“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them – the starry heavens above and the moral law within.” -Immanuel Kant
Have you ever been awestruck? It’s a truly palpable feeling, hence the bolt-of-lightning idiom often associated with it. Awe is often accompanied by physical changes, such as piloerection (aka goosebumps). I remember experiencing awe only a handful of times, and for me it’s always been associated with attempts to contemplate the vastness of the universe. This usually occurs in conversation; as I try to expand my understanding outward, I reach a point where I can’t fathom anything larger, where I reach the limits of my comprehension. At that moment, my mind does a pleasurable resetting, and I land back on Earth. Interestingly, though, it takes more to reach that state of confoundedness in subsequent musings on the vastness of the universe. Maybe each experience of awe entails an expansion of one’s comprehension, resulting in the need for even greater stimulus to achieve it the next time. It’s been over a decade since I last experienced awe.
It was only recently that I discovered that this sensation is called awe. Previously, because I didn’t have a better way to explain it, I called it an epiphany. In a 2003 paper, Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt review the literature of awe and attempt to imbue it with some defining characteristics. Awe, they say, must involve two central themes:
1. Vastness – Experiences that are much larger than the self. The universe is hard to beat, but vastness can also include non-physical size, as in social structures such as fame, authority, and prestige. Vastness is often associated with power.
2. Accommodation – Adjusting one’s mental faculties when one can’t assimilate a new experience. This can either lead to a better understanding (enlightenment, rebirth), or increased confusion (fear, disorientation).
Five additional themes affect how we experience awe: threat, beauty, ability, virtue, and supernatural causality. We may experience some of these emotions, though, without experiencing awe. It’s only when we experience both vastness and accommodation in conjunction with one of these themes that we truly experience awe. If we only experience one or the other of the two central themes, then we should label it something other than awe. For example, witnessing exceptional ability in another may trigger accommodation, but if it doesn’t also trigger the sensation of vastness, it should simply be called admiration.
Likewise, elevation is a sensation that usually doesn’t involve vastness but does involve accommodation. Elevation occurs when we witness actions of virtue or moral beauty that inspire us to become better people.*
In an evolutionary sense, K and H say, awe may have arisen to maintain hierarchy in human societies: lower status individuals exhibit a primordial awe toward leaders. This is opposed to learned, or elaborated, awe, which has primordial awe as its basis. We experience elaborated awe in response to culturally subjective variables like famous people, art, nature, and even grand ideas (interestingly, epiphanies are a kind of awe).
I wonder about some of these assertions. Might awe at the vastness of nature be the primordial evolutionary adaptation? It’s a wide world and our ancestors did well to both fear and respect it. The paper asks more questions than it answers, and this seems to be part of the point: to stimulate more discussion and research about awe. The authors suggest that, with a better understanding of awe, we may be able to harness it and utilize it to improve our lives. I’ll give it a shot…
There are 200-400 billion stars in our galaxy. There are at least 100 billion galaxies in the universe. But what’s outside the universe? Infinite nothingness seems unlikely. Maybe there are more universes. What’s beyond that? More universes, ad infinitum? That would mean space and matter are infinite; would everything that exists exist in infinite numbers? Maybe we’re just an infinitesimal speck in a larger universe, which is itself an infinitesimal speck in a larger universe, ad infinitum.
*I’m a sucker for this in movies. Hollywood has become pretty good at including elevating themes in their movies (White Chicks notwithstanding), as cheesy and Manichean as they usually are.