Simultaneous Experience of Opposites

Why is There Awe? part 3

Psychologists say awe is a form of self-transcendence. You transcend, step outside of your usual sense of yourself. The boundaries between yourself and others blurs.

Neurologically, what’s happening is decreased activity in the brain’s parietal lobe. The parietal lobe contributes to our spatial sense of self and orients us in the physical world. And that in itself is kind of awesome. We tend to think that the sense of “me,” and the difference between “me” and other is just a feature of reality, but, no, there’s a particular part of your brain whose job it is to create that sense – to generate the useful illusion that there is a distinct “me,” spatially located “here.” When that parietal lobe calms down a bit, the illusion of self is a little less robust, and we see through it to oneness and connectedness.

Relatedly, the autonomic nervous system is gearing up when awe happens. The autonomic nervous system has some circuitry for calming us down, and it also has some circuitry for arousing us for fight or flight. Normally, the autonomic nervous system is either generating one or the other -- calmness or arousal -- one side comes on, and the other side shuts down. You can also be somewhere in between: not particularly calm, but not particularly aroused either. But experiences of awe involve both heightened calmness and heightened arousal at the same time.

Think about when you’ve experienced awe, didn’t it seem both exciting and calming at the same time? It’s extraordinary.

There’s also another mix of simultaneous opposites: a sense of mystery and unknowability, with the sense of knowing and insight. It feels like seeing something, at last, clearly – while at the same time having a sense of impenetrable, profound mystery. Paul Piff, psychology professor, says, “An awe-inspiring thing can be literally large or just conceptually large, but in either case your current understanding or frame of reference can’t accommodate it.” We’re like the baby going into a tunnel – nothing in our past experience has prepared us for it. Awe is a connection to something vast and mysterious – something impressive and powerful.

If you gaze into the sky on a clear rural night – or stand beneath an impressively large tree staring up at it -- you can get a sense of wonder almost right away. If you keep gazing, relaxing your shell, you might break into awe.

Billions of stars, balls of fire bigger than imagination, yet farther away than you can conceive. Billions of plant cells photosynthesizing, and carrying sap and making wood. There’s a sense of power in that vastness – and mystery. Vast, mysterious, powerful – just what our ancestors (and many today) call God.

The feeling of awe, studies show, appears to increase people’s feeling of connectedness and willingness to help others. People are more likely to behave altruistically after an experience of awe. One 2012 study found that awe had a social bonding effect that included reducing impatience and causing “people to perceive that they had more time available.”

Events that induce awe are among the fastest and most powerful drivers of personal change and growth. “Awe,” says psychologist Robert Leahy, “is the opposite of rumination.” Awe
“clears away inner turmoil with a wave of outer immensity. . . . Being in awe is losing yourself in something or someone else. The anxious person’s sense that ‘it’s all about me; I must control my situation’ disappears.”
Awe experiences teach that “it’s not about you.”

Confronted with grandness, we feel small – but not small as in ashamed or humiliated. Small yet connected to something much bigger – which makes us big -- and small at the same time.

Subjects who saw an awe-inspiring video were more generous than those who watched a humorous video, and they behaved more ethically in lab experiments. They helped the study’s investigator pick up more pens that were “accidentally” dropped, and they showed less of a sense of entitlement. Some of the subjects watched a video showing droplets of colored water “colliding with a bowl of milk” in super-slow motion. These subjects then exhibited higher pro-social behavior.

Other subjects watched awe-inspiring videos of destructive forces with potential to wreak harm: tornadoes and volcanoes. These subjects also exhibited the pro-social behavior. In another study, subjects were taken to the tallest hardwood grove in North America and were asked to look up at the eucalyptus trees, some exceeding 200 feet, for one minute. The control group went to a more urban area and looked up at a plain, tall building for one minute. Sure enough, the tree-gazers felt more awe and were happier precisely because of what they felt. They also acted more generously in a lab test and reported feeling less entitled than the building-gawkers.

There wouldn’t seem to be much fear mixed in with the sensation of gazing up at trees. But it is a milder form of something that pulls you out of yourself – something that, in more intense versions, would get scary.

In any case, it seems to be good for you.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "Why Is There Awe?"
See also
Part 1: Awe is Scary Wonder
Part 2: What Evokes Awe?

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