For Christmas I received a subscription to New Scientist. It is my favourite magazine and prior to getting my own copy each week I regularly pilfered my Mum’s copy (thanks for the present Mum). In a recent edition (Issue 3136) I read an article about the benefits of feeling small as a human when compared to nature, Earth, the sun, other planets and space itself. The article goes onto discuss the concept of awe, not just with things bigger than us but anything that truly inspires awe; a full moon rising, a stunning view, a beautiful piece of music, art or an idea.
The feeling of being awestruck has powerful effects not only our mind and body but also on our sense of self. True awe can dissolve our sense of self, allowing a greater sense of connection with others and nature. It can lower stress, boost creativity and even make us nicer people. So what is the feeling exactly? Researcher’s studying awe describe it as ‘an emotion that combines amazement with an edge of fear’, and is a feeling we get when ‘confronted with something vast, that transcends our frame of reference’.
Part of feeling awe is a move of focus away from our own self-interests and to a bigger picture, which has shown to help us feel happier, less stressed and even improves immune function by reducing inflammation. This effect doesn’t just last in the moment, if cultivated, awe can have lasting effects. It can also help switch us out of ‘fight or flight’ mode by stimulating parasympathetic nervous system responses (rest and digest mode).
Contemplating awe I thought back over recent history to moments that I identified with feelings of awe and a few came to mind; St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, a recent full moon rising that seemed to take up half the skyline, and every time I really think about what it would be like to be Dr Who’s companion in the Tardis (yep, I’m a fan and it’s a big concept!).
There are ways of cultivating awe on a regular basis. The article infers that we could stop looking at images of nature and space on our smart phones and starting looking at the real thing. Yes, yes we all say! Fortunately awe isn’t necessarily rare and can be manifested in more ways than just seeing amazing things. To do this we need to raise our expectations of feeling awe in the first place, and then think about what we individually find awe-inspiring, whatever that may be. Then we can make it part of the every day.
Feel free to comment below – what makes you feel awe?
Marchant, Jo. Awesome Awe, New Scientist ISSUE 3136 | MAGAZINE COVER DATE: 29 July 2017