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:
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.