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Marvellous and mysterious awe

President Bill Clinton said that there were two kinds of people—those that have seen the Taj Mahal and those that haven’t. I suspect he was highlighting the stunning beauty of the place rather than suggesting that people who have seen it are a breed apart.

President Bill Clinton said that there were two kinds of people—those that have seen the Taj Mahal and those that haven’t. I suspect he was highlighting the stunning beauty of the place rather than suggesting that people who have seen it are a breed apart.

But I came away from my visit to the Taj a changed person, if not actually a different one. Seeing the magnificent monument gave me a transforming emotional experience. I was awed.

Awe is a “goose-bumpy” feeling we get in the face of something that vastly exceeds our expectations – something that challenges our understandings or images and theories of how things are or of what is possible. Conscious and unconscious expectation shape almost all of our behaviour. We do not respond to the world that is, but the world as we expect and predict it to be. Our brains have evolved to work this way to avoid being overwhelmed by the ‘real’ world’s detail, complexity and pace of change.

Our brains have also evolved to adjust our mental ‘models of the world when these provide faulty or inadequate expectations and predictions. Awe is one of processes or mechanisms our brains use to do this.

Lying as it does in the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear, awe is an experience that is intense, transcendent and mind-boggling and not one we are likely to have every day.

Perhaps because it is a relatively rare and sometimes mystical experience, awe was ignored by science until the beginning of the 21st century. Psychology professors, Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt, changed that by identifying the features of awe that set it apart from other positive emotions, such as wonder, happiness and amusement. Awe, they point out, is experienced when we perceive that we are in the presence of or vastness (or immense ‘goodness’) – in the presence of something that both defies our current understandings and imaginings and humbles us. The actual or measured scale of the vastness is not what matters; it is how it seems to us that is important. If vastness is perceived, then vast it is, regardless of whether the vastness relates to physical size or another dimension such as force, power, achievement, leadership, altruism, heroism and, of course, beauty in all its natural and created forms. Vastness, like beauty, is in the eye (or mind) of the beholder. If you perceivevastness, then the vastness is real for you.

The perception of vastness is one of two aspects of awe that set it apart from wonder and other emotions. The second aspect is the need to come up with a new theory or mental model to make sense of what we are experiencing. This is the need for accommodation. Simply refining or adjusting theories to embrace new information or facts is not enough.

I learned this from another of my experiences of awe, one that occurred at the end of a long day of trekking in Nepal. I arrived at a small saddle, the final hurdle of the day, and there in front of me was the immense eastern face of Mt Dhaulagiri rising the best part of 6000 metres from the valley of the Kali Gandaki River. I was overwhelmed and I remember exclaiming, It can’t be true!. Time stopped for me as I was totally caught up in the scene. I sensed immensity beyond the scene itself, something to which I was connected in the core of my being and something that I had to acknowledge in my understanding of the cosmos. I felt humbled and deeply conscious of my “smallness” and relative insignificance. My self-understanding was not simply refined; it was given a new dimension. I came away from the experience with a new concept or mental model of myself and my place in the cosmos.  I have no idea how long I remained there, utterly transfixed (I can still get goose bumps recalling it). When I finally made my way to the camp, I had completely forgotten my fatigue and my mood had lifted. Somehow the world seemed a better place.

Awe is often spoken of in the same breath as wonder, but the two are different (contrary to what dictionaries may indicate). They are alike in one important respect, however; both originate in amazement. Amazement works in both awe and wonder to arouse our interest, curiosity and desire to explain the unexpected, and to adjust our knowledge accordingly. The energy for this work comes from the powerful drive in all of us to resolve uncertainty. While uncertainty in small measure can be stimulating, exciting and even thrilling, in larger measure it can be very stressful. That is why our brains are programmed to seek the comfort of certainty. Awe and wonder serve this purpose by stirring us to “fix” our knowledge so that the unexpected is explained and certainty is restored. Along with love, the need to resolve uncertainty makes the world go round.

Awe is called a positive emotion for good reason. The strong feelings of pleasure that accompany it arise from activity in the brain’s reward or dopamine pathway. Even a brief experience of awe is noticeably mood-lifting and likely to leave a positive after-glow that makes the world seem, for a short time at least, more interesting and attractive.

Awe is arguably the most potent of the positive emotions. It stimulates the mind and spirit in ways unmatched by any other emotion. A healthier and more wholesome way of achieving a restorative high is hard to imagine.

The difference between awe and other positive emotions such as aesthetic pleasure, happiness and amusement can actually be observed. The genuine (Duchenne) smile that is a feature of these other emotions rarely appears with awe. The typical outward signs of awe are raised inner eyebrows, a bright-eyed stare, an open mouth, a slight forward jutting of the head and an inhalation of breath. These signs all indicate heightened attention, alertness and mental arousal – just what a larger-than-life encounter would be expected to evoke.

Awe adds so much to life that it is hard to imagine existing without it. But there is a mystery: how and why did awe come to such an important part of our emotional repertoire? How did it serve the survival needs of our species?

No one knows for certain, but scientists have suggested that awe helped our species survive in two ways:

  • making us smarter by sharpening our ability and motivation to seek knowledge and understanding (and so limit the burden of uncertainty) and
  • making us more caring by inclining us to be empathetic, generous and co-operative and better equipped to foster cohesive communal life

There is a good case for both suggestions. Awe makes us smarter in several ways:

  • It stimulates curiosity, which supercharges learning by activating regions in the brain associated with motivation, understanding and memory.
  • It fosters the development of information gathering skills by motivating us to be thorough and analytical in evaluating information, for example.
  • It provides the building blocks of a disposition to be curious.
  • It fosters the development of interests

Awe makes us more caring by leaving an intriguing emotional legacy – an afterglow of goodwill and selflessness. There are at least three strands to the link between awe, kindness and caring behaviour. First, the emotional lift from awe makes us feel better about ourselves. You have probably noticed yourself that when you are in a good mood, you are friendlier and more open and accepting of others. Second, awe has the effect of absorbing us into the present moment and diminishing our awareness of the passing of time. As a result, we perceive that we have more time available for others as well as ourselves. This lifting of time pressure enables us to be more generous in providing for the rights, needs and concerns of others. Third, by shrinking us down to size, awe enables us to see ourselves more objectively and realistically in relation to others. This, in turn, helps us to identify with other people, to see the world more from their point of view, and to empathise with them.

Awe is an emotion that contributes to the greater good as well as to individual well-being. As awe makes us happier, it makes us kinder, which leads to a win-win situation – a win for us and a win for others. It is no accident that the study of awe is given high priority at the Greater Good Science Centre within the University of California, Berkeley.

Published on November 29, 2021


Les Higgins

Dr. Les Higgins is a deeply nature connected person. He has experienced the life-enhancing power of nature directly and extensively, mainly through bushwalking, trekking and gardening. An enthusiastic and experienced bushwalker, he is a life member of the Yarrawood Bushwalking Club, which he helped establish in 1982.

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