Can experiencing awe really make us better people?

Feeling awe can lead to many other feelings, including a greater sense of activity. But with so much technology in the palm of our hand, what still astounds? asks Carl Dixon

Sunset in Eyeries, West Cork. Picture: Carl Dixon

When was the last time you were truly awestruck? By the destructive power of a winter storm, a landscape carved from rock, or the vaulted ceiling of a cathedral? By the music of Beethoven, or the breaching of a whale? Scientists believe that experiencing a sense of awe makes us more creative, kinder, and more connected to others. By displacing our sense of our own importance, it appears we are better able to transcend our own egotistical nature and focus on the needs of others.

In a society that emphasises individual achievement, it is a relief to be reminded that the world is immense and largely indifferent to the petty concerns of our endless prattling egos. Awe shocks us out of our self-obsession and provides relief from our mental turmoil. Grandeur, it seems, compels our inner silence, if only momentarily, and makes us better people.

Dacher Keltner and Johnathan Haidt published the first scientific definition of awe in 2003. As reported in New Scientist, it is “the feeling we get when confronted with something vast, that transcends our frame of reference and that we struggle to understand”. It is momentary sense of amazement, which may also be tinged with fear. It makes us doubt that there is any particular significance to our own individual existence and, counter-intuitively, this makes us more connected to the external world rather than less.

Mark Twain wrote that “he who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed”. Modern science suggests he may have had a point. Measuring awe is possible, as it is can be reliably induced by exposing people to certain stimuli and has in a physical dimension in the form of goosebumps.

Keltner found that when awe was induced in people by watching a nature video, they were more ethical and generous and felt more connected. People standing in front of a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton were more likely to be group orientated, as were people looking up into tall eucalyptus trees, who were also more inclined to help others. Other reported benefits include better memory, curiosity, and sense of creativity.

In Amsterdam neuroscientist Michiel van Elk discovered via MRI scans that awe quietens activity in default parts of the brain, which seem to relate to a sense of self. The same researcher also found that people estimated that their bodies were smaller when watching videos which induced a sense of awe.

It appears this humbling sensation can make us more ethical and altruistic, but do we experience it as much in the modern world? Does a mountain peak create awe if it is seen through the camera of a phone with the subsequent image immediately deposited on social media? Is a storm as impressive from the security of a modern home when it is forecast and explained in detail by a meteorologist? Are we drowning in mundane detail?

John Updike notes “our brains are no longer conditioned for reverence and awe. We cannot imagine a second coming that would not be cut down to size by the televised evening news.”

For past generations a sense of the sublime was predominantly related to grand scale landscapes or the mysteries of religion. Writers from WB Yeats to Edward Abbey have focused on the beauty of the natural world and its spiritual significance. From Christ’s pilgrimage into the desert to Buddha’s enlightenment under a tree, a sense of aloneness in nature has featured prominently in religious, transcendent moments. The sense that solace from the habitual concerns of life can be provided by solitude and nature on a grand scale.

Alan De Botton argues that “we are now deep in the era of the technological sublime, when awe could most powerfully be invoked not by forests or icebergs but by supercomputers, rockets, and particle accelerators. We are now almost exclusively amazed by ourselves.”

In our over-informed age, we
may never feel the same sense of the sublime as our less scientific ancestors who believed the storm battering at the door was the wrath of capricious gods. Where the annual return of salmon to a river or the singing of whales was magical and mysterious.

Perhaps nowadays it is better to have many sources if we are to
transcend the reality of daily existence. Awe may have to come from the elegance of a mathematic formula, a perfect point in a hurling game, a church choir, or a dinosaur charging through a virtual-reality headset as much as sunsets and stormy seas.

It worth remembering that it was a perfect combination of technology and nature that brought humanity one of its true transcendental moments. To see our planet from space is to be struck still by its beauty and its fragility. To quote Alan Shepard who was on the Apollo mission in February 1971: “When I first looked back at the Earth, standing on the moon, I cried.”

Astronaut Edgar Mitchel noted: “From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’” There is even a name for it, it is called the overview effect.


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