Our inner emotions are very powerful, and it is becoming more widely accepted by science that they can have profound and measurable physiological effects.
Stress is known to have negative effects on the body, but what about more positive emotions, such as happiness, joy and awe?
Can feeling deeply moving sentiments change our bodies, our minds, maybe even our souls?
The newly identified science of "awe" is becoming a widely-researched phenomenon, as more and more studies indicate that this mind-opening state can have long-lasting effects, positively affecting the way that we think and interact with others. Eleven years ago, Dacher Keltner of the University of California, Berkeley, and Jonathan Haidt, then at the University of Virginia, proposed that awe was an emotion worth studying.
“In the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear,” they wrote in the journal Cognition and Emotion in 2003, “awe is felt about diverse events and objects, from waterfalls to childbirth to scenes of devastation. . . . Fleeting and rare, experiences of awe can change the course of a life in profound and permanent ways.”
Since then, after more than twenty studies, their perception of awe has been clarified and focused:
“In various studies we’ve asked people, ‘What’s running through your mind when you feel awe?’” Keltner said, “and they’ll say things like ‘I want to make the world better,’ or ‘I just feel like being quiet,’ or ‘I feel like purifying things.’ It makes you humble. It makes you curious about the world.”
Keltner has come to the conclusion that awe has inspired everything from religions to world-changing activists. He cites the myth of Krishna who, having been privy to the secrets of the universe via his third eye, was motivated to do the work of God, or environmentalist John Muir, whose experience in the awe-inspiring presence of the lofty Mount Hood brought about a life and world-changing crusade to preserve such natural wonders for generations to come.
"There stood Mount Hood in all the glory of the alpenglow, looming immensely high, beaming with intelligence, and so impressive that one was overawed as if suddenly brought before some superior being newly arrived from the sky,” described Muir, who went on to devote his life to preserving such wildernesses as the Yosemite Valley and the Sequoia National Park.
Yet how is this intensely personal emotion and its subsequent effects measurable in a laboratory setting?
During the course of their research, Keltner and team have tested their subjects using mind-blowing films, contrasting exposure to nature and urban landscapes, and various other stimuli including the skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. The effects of exposure to intense weather events, such as severe storms, have also been measured; being in a situation that makes us feel small and vulnerable can prompt us to revise our perspective of the world.
The "Awe Moment" can be initiated by anything that takes your breath away and reminds you about the vastness of the universe, and your tiny place within it. These type of experiences have been found to promote more ethical thinking and generosity of spirit, and a deeper connection to nature and the world around them. Awe appears to reduce the power of our egos, re-focusing our attention outwards. Keltner has found that awe makes us feel connected to something larger than ourselves – a crucial and necessary aspect of purpose.
Nature has been found to be one of the most common awe-inspiring factors: in approximately 75% of cases, it has been a natural sight or event that promotes the greatest and most positive response.Because of this, some studies have been conducted by taking teams of volunteers out on location, and moving the "lab" into the great outdoors.
“The science of emotion gets really exciting when you get as close to the phenomenon as possible,” Keltner told me. “We want to engage with people and observe them when they’re really out there on the river or lying under the stars.”
Keltner and another team member, Craig Anderson, a doctoral student who studies with Keltner, plan to study the effects of a two-day rafting trip where they suspect that awe will play a major role in the experience, and the data that is collated. Saliva samples were collected at the beginning of the trip, along with survey questions of the participants’ general states of health and well-being. The saliva samples indicate how awe correlates with levels of stress hormones and the genes related to dopamine function.
“What’s cool about awe is that it literally blows your mind,” Anderson said, referring to how its stimuli actually forces people to revise their mental frames of reference. “We might do some analyses by raft. We know emotions are contagious. If there was one really awe-prone person, did that make other people feel awe? "
The results of that study, conducted in June of this year, have yet to be reviewed and published, but other studies have reached similar conclusions. A Stanford study even concluded that feeling awe changed our perceptions of time, enabling the awe-inspired to feel as though they were able to slow down time. Volunteers who were asked to watch videos of awe-inspiring images such as whales, waterfalls or space, reported that they felt like they had more time compared to those who had not witnessed anything awesome. They also felt more patient, less materialistic, and more willing to help others.
“People increasingly report feeling time-starved, which exacts a toll on health and wellbeing,” said Stanford’s Melanie Rudd, the study’s leader. “A small dose of awe even gave participants a momentary boost in life satisfaction. Thus, these results also have implications for how people spend their time, and underscore the importance and promise of cultivating awe in everyday life.”
But how do we ensure that we receive our daily injection of awe?
As we age, this appears to be increasingly more challenging. We gradually seem to lose our sense of awe, as the things that used to inspire us become commonplace and therefore accessing that emotion becomes ever more elusive. Whereas in childhood, everything is awesome. How can we re-capture that feeling in order that we may be exposed to joy and wonder every day of our lives?
A wonderful book that attempts to re-ignite this inner essence of awe is "The Sense of Wonder" by the legendary environmentalist, Rachel Carson. Carson says that to nurture a lifelong sense of wonder we need to get out into nature, yes, but in order to sharpen that experience further we should use all of our feelings and senses: hear it, feel it, smell it, taste it. Notice everything, the colours, the sounds, the smells, the mood, the whole experience. This requires patience; awe cannot be rushed:
"The game is to listen, not so much to the orchestra as to the separate instruments, and try to locate the players," muses Carson. She urges us to open our eyes to unnoticed beauty by asking. "What if I knew I would never see it again?"
Above all, to truly experience the greatest sense of awe, we must view our surroundings with the eyes of a child. It matters not that we appreciate what we are seeing, in fact, Carson suggests that a lack of knowledge can only serve to enhance our sense of wonderment:
"The lasting pleasures of contact with the natural world are not reserved for scientists, but are available to anyone who will place himself under the influence of earth, sea, sky and their amazing life."
Yet, standing here at the Edge of the World, as I do on a daily basis, I am left to ponder the potential for awe that lies outside of this planet that we call home. Visitors to this site may be drawn here due to other, even more intensely awe-inspiring experiences that have changed their lives forever. Carl Gustav Jung was correct when he identified the UFO/Flying Saucer phenomenon as one of the next great modern living myths that promised to forever transform our lives in some way, either for better or worse. For those who have experienced them, myself included, UFO sightings certainly inspire awe, and a feeling of exposure to a phenomena much greater than ourselves and our limited comprehension.
This causes one to question the impact of the visitor experience on those who have claimed to witness it. What more awe-inspiring event could there be than to be in the presence of a being so highly evolved, or merely so alien to us, that it is almost beyond our comprehension? Is this why or how the visitors are choosing to change us, to change our perceptions and our relationship with our earth and ourselves? Are they here to inspire awe in us, and in doing so, to expand our consciousness forever?
Share your views with us here at the Edge of the World, where we endeavour to remain awe-struck by the limitless wonders of this amazing universe.