheimer’s have a human right to lead a life worth living.”

If you, like me, are one of the millions of people in the world who have seen Alzheimer’s disease up close in someone you love, this is emotionally loaded territory. Our mother lived into the very late stages of the illness, and I can attest that green trees, facial expressions and touch remained powerful for her. But as that little phrase, “hardwired for green,” settles into my brain, I am struck by the larger truths behind Zeisel’s list. By how these visceral, hardwired pleasures nurture not only those of us whose brains are ill but those of us who are well.

And here’s what I wonder: if we modern, multi-tasking humans allow ourselves to revel in green, in smiles, in human touch, in creative expression… will those primal elements be even more present for us, even more accessible, when we need them at the ends of our lives? We won’t know until we get there. But surely we’ll have a richer ride through the years.

At the other end of life, arts education is back in the news and beginning to recover its lost momentum. People are talking about how yes, the STEM subjects—Science, Technology, Engineering and Math—are crucial, but if you put the A for Art back in and call it STEAM, you add creative thinking to the mix, which might be the most powerful ingredient of all. As an apprentice in Seattle Arts & Lectures’ Writers in the Schools program, I see this every week. Poetry, music, art and dance come naturally to children who haven’t yet locked them away in some “that’s not who I am” category.

And getting back to green: that hard-wired response is front and center this time of year. For children and for all of us. As my mom often said, long after most other phrases had failed her, “Look at these trees! We live in such a beautiful place.”

Don’t miss Bill Hayes’ beautiful essay about trees published in the Sunday New York Times.

Our films, Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story, The Church on Dauphine Street and 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle are available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.