In general, we feel awe when in the presence of something that is so big, beautiful, powerful or complex that it is hard to wrap our heads around (e.g. gazing at the stars and contemplating the vastness of the universe, witnessing the destructive force of a natural disaster). We feel it when we are struck dumb by the presence of the mysterious, magical, wondrous or beautiful and its experience drives us to seek explanations. Something has not only defied our expectations about how the world works, but it has made us want to understand, explain and find meaning in what has happened.
Only recently has awe received serious scientific attention. Cutting-edge research on this emotion, suggests that it has profound psychological, social, and physical health benefits—perhaps even stronger, in some cases, than those of other positive emotions. According to an article published in the journal Cognition and Emotion, "The consequences of awe should be of interest to emotion researchers and to society in general". Hinting at the potential, the article suggests, "Awe-inducing events may be one of the fastest and most powerful methods of personal change and growth."
But what is AWE?
Psychologists consider awe a form of "self-transcendence": you temporarily blur at the edges, feeling a connection to something greater than yourself. Accounts of awe abound in the arts and humanities, but it wasn't until relatively recently that psychologists have begun to explore the phenomenon in depth.
Theists explain the story of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus as a compelling example of a divine being’s power to defy the natural laws of the universe. The secular among us are more reluctant to disregard such laws and gravitate towards explanations that do not require the supernatural. But common across all people who hear the story, and stories of similar miracles, is a desire to understand and explain what exactly happened. If you are walking down the street in your neighborhood and, all of a sudden, a crippling light flashes from the sky, driving you to the ground, and a voice identifying itself as a God begins to boom from behind it, you would likely want to know what the hell is going on.
When we witness, or hear of, events that challenge and defy our understanding of the world, how do we react? What do we feel? And what kinds of explanations do we seek? Psychologists have explored these questions for some time, but recent research has begun to focus on a particular emotion that seems intimately tied to this kind of situation: awe.
A consequence of experiencing this emotion is an increased belief in the power of supernatural agents, like gods. Much like Saul, people show an increase in spirituality and religiosity after feeling awe. This fits nicely with most people’s belief that awe is a spiritual or religious emotion. After all, if Oprah says it’s true, who needs the research?
But what about other kinds of explanations? Awe can be experienced in the domain of science, too, at least according to Carl Sagan, Einstein, and Richard Dawkins. These guys are no Oprah, but nonetheless it merits consideration whether experiencing awe might influence attitudes towards scientific explanations as well. There are at least two possible ways in which it might do so. First, awe might simply turn people away from science. Religious and scientific explanations are often in tension with one another, and any process that drives you towards one might drive you away from the other. Second, it might simply depend on the religious beliefs of any given individual. Awe might drive the religious even farther towards religious explanations, and the secular farther towards scientific ones. In other words, if only Saul had been a STEM major then he might have explained the blinding light and booming voice as some kind of solar-event-induced hallucination.
To understand awe more comprehensively, Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at Thomas Jefferson University, has been studying the physiological underpinnings of self-transcendent experiences like meditation and prayer. His research, which uses techniques like transcranial direct stimulation, SPECT imaging, and fMRIs, suggests awe may be "felt" by the autonomic nervous system, which controls both our arousal and our calming (fight-or-flight) mechanisms. "Normally, one side of the autonomic nervous system comes on and the other shuts down," he says, "but in very intense spiritual experiences and practices like meditation and prayer, there's evidence to show they mutually turn on at the same time. I think the feeling of awe is the combination of both."
Newberg points to the brain's parietal lobe, which contributes to our spatial sense of self and orients us in the physical world — and appears to shut down in awe experiences. "The decrease of activity in that area is going to be associated with a loss of the sense of self, and a loss of the boundary between the self and other things in the world, and ultimately a sense of oneness and connectedness," he says.
In addition to surveying existing research on self-transcendental experiences, scientists analyzed astronauts' accounts of their experiences — like this one from a NASA astronaut identified as Kathryn D., about the first time she saw the Earth from space:
- "It's hard to explain how amazing and magical this experience is. First of all, there's the astounding beauty and diversity of the planet itself, scrolling across your view at what appears to be a smooth, stately pace ... I'm happy to report that no amount of prior study or training can fully prepare anybody for the awe and wonder this inspires."
Or this one, from the German cosmonaut Sigmund Jahn:
- "Before I flew I was already aware how small and vulnerable our planet is; but only when I saw it from space, in all its ineffable beauty and fragility, did I realize that humankind's most urgent task is to cherish and preserve it for future generations."
We draw two conclusions from the current research of awe. First, awe drives the theistic further away from scientific explanations, presumably because it drives them towards supernatural ones. Second, awe attracts non-theists to scientific explanations but only to the extent that science is framed as explicitly providing order and denying the importance of randomness in the process. On the one hand the research undermines the notion of awe being exclusively linked to religion (sorry Oprah), but on the other hand this is disconcerting to those interested in promoting an accurate understanding of science.
Randomness is a defining feature of evolution, and emotions that push us away from accepting that fact may not be the kinds of states that thinkers like Sagan and Einstein would have endorsed.