Awesome awe

I was struck by an article in the New Scientist (paywalled) on the effects of the experience of awe, such as being stopped in our tracks by a stunning view, gobsmacked by the vastness of the night sky or being transported by soaring music, or a grand scientific theory.

The article says that such experience can dissolve our sense of self, making us more open to other people and bring benefits to mind and body including lowering stress and boosting creativity.

Here’s a photo of Californian Redwoods:

Giant Redwood trees in northern California, United States.

Being there would be truly awesome!

In the featured image at the head of the post I’ve used a photo of sunset over Berlin taken from our apartment when we were there two years ago. There were many awesome visual experiences on that trip, including, at the end on our ‘Budapest by night’ excursion which ended at the Liberty Statue on the Gellért Hill. This is a smaller statue complementing the main one:

It was an awesome night!

There are changes in the brain when we experience awe, or so psychologists researching this area tell us. They say:

    “Feeling awe makes people happier and less stressed, even weeks later.”

In the past awe has been co-opted for political ends, for example in grandiose structures from the pyramids of Egypt to St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, or even Trump Tower. Awe is meant to impress and control people.

Which calls to mind the poem Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

    My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
    Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

The article continues:

    Despite these darker associations, there’s mounting evidence that feeling awe also has personal benefits. First, focusing on the bigger picture rather than our own concerns seems a powerful way to improve health and quality of life. Keltner’s team has found that feeling awe makes people happier and less stressed, even weeks later, and that it assists the immune system by cutting the production of cytokines, which promote inflammation. Meanwhile, a team from Arizona State University found that awe activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which works to calm the fight or flight response. Researchers at Stanford University, California, discovered that experiencing awe made people feel as if they had more time – and made them more willing to give up their time to help others.

    Awe also seems to help us break habitual patterns of thinking. The Arizona team discovered that after experiencing awe, people were better able to remember the details of a short story. Usually, our memories are coloured by our expectations and assumptions, but awe reduces this tendency, improving our focus on what’s actually happening. Researchers have also reported increases in curiosity and creativity. In one study, after viewing images of Earth, volunteers came up with more original examples in tests, found greater interest in abstract paintings and persisted longer on difficult puzzles, compared with controls.

Looking at the earth from space is known to be awesome as astronauts continually tell us. Indeed the phenomenon has a name: the overview effect, which is being studied, including plans to scan astronauts brains before and after. Also:

    researchers at the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Simulation and Training have been bringing the overview effect down to Earth. They took more than 100 people on a virtual trip to space, and found that they reported similar impacts to real astronauts, including tranquillity, elation, increased altruism and feeling small. Viewing Earth triggered stronger awe than views of deep space. And the less religious they were, the more awe they felt.

Researchers are also thinking that drugs might have the same effect, and are looking at some of the substances used by traditional societies for drugs ion an effort to find new pharmaceuticals to counter depression.

I’ve been emphasising visual experiences, but the most accessible awesome experiences in daily life are through music. In fact research has found music to move our brains more than sex or drugs. Scans show that music affects many parts of the brain, all over, and improves their functioning.

On our European trips music was a feature, in Berlin, Vienna and Prague. One of the highlights was attending a concert of the Berlin Philharmonic. The building itself is awesome:

The whole ground level is a foyer, with the main auditorium like a giant birds nest on the level above, seating 2400 people in the round, with acoustics to die for. With a world-class orchestra, of course.

You don’t need to go to the other side of the world to experience awe through music. On local ABC radio Mornings here, Steve Austin has taken to playing a short excerpt of the classics every morning, which, with his enthusiasm, appears to be very popular and lifts the spirits above the daily grind.

When we went overseas, the travel company threw in a set of Bose noise-dampening headphones, worth $550 in the shops. No doubt they buy them by the bucket load. I have a Sangean digital radio, small enough to go into a large pocket, and when I walk in the park and get sick of politics and sport, our ABC provides 24/7 classical music.

Not that you need the classics. You may have seen the TV program where oldies suffering dementia and balance problems, suddenly came to life when played songs they loved in their youth. Clearly, I think, in evolutionary terms, music has been part of making us who we are as a species.

Awe, they tell us, is different from wonder, pleasure or happiness, but it’s hard to define just what makes awe awesome. They say it has an edge of danger with it, but I’m not sure that’s the right word. Subjectively you know, but scientifically it’s difficult.

See also The Power of Awe: A Sense of Wonder Promotes Loving-Kindness and Psychologists study intense awe astronauts feel viewing Earth from space.

19 thoughts on “Awesome awe”

  1. Thanks, Ambi. Our family (other than me) spend a fair bit of time and effort in singing (I did a bit when I was young), so I was cogitating on whether singing was an awesome experience. I’m sure it is in the loose use of the word, but I’d suggest it is distinctly different.

  2. Have a look at an article by William C. Broad, The Deep Seas Are Alive With Light at New York Times online.

    An awe-inspiring short video is there.

    The natural world is a living wonderland indeed.

  3. thank you for that remarkable blog. It fascinated me and is linked to fascinating experience. I found it so thought-provoking amid all that troubling information about climate change, environmental deterioration and political and economic mayhem. As I get old, I find that I am more frequently overwhelmed by this awe, being touched heart and soul, right up to tears of intermingled joy and sorrow, in hearing a melody line, a harmonic transition, a turn of liturgy, seeing the beauty of a line of gothic tracery etc. It is a basic human experience, even if we differ vastly in where it catches us.

    It seems to me to bear thinking a bit more about what is behind awe. It is good to analyze fear, but it is important to look at why we experience fear, what it is that is causing it. A prime dimension I missed here was the religious one. After all, awe in experiencing the presence of God was and is one of the prime areas of Christian experience. Awe has always been the result of meeting with the Living God. And the faithful would have told you all about the beneficial effects of this experience. For them “there needs no ghost come from the grave to tell us this, my Lord…” about scientific proof of its positive effect on the person having experienced awe. I’ll send some of my thoughts to you later.

  4. Thank you Christoph.
    Danke Schoen.

    Yes, a moment of awe can arise when we listen to a few seconds of music. I can’t imagine the joy and inner renewal that may come if you can actually play the music yourself, or the shared joy of playing well in a fine orchestra or ensemble.

    Or in melodic popular music……

    Freude schoene Goettefunken
    Tochter Aus Elysium…..

    I hope I haven’t messed that up too badly: “Ode to Joy”, as popularised in “Ludwig’s Greatest Hits”.

  5. Freude, schöner Götterfunken,
    Tochter aus Elysium,
    Wir betreten feuertrunken,
    Himmlische, dein Heiligtum.
    Deine Zauber binden wieder,
    Was die Mode streng geteilt,
    Alle Menschen werden Brüder,
    wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.

    If you know German, the English is a pale shadow, the original minus the awe. Here it is – Friedrich Schiller’s Ode to Joy, which inspired one of the most sublime passages of music ever in Beethoven’s 9th symphony, which broke all the rules by bursting into the divine choral expression in the fourth movement, but when experienced seems necessary and perfect.

    Later the European Union aand the Council for Europe adopted the Ode to Joy as their anthem.

    Christoph, thankyou for a wonderful comment. I’ll probably think about it all day, and may say more later. I’d be fascinated by your further thoughts.

    At this stage, I’ll just say that people have indeed told me about Christian experience and the Living God. Unfortunately, one does not usually see of feel it authentically in their lives. It is a gift and those who have it and live it are truly blessed.

    I was going to put a piece in the post about the experience of being in a cathedral in Germany, especially one that does not have too many tourists. The one I had in mind was the cathedral you took us to in the Fränkische Schweiz. I remember thinking at the time “Be still, and know that I am God”.

    I looked for a decent photo, didn’t find one, and in the end it got left out. I think it was this one in Gößweinstein:

    I think that what you are talking about, though, is the experience of awe within ordinary life on a daily basis. It is, I think, a matter of grace. You and yours are certainly among the blessed.

  6. Thanks Brian. Reminds me of the many places where I have had a sense of awe or listened to sounds and music that had a similar effect. Walking down a private gorge in the moonlight with the white of spinefex on the gorge floor and the red of the cliffs on either side. Walking in open parts of the Pilbara by starlight. Listening to the start of the singing in Beethoven’s 9th.
    I could prattle on for hours.
    Dusk, moonlight, starlight and a sense of danger all seem to help

  7. I agree John.

    A friend visited a gorge in Central Australia with his wife and said that he understood, at last, Aboriginals’ strong attachment to “country”.

    I’m sure the experience he had there was deep awe.

    Now I have a question.
    Are all humans, under the right conditions, capable of being awe-struck, at an instant? I think Arthur Koestler described it as experiencing an “oceanic emotion”, a deep empathy – somehow – with the Universe and existence.

    If so, is it then one’s prior faith or belief that will lead a person to express this condition of grace or awe in religious, or spiritual, or everyday terms?

    I think I may be edging towards a hypothesis about the religious experience based not on a selfish wish for eternal existence or a fear of death. Instead on recognising and accepting deep awe and ascribing it to a cosmic cause.


  8. ….. and since we are social creatures, we want to share the feeling and prolong the ecstasy, hence communal sharing and ritual; prayer as a rational attempt to communicate with the cosmic ground of awe.

    ….. a wish to so communicate, even if the “cosmic ground” doesn’t exist… but lives only in our imagination.

    Damn you, Dawkins!!

  9. Ambi, seems you are right about Koestler, but perhaps he got it from Freud, who was asked a question by Romain Rolland. Then Carl Jung developed the idea of the collective unconscious.

    However, these gentlemen were talking about a characteristic of humans, an aspect of our essential nature. I think Christoph was going beyond that.

    Jung takes matters further when he talks about The Numinosum based on his encounters with the Devine.

    I’m interested in the notion of the element of fear as well as the experience of love. Teilhard de Chardin talks about being caressed, bruised and broken by the Hand of God.

    I’m interested too, from the post, that experiences of awe “can dissolve our sense of self, making us more open to other people and bring benefits to mind and body including lowering stress and boosting creativity.”

    To me that has echoes of Tibetan Buddhism.

  10. Ambi, if you want to talk about “cosmic ground” I think you need to take a peek at quantum physics, black holes and the big bang where everything dissolves and there is nothing firm to go on except Einstein’s spooky action at a distance.

    That stuff is so weird it’s got to be real, it can’t come from inside your head!

  11. Thanks Brian.

    Yes, Christoph goes beyond that.
    I’m interested in how a real experience of awe, real to the experiencer, might then be told to others.

    Most people would want others to enjoy it too, I suppose.

    Thanks for the tip on “Einstein’s action at a distance”. I think quantum mechanics still needs a bit of an overhaul.

    Isaac Newton also proved “action at a distance”, the force (and consequent accelerations) of gravity….. reaching out across empty space ….. without direct physical contact.

    Freude !!!

    [my spell check bossy pants just attempted to change “Freude” into “Freudulent”, which sounds like a play on words by someone sceptical of Sigmund Freud. 🙂 ]

  12. A poem by Les Murray:

    The Meaning of Existence

    Everything except language
    knows the meaning of existence.
    Trees, planets, rivers, time
    know nothing else. They express it
    moment by moment as the universe.

    Even this fool of a body
    lives it in part, and would
    have full dignity within it
    but for the ignorant freedom
    of my talking mind.

    Poems the Size of Photographs, 2002

  13. Ambi, you said:

    I’m interested in how a real experience of awe, real to the experiencer, might then be told to others.

    Good question. In the main imperfectly, I think, but poets and gifted writers at times come close. But it won’t, can’t be the same experience.

    I’ve always understood though that mystical experience was beyond words.

    Tonight I’ll just quote a bit of Keats:

    “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

    It’s from Ode to a Grecian Urn.

  14. Ambi/Brian: I have no real idea what either of you mean when you talk about “awe”. For me it is not god thundering on high but there are certainly places and times where I feel my senses are enhanced and there is something special about the place and time.
    The Pilbara was a great place for bit of awe. There was a sense of enormous age, rarity of humans and lengthy Aboriginal occupation. (Some of the rock carvings showed flat faced kangaroos that had been extinct for a long time.) There was also a sense of danger. It would have been easy to die of thirst or to have been killed by snakes and possibly dingoes or…..
    This post has made me think of some of the awesome places I have been. Thanks Brian and Ambi.

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