Did you know that scientists have categorical evidence to prove that experiencing awe, makes you more generous, altruistic and better able to work in a group? I’m still trying to process the fact that there are scientists who specialise in measuring awe.
We all know that it’s an overused, teenage American catchphrase, but before the millennials got their hands on it, awesome used to mean something. To feel awe was to have an experience larger than we can comprehend. Some associate it with a religious enlightenment, to be at one with God, although many an atheist has felt the same over natural phenomenon, such as an extreme lightning display during a storm, or scaling a high peak.
Poets, painters, writers and philosophers have all attempted to relate feelings of awe. John Steinbeck felt it glancing up at giant redwood trees for the first time. Nasa astronaut, Chris Hadfield sensed it on his first spacewalk out of the International Space Station, when he saw Earth in all its magnificence, or in his words, “the raw, omnipresent beauty.”
Dacher Keltner (University of California, Berkley) and Jonathan Haidt (New York University) insist that they can reliably produce and measure awe. Using experiences of natural beauty, stunning architecture or dinosaur skeletons, they claim that awe can be quantified in terms of a scale. They also recorded the body’s response in terms of the appearance of goose bumps on the skin. In doing so, these scientists maintain that even a mild dose of awe, altered the behaviour of those exposed. Awed people became more ethical, creative, generous and felt more connected to people in general. They described themselves as smaller, less self-centred. Keltner believes that awe expands our abilities to sense a bigger picture of the wider world, thus reducing our sense of self.
This may all seem like anecdotal nonsense, until you compare their findings to that of Michiel van Elk, from the University of Amsterdam. Using videos of awe inspiring nature, and control videos that were funny or neutral, van Elk discovered from MRI scans, that awe quiets parts of the frontal lobes and cortex of the brain, associated with a sense of self.
Even if it was subconsciously done, the reduction of the sense of self has been exploited by those in power for millennia, the pharaohs and the pyramids being but one example. The hell-fire and damnation paintings on the walls of ancient churches being another. Despite the negative impact of reducing the sense of self, experiencing awe has many positive effects on our bodies. Keltner and his team list feelings of happiness increasing and stress reducing among his test subjects. He goes as far as asserting that the immune system is boosted by way of reducing cytokine production which promotes inflammation. An enhancement in creativity and memory were also reported, along with a greater proficiency at solving puzzles.
The suggestion that our overall well being is improved with a daily dose of awe raises the questions over how to achieve this magical state on a regular basis, and will the moments of awe become jaded with time? Some controversial scientists, such as Carhart-Harris, suggests dabbling in psychedelics, but I cannot follow his logic in stimulating awe at the expense of your liver function. Other researchers from the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Simulation Training, have a simpler approach. It seems that simulated awe is just as effective as the real thing. Views of Earth in virtual trips to space has a similar impact to that experienced by real astronauts. Reports of tranquillity, elation, feeling small and increased altruism, were greater from test subjects who declared themselves to be non-religious than from those who labelled themselves believers.
Will virtual holodecks, like in the old episodes of Star Trek from the 1980’s, be the new behavioural therapy, or will doctors prescribe a walk along a stormy beach to sooth our fraying nerves? I know which experience I would select given the choice. How about you?
Sam Nash is the author of the sci-fi conspiracy thriller, The Aurora Mandate. Release date TBA. You can find her at https://www.samnash.org or on Twitter @samnashauthor or Facebook.com/samnash.author.