We close our eyes and think back to those times when nature’s simplistic beauty was enough to amaze us. A flower, a stone, water in a puddle. Everything was an invitation to discovery, igniting our curiosity and captivating us with a sense of wonder. We’re taken aback by the raw magic unfolding in front of us, in complete awe, an emotion so potent and yet elusive. Unwarned, she pays us visit, shifting our perception as she takes us to her world. But within a blink of an eye, she has escaped, disappeared, returned to her nest lying beyond the physical and tangible, unaccessible to us again.
Many images come to mind when we think of wonder. Its suggestive and flexible nature allows a myriad of perspectives and interpretations to co-exist. Its long etymological history journeys across several languages and cultures, from Old English ‘wundor’ and Proto-Germanic ‘wundra’ to Middle Dutch ‘wonder’, all signifying a miraculous or marvellous object, astonishment or marvel, miracle, something remarkable or extraordinary. Awe, on the other hand, comes from the Old English term ‘ege’, meaning terror, great fear, or dread. Over time this connotation shifted to depict an overwhelming feeling of reverence and marvel, pointing to feelings that arise when we are faced with something grand, extremely powerful or divine, the sublime. This fantastic fluidity of language branches out to encapsulate the complex emotional responses to out-of-the-ordinary experiences that touch us and transport us beyond our ordinary perceptions and comprehensions of the world. This radiant dream-like phenomenon is as spiritual as it is scientific, making it a fascinating subject for exploration.
Awe has been taken very seriously by Dacher Keltner, a stalwart in the budding science of emotions. A renowned psychologist and professor at the University of California, Berkeley, where he leads the Berkeley Social Interaction Laboratory, Keltner is uncovering the roots and intricacies of prosocial states such as happiness, compassion, awe, altruism, beauty and love. He is the faculty director at the Greater Good Center where he focuses on the biological and evolutionary origins of human emotion in an attempt to elucidate these complex processes and map how they shape our social behaviours, covering anything from morality, ritual and power dynamics to arts.
Keltner has made significant contributions to the scientific understanding of awe, highlighting its positive rapport with altruism, connection, the feeling of interconnectedness, and as a result, overall well-being. He was even involved in the development of Facebook’s emoticon system, with the aim of creating a more nuanced and psychologically-informed way for users to express emotions online. Through his numerous roles and research efforts, Keltner is bridging the gap between academic research and the intangible world of emotions, imbuing credibility and authority to this once neglected field.
Only a few decades old, the science of emotions used to be shunned by academics and researchers. They believed emotion was a hindrance to scientific development and objective understanding, leading to misconstrued and subjective conclusions. Keltner’s growing interest in the subject has contributed to its very slow and gradual acceptance. Since then, scientists have been dissecting our emotions, bringing the impalpable into their studies. They’re uncovering the value of studying such omnipresent phenomena and discovered a specific awe-inspiring winner: the experiences of witnessing acts of courage, kindness, and overcoming adversity in other humans are those that evoke the strongest feelings of reverence and wonder. In summary, we find the most wonder in awe in other people’s bravery and kindness.
This is why Dacher Keltner perceives awe as a collective emotion. This enchanting fusion and emotional charge travels across our bodies, nurturing a profound sense of belonging, interconnectedness, and empathy. An old friend, empathy is a primate, built-in tool that allows us to step in others’ shoes, understand their feelings, imagine their thoughts, and on some level, co-experience what they are going through. Darwin even suggested that empathy is our strongest instinct, and the ability to empathise with the experiences of others can induce moral beauty, a kind of beauty we used to experience regularly but have lost contact with through the saturated world of social media.
If we travel back in time though, we find that experiences of empathy and awe are deeply rooted in ancient, primitive acts of storytelling, music, dance and song. Deep mystery and fantasy accompanied our slow, gradual discovery and appreciation of the cosmos and surrounding environment. Collective rituals sparking communal effervescence were co-created and shared over millennia, elevating a sense of connection, community and unity in the group or tribe. These shared human experiences played an integral part in the development of our social and societal structures, as did the vivid kaleidoscope of human emotions that have guided us since the start, keeping us alive for the majority of our very short existence as a species. It would be a shame to neglect these flavours of life, the spices of our shared human existence. Emotions bring depth and richness to our every day lives, through laughter and joy, just as much as tears and anger. They hold the transformative power to enrich our lives. Forsaken them would punish us of vitality and aliveness, leaving us with mere echoes and dull residues of of life’s vibrant hues.
Keltner is committed to building a bridge between these emotions and ethics, pertaining that awe plays a vital role in the embodiment of spiritual and moral virtues. We’re invited to perceive awe not merely as an emotion, but a metaphysical and spiritual experience that supports our growth and development. These complex emotional and cognitive processes transcend us out of conventional mental frameworks, offering a door into an altered state of consciousness. Altered states of consciousness, differing from our habitual waking state, involve a shift in our mental state. Often associated with brainwave pattern changes that occur from meditation, hypnosis, trance states, hallucinations, psychedelics, and awe, these altered states allow external phenomena to interact with our minds, shifting us towards theta waves which induces relaxation and presence, creating subtle space for mental and emotional exploration and discovery of insights inaccessible to us during our typical waking state. Whether floating in reverence of a fiery sunset, feeling small beneath grand architecture, or being fully engaged in an immersive activity, these altered states of consciousness serve a gateway to deeper understanding, a pathway to exploring different layers of our awareness.
Going beyond these spiritual applications, research has revealed awe’s surprising role as a health and immunity booster. By automatically bringing our breath and nervous system into sync and in tune with those around us, awe and wonder activate our vagus nerve, another emerging subject of interest in science. Nicknamed as the 'caretaking', 'wandering', and 'soul' nerve, the vagus nerve is our longest and most complex cranial nerve, meandering from the brain stem, down the neck and into the abdomen, and connecting a plethora of organs, including the lungs, heart, and gut. With critical functions in regulating blood pressure, digestion, heart rate, and even emotional responses, it’s no wonder the world is waking up to potential. They’ve found it enables vocalisation, eye contact and social connections, and its activation during meditation and deep breathing exercises has been linked to feelings of peace, relaxation, interconnectedness and compassion, with science backing that regular activation of the vagus nerve improves immune function, decreases inflammation and regulates our emotions. Standing at the crossroads of science and spirituality, the vagus nerve appears as a vital conduit between the physical and the metaphysical.
In essence, the science of awe urges us to celebrate the human experience in all its mystifying beauty. It offers a space for emotions to flourish, for compassion to be fostered, for wonder to be cherished, and for our bodies and societies to heal. The therapeutic, almost meditative quality of awe offers a solace and commonality in a world fraught with suffering and conflict. It pays homage to our innate capabilities to connect with others and nature, a tradition we have upheld since prehistoric times. It reminds us that awe, in its sublime manifestation, is a celebration of the interconnectedness of existence, and an ode to the enduring wonder of the human spirit.