What Evokes Awe?

Why Is There Awe, part 2

What evokes awe? Well, for starters, big things. Vastness seems to be a key component: the Grand Canyon; a starry sky on a clear night miles from city lights.

Psychologist Frank White, back in 1987, identified what he called the Overview Effect. It’s a shift in awareness reported by some astronauts and cosmonauts during spaceflight, often while viewing the Earth from orbit or from the lunar surface. White’s research found that many of the astronauts had undergone “truly transformative experiences including senses of wonder and awe, unity with nature, transcendence and universal brotherhood.”

One NASA astronaut said:
“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.”
German cosmonaut Sigmund Jahn added:
“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.”
The experience showed them “it’s not about me,” got them out of the ego-self, connected them to a bigger reality.

There was both perceptual vastness, or being confronted with something of striking physical magnitude. And there was also conceptual vastness, “which is like a mind-blowing idea,” he says. If we just focus on imagining that, our Earth, in a vast sea of black, gently floating by, we can begin to approximate the sense of awe. For scientists, conceptual vastness alone can suffice. There’s a real awe that can come even when they aren’t confronted with immediate sensory perceptual vastness.

Michio Kaku is now a theoretical physicist and science writer. He tells about how when he was eight years old at school his teacher announced a great scientist, Albert Einstein, had died. She showed the class a photo of Einstein at his desk. She pointed to his unfinished manuscript in the picture. Young Michio found himself wanting to have a crack at it.

At eight-years-old, there’s so much of the world that seems unfathomable. At that age, he didn’t yet know much physics. But just the idea that this world could be known in this way, described on paper with the formulas of physics, gave him an experience of awe – an experience that has driven his career, and continues, he says, to be “the well from which I draw water when I’m tired and need refreshment.”

Michio Kaku went on to become one of the originators of string field theory. He says:
“All your selfish little concerns mean nothing next to the grandeur of the universe. Awe gives you an existential shock. You realize that you are hardwired to be a little selfish, but you are also dependent on something bigger than yourself. We look at the stars and think, ‘My problems are so trivial compared to the majesty of the night sky.’”
There’s awe in science. Is there awe in music? Erika Strand has sung in choirs since she was 12. Her college choir performed of Verdi’s Requiem. She says,
“Everything just came together and clicked. It starts with the Day of Wrath. Verdi is a sinner, and he’s terrified because it’s Judgment Day. The feeling of fear we conjured was so powerful. The music united all of us with the audience -- we all have fears and regret not having been the person we wanted to be -- as the piece expresses something so human.”
Erika Strand’s choir director used to tell his singers that they needed to continually adjust themselves to be perfectly in tune and balanced with each other.
“If the choir is a bit flat, you have to make yourself a little flat. If everyone is behind, you have to join them by compromising your pace. If your voice sticks out, even if it’s pretty, the whole thing is ruined.”
When the Requiem was over, no one had to say anything — everyone knew they had escaped the mundane and achieved transcendence. “Moments like that give life meaning,” she says.

But why does this happen? Why were we built to be animals that experience this thing called awe? I’m having some wonderment about awe.

One theory is that awe reinforced social hierarchies. Low-status individuals felt awe in presence of high-status individuals, which helped signal that they understood their place. The high-status person was big, and had to be adapted to – accommodated. Later, this primordial awe generalized into a response to anything that was vast and required accommodation. So now grand vistas, hurricanes, the Hoover Dam, Beethoven’s 9th symphony, or the experience of understanding a grand scientific theory can evoke awe.

But why would primordial awe have generalized in this way? We don’t know – except that sometimes traits do generalize. When you face a situation that cannot be assimilated by current knowledge structures, you may need to have your attention seized and step outside of your normal way of thinking – and that’s just what experiencing awe is.

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This is part 2 of 3 of "Why Is There Awe?"
See also
Part 1: Awe Is Scary Wonder
Part 3: Simultaneous Experience of Opposites

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