The View from a Small Island: The Awe of It

“Awe is a ‘physiological reaction that seems to override my brain.’

(Constance Grady ( January 10, 2019

The excitement or anxiety of the November 3rd election has faded—somewhat. By the 15th of the month worries have moved onto the raging pandemic now sweeping the country including our beautiful coastline. Health authorities here are exclaiming ‘exponential’ growth describing the number of new cases—our county is now listed as a ‘red zone’. Today sadly, another death is confirmed among our citizens. Virtual learning is once again mandated for all students. Socializing now limited to 10 per gathering—yet positive cases seem rampant between the ages of 45 to 55.  Can this age-group still party at night? Really? This indicates impressive stamina after a long workday or full workweek. Regardless, they seem to be superspreaders along our 200 miles of ocean waterfront.

Worried, I hide away only venturing out for a daily walk along the charming waterfront.

Movement of the brackish water merely steps from my front door changes only with the wind. Today, neither ripple nor slight wave touch the water. There is a stillness—’not a breath of air’ is a common saying among fishermen here. The harbor—an artist’s still life. Large and small yachts unmoving in the morning quiet. Political flags still very evident–drooping. Autumn marsh-grass grays line the boardwalk. A thin layer of fog sits upon the water waiting for a gradually warming sun to peek through. This is Nature’s Awe.

We are greatly in need of Awe.

After months of political nightmares, my attitude is shot and I yearn for the overwhelming feeling of Awe, not because it is sad or happy or even all that emotional. Awe merely seems far far away from politics in my little village.

Vox journalist, Constance Grady writes: “awe is a spectacle so overwhelming that it feels like all your synapses are firing at full capacity…” ‘Firing synapses’ is like bait to a social-scientist-fish. Give us a topic and we social scientists will study it. We love ambiguity and the unknown. The effects of Awe on the mind and on our attitudes perfectly map to the curiosities of a social scientist.

Neuroscience unlocks mysteries of our brain functions and from the number of studies, it appears that the function of Awe is significant, critical to evolution. Uncertainty, not so much. Hence, we try to avoid it—existential uncertainty most of all.

Awe is a physiological reaction overriding the brain. The scientists Grady spoke with are studying the audience who attend a performance of Cirque du Soleil—the dazzling and virtuoso circus founded in Montreal some 40 years ago. From my limited experience of three performances, audience members are perfect subjects. When watching the high-flying routines, I often squeeze my eyes shut–out of fear for the performers? Or perhaps I now know, out of the uncertain possibilities flying high above me .

What did the research reveal about effects of Awe: 1) a decreased need to feel correct (the ‘I’m right’ syndrome). 2) An openness to ambiguity. 3) Sense of self diminishes and 4) more humility and more altruism occur. Of course, as with all social science research, there are accompanying assessments (or tests) for measuring these hard-to-pin-down-phenomena: Identification With All Humanity or the Balloon Analogue Risk Task. (We, ‘soft-science scientists’ try furiously to be ‘hard-science-scientists’—to be taken seriously.)

Whether you are one who abhors uncertainty or one who is less anxious when the way forward is unclear—I suggest in the days until January 20, you would like ‘a read’ about the results from the study.

Next week, we look at the current state of policing and what can be done.

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