Delving into the Science of Awe
Experts say wonder is an essential human emotion and a salve for a turbulent mind.
Awe can mean ‘many things. ‘And while many of us know it when we feel it, awe is not easy to define.
Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world” said Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley.
It’s vast, yes. But awe is also simpler than we think — and accessible to everyone, he writes in his book “Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life”.
Experiencing awe comes from what Dr. Keltner has called a “perceived vastness,” as well as something that challenges us to rethink our previously held ideas. Awe can come from moments like seeing the Grand Canyon or witnessing an act of kindness.
In his book, Dr, Keltner writes that awe is critical to our well-being. His research suggests it has tremendous health benefits that “include calming down our nervous system and triggering the release of oxytocin, the “love” hormone that one as and
“Awe is on the cutting edge,” emotion research said. Judith T. Moskowitz, a professor of medical social sciences at North Western University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. Dr. Moskowitz who has studied how positive emotions help people cope with stress wrote in an email that “intentional awe experiences like walks in nature, collective movement, like dance or ceremony, even use of psychedelics improve psychological well-being.”
So, what is it biologically? Awe wasn’t one of the six basic emotions – anger, surprise, disgust, enjoyment, fear, and sadness – identified back in 1972, Dr. Keltner said. But new research shows that awe “is its own thing,” he said.
Dr. Keltner found that awe activates the vagal nerves, clusters of neurons in the spinal cord that regulate various bodily functions, and slows our heart rate, relieves digestion, and deepens breathing.
It also has psychological benefits. Many of us have a critical voice in our head, telling us we’re not smart, beautiful or rich enough. Awe seems to quiet this negative self-talk Dr. Keltner said, by deactivating the default mode network, the part of the cortex involved in how: we perceive ourselves.
But, Dr. Keltner said, even his own label periments underestimate the impact of awe on our health and well-being.
Sharon Salzberg, a leading mindfulness teacher, and author see awe as a vehicle to quiet our inner critic. Awe, she believes, is the absence of self-preoccupation.”
.This, Dr. Keltner said, is especially critical in the age of social media. “We are at this cultural moment of narcissism and self Shame and criticism and entitlement; awe gets us s out of that, “Dr. Keltner said.
Awe is something you can develop, with practice. Here’s how.
PAY ATTENTION In 2016, Dr. Keltner visited San Quentin State Prison in California, where he heard inmates speak about finding awe in “the air,light, the imagined sound of a child, reading, spiritual practice.” the experienced changed the way he thought about awe. So Dr. Keltner teamed up with two other researchers to enlist people across America and China to keep journals about their awe experiences. He found out that people were having two or three of them each week.
“I was like, ‘Oh, I can just take a breath and look around,” ‘he said. “It doesn’t re-quire privilege or wealth; awe is just around us.”
FOCUS oN THE “MORAL BEAUTY” OF OTHERS
One of the most reliable ways te experience awe, Dr. Keltner found, was in the simple act of witnessing the goodness of others.
Ms. Salzberg; whose forthcoming: Book includes a section about awe, also believes in the importance of this interpersonal wonder. If‘we notice those around us who are “dedicated to goodness or having a’better family life than the one they were raised in or to being good to their neighbors,” she said, we can strengthen our sense of awe.
PRACTICE MINDFULNESS dISTRACTION, Dr. Keltner said, is an enemy of awe. It impedes focus, which is essential for achieving awe.
“We cultivate awe through interest and curiosity,” Dr. Salzberg said. “And if we’re distracted too much, we’re not really paying attention.”
Mindfulness helps us and lessens the power of distractions. “If you work on mindfulness, awe will come.” And some studies show that people who are meditation and praying also experience more awe.
“Awe has a lot of the same neurophysiology of deep contemplation,” Dr. Keltner said. “Meditating, reflecting, going on a pilgrimage.”
So spending time slowing down, breathing deeply and reflecting — on top of their own benefits — have the added advantage of priming us for awe.
CHOOSE THE UNFAMILIAR PATH Awe often comes from novelty. So gravitating. toward the unexpected can set us up to experience awe. Some people do this more than others; a personality trait that experts have called an “openness to experience,” Dr. Keltner said.
We can work on developing this openness through everyday choices. Choose a restaurant you don’t usually visit, take a different route to work or check out some music you aren’t familiar with.
In his book, Dr. Keltner wrote that pepole who find awe all around them, “are more open to new ideas. To what is unknown. To what language can’t describe.”
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