THE PROFOUND POWER OF BEING IN AWE

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.
— Albert Einstein
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The view from a mountain summit;
A virtuosic live orchestra;
Entering the cool darkness of a vaulted cathedral;
The words of an impassioned & skilled orator;
Staring at the stars on a clear night.

These moments, big & small, leave us bathed in a complex emotion; one that ‘straddles the boundary of pleasure and fear’. It raises our heart-rate, gives us goosebumps, takes our breathe away. 

The feeling of being totally & utterly in awe. 

Over the past five months of travel we have been fortunate enough to have experienced many moments like this, but most frequently & acutely over the past few weeks as we’ve explored & hiked through Patagonia. Epic horizons, soaring condors & a rather intense re-connection with nature (in all its extremes) has gifted us some of the most awe-inspiring moments of our trip so far. It made us feel so, so good.

As it turns out, if we could bottle that feeling we’d be onto something.

Whilst philosophers, religious scholars & poets have written about awe for centuries, scientists & psychologists only turned their attention to defining & studying the long over-looked emotion in the early 2000s - And the results are wonderful.

They suggest that experiencing awe is profoundly good for us. It has the ability to improve our mood, increase our sense of connectedness & our inclination to be generous, enhance our perception of available time, diminish our ego, and encourage greater critical thinking about how we know the world.

We can think of a few prominent people who’d do well from a good dose of that…

Awe-Inspiring 

The situations & experiences that can elicit awe are extensive and vary between cultures, collectives & individuals. However there are three triggers that seem to traverse these boundaries; Nature, spirituality, & space.

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Nature 

You’re standing beneath the towering sequoia trees in a Californian national park; the air is warm and sunlight filters through a vast canopy, flashing gold off falling pollen and the wings of tiny insects. It is silent save for the wind in the leaves & birdsong. You breathe. 

In a 2007 study by Michelle Shiota, undergraduate students were asked to recall a time then they had encountered a “really beautiful’ natural scene and then rate the intensity of various emotions they felt on a scale from 1 - 7. The average rating for ‘awe’ came out at 6.07. A later study in 2010 asked undergraduate students to recall a time when they had experienced a ‘profound sense of beauty’ -  and the nature/awe association was proven yet again. The majority of students provided a reference to nature and marked their feeling of awe at an average of 4.5/5. 

This strong association between nature, beauty & awe is in no small part due to nature’s inherent vastness; endless seas, wild jungles, soaring peaks, all have an effect of altering our perception of ourselves in relation to it: This is mighty, I am small.

At the other extreme, the intricacy of the small, beautiful & detailed found throughout the natural world (a bee hive, a time-lapse of a flower blooming, the ripples in still water), has the power to evoke an endless wonder at a complexity we will never have the time or capacity to fully understand. It can challenge both our knowledge & our ego, reminding us of our place within nature, rather than our place above it.  

Religion & Spirituality

Whether it’s kneeling in the incense heavy pews of the Sacré-Coeur, or chanting Om whilst meditating, the sense of spirituality that can be evoked is closely coupled with feelings of awe. In fact the word is practically defined by it. Derived from Old English & Norse, the original use of the word ‘awe’ referred to “fear and dread, particularly toward a Devine being”. This evolved in English to mean  “dread mingled with veneration, reverential or respectful fear; and the attitude of a mind subdued to profound reverence in the presence of supreme authority, moral greatness, sublimity, or mysterious sacredness.” - heavy stuff.

Whilst there are very few studies on this connection, it has been noted that many rituals frequently engineer a sense of smallness (particularly in the case of traditional religion), a helpful way to evoke a feeling of awe towards the gods in question - towering cathedrals, vaulted ceilings, immense effigies & more often than not, a requirement to kneel or sit.

Space

A clear night sky is possibly the ultimate & most mind-bending trigger of awe. As you stare up and start to register the smallest periphery of space & your position within it, you’ll no doubt feel your diaphragm pulling up into your lungs, or a rush of that unique energy that lives at the top of your stomach - saved especially for moments when it all gets a bit too big, a bit too unfathomable.

A 2016 study by David Yaden delves into the very extreme of this particular flavour of awe, one that many of us will never experience but has been observed frequently enough to become known as the ‘over-view effect’ - the deep feeling of awe & self-transcendence elicited when viewing the earth from space. 

You’ve seen pictures and you’ve heard people talk about it. But nothing can prepare you for what it actually looks like. The Earth is dramatically beautiful when you see it from orbit, more beautiful than any picture you’ve ever seen. It’s an emotional experience because you’re removed from the Earth but at the same time you feel this incredible connection to the Earth like nothing I’d ever felt before
— NASA Astronaut Sam Durrance

Yaden writes that the scale of Earth, it’s representation of all life & human meaning, captured in a single frame, provides the most potent & perhaps ultimate conceptual vastness. It is a view of earth so far removed from what we are used to that a radical re-conceptualisation & need for accommodation is needed to absorb the image. 

Seeing it from a distance, when one is disconnected physically yet connected emotionally, conjures thoughts of home, of the entirety of one’s world, and of mankind as a whole.
— Prof. David Yaden

The Impact of Awe:  

Studies suggest that triggers for awe (like nature, spirituality, space) have the unifying tendency to illicit a diminished-sense of self or a ‘small self’, where they push at our understanding of our position in the world. They encourage an altered perception of ourselves in relation to something greater.

This suggests that awe is not simply an emotion, but also a type of shifted state of consciousness; known as a ‘self-transcendent-experience’ or ‘STE’. STE’s are probably more familiar as those slightly out-of-body moments that grant us a state of ‘flow’; sought after through Yoga, meditation & the practice of mindfulness.

But the power of awe as an STE isn’t just in making everyone a bit more relaxed; it has a uniquely transformative potential.

Firstly - egocentrically speaking - you start to consider yourself as no longer at the centre of the world. Studies have shown that as a result, we are more inclined to ‘pro-social’ behaviours; whether that be considering the greater-good, volunteering or even picking something up for someone when they’ve dropped it.

Secondly, when we come across something vast, complex, or profoundly unfamiliar, it typically sits outside our existing frames of reference & value structures, forcing us to reconsider our own knowledge. In other words, it encourages us to think about things we’ve never thought about before, often from new perspectives. Being in awe calls for something known as ‘cognitive re-alignnment - i.e. it literally blows our minds.

As a result, those experiences of awe & self-transcendence have the potential to swiftly & powerfully challenge & shift not only our value systems, but our ways of thinking, leading & working. It offers a considerable opportunity for personal growth & development (as well as helping us be just that little bit nicer).

Seek more Awe

Many of us traditionally associate awe with rare & extraordinary events and as a result fail to seek them in daily life. In a world where intense consumerism, countless hours peering at screens & a disconnection with nature dominates what we experience from one day to the next, opportunities to experience awe feel unattainable & sparse.

But you don’t need to abandon your job, run away for a year & spend all your savings to experience more of this powerful emotion (… admittedly though, it does make it easier).

Experiences of awe are ubiquitous in daily life, provided you take the time to acknowledge them. Studies suggest that over a two week period people are likely to find themselves in the presence of something that inspires awe - on average - every three days. These moments can include everything from music played on a street corner at 2am, to falling autumn leaves. And what’s more, when we consciously recognise these moments as inspiring awe it can predict a greater feeling of well-being and curiosity weeks after they are experienced.

In the active pursuit of experiencing more awe, Dacher Keltner (Professor of Pyschology at University of California Berkeley & Co-Director of The Greater Good Science Centre) suggests live music, art galleries, museums, spending time outdoors and unstructured exploration (i.e. going for a wander) are all good places to start.

The science is proving to be clear: Experiencing & recognising awe stimulates wonder & curiosity, altruism & a deeper sense of connectedness. It encourages us to step outside our own egos, to challenge who we think we are, what we do, and how we live.

Curious to know more?

Check out the research on Awe at the University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Centre

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