Making Humans

The evolutionary anthropology of parenting and child development

A Chronic Lack of Awe

Where do adults––and children––derive a sense of awe in the contemporary world?

Ngorogoro crater
Ngorogoro crater by William Warby / wikimedia commons
William Warby / wikimedia commons
Perhaps you’ve read about the new study. Melanie Rudd and colleagues wondered how experiences of awe might change our perception of time. So the researchers presented 63 student volunteers with one of two videos:

—a TV commercial designed to inspire happiness (lots of happy people on display) and

—a television ad designed to inspire awe (amazing imagery of vastness, including waterfalls, whales, and astronauts in space). 

The researchers checked to make sure the videos really did make people experience more happiness or awe.Then the students filled out a questionnaire. And here’s the key finding: Students who’d just seen the awe-inspiring video were more likely to agree with statements like

“I have lots of time in which I can get things done" and “Time is expanded.”

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To which I say, give me some of that.

In case you’re skeptical, Rudd’s team tested the effects of awe in other ways, asking another set of students to write one of two essays—one about a happy memory, the other about an awe-inducing memory. They also asked volunteers to read a passage describing an awesome sight—the view from the Eiffel Tower.

In both cases, people who experienced awe subsequently perceived time as more plentiful.

It’s a very cool study, and it fits with everyday experience. Good things happen when we feel a sense of awe. I like the sense of personal insignificance—the feeling that my own existence and petty problems are unimportant. Awe has obvious links with spirituality. And, as psychologist Dacher Keltner notes, awe can rock our world, making us reassess our beliefs and revise our theories of how things work.

Do frequent experiences of awe make us more flexible, intelligent problem-solvers? They might. When Keltner and colleagues studied people who reported frequent experiences of awe, they found these folks were less likely to crave hard-and-fast rules and more likely to “see both sides” of a conflict. In a more recent study, people asked to think about things vast or expansive showed more creativity immediately afterwards.

So awe is good, and seeking out awesome experiences might improve the quality of life. Which gets me thinking. How much awe do we need? Is it possible that modern humans are suffering from a profound deficit of awe?

I don’t know if other creatures feel awe, and can’t say when, in our evolutionary history, our ancestors first got blown away by something immense or amazing. But if you think about where our ancestors came from—vast savannas populated by fantastic animals, like elephants and giraffes— it seems there was plenty to inspire awe.

Image of night sky
Night sky in India by Sanyamshri / wikimedia commons
Sanyamshri / wikimedia commons
If Mount Kilimanjaro or the Okavango didn’t do it for you, the sky surely would have. And that extraordinary sky—immense and wild by day, dazzlingly-star-filled at night—accompanied our ancestors as they travelled the world. There were other awesome sights—the ocean, the view from a ridge, the ziggurats or palaces or cathedrals that dominated the local scene of more urbanized people. There was awesome music and art, too. But the sky would have been the most pervasive natural influence. In the days before smog, before electricity and light pollution, before people spent most of their time working and sleeping indoors, people would have had daily opportunities for awe.

Of course, not everybody born before the Industrial Revolution got their daily dose. In ancient Greece, women of a certain class were cloistered in their homes. People stuck in perpetually overcast, featureless environments probably suffered an awe-deficit. Folks living in dark forests might have missed some great views.

But overall, our ancestors must have experienced quite a bit of awe. And nowadays?

For most city-dwellers, the night sky is merely a murky orange haze. Daylight hours are spent indoors, with brief forays from building to building. Many people, perhaps especially the parents of young children, feel there isn’t enough time to get things done. Getting outside—finding a place to see the stars or gaze down from a hilltop—has become a luxury. And childhood has changed dramatically. No longer running in packs outdoors, kids living in modern, information-based societies spend an unprecedented amount of time inside.

So we’ve become estranged from natural sources of awe. But it’s hardly the case that we’re lacking in opportunities. The movies, television, video games—these media are powerful tools for inducing awe, more powerful, perhaps, than mere text because they engage us with sights, sound effects, and emotionally-charged music. Parents who want to “unplug” their children from these influences should perhaps reflect. For some kids, the electronic media may be the only source of awe they know.

No wonder, then, it’s so difficult to detach them. Not only are the electronic media entertaining. They can be mind-altering, offering kids an experience that is tantamount to religious transcendence. When we ask them to turn off the TV, kids might feel we’re denying them a sort of spiritual experience.  And if we’ve rationed our own exposure to awe—because we don’t have time to listen to music, go for a hike, or revel in the latest scientific news—we probably aren’t helping kids discover awe-inspiring, “unplugged” alternatives to Super Mario Universe.

Happily, though, the remedy may be simple and within everyone's grasp. As the study by Rudd and colleagues suggests, just a few minutes viewing, reading, or reminiscing is enough to make us feel less time-pressured. If we consciously seek out the awesome, we may find more time to share the wonder with our kids.

More discussion

Are we doing a good job of sharing awesome science news with kids? I complain about this in a recent blog post for BabyCenter.

 References

Liberman N, Polack O, Hameiri B, Blumenfeld M. 2011. Priming of spatial distance enhances children's creative performance. Journal of experimental child psychology.

Rudd M, Aaker J and Vohs K. in press. Awe expands people’s perception of time, alters decision making, and enhances well-being. Psychological Science.

Shiota MN, Keltner D, and Mossman A. 2007. The nature of awe: Elicitors, appraisals, and effects on self-concept. Cognition and Emotion 21(5): 944-963.

Text copyright © 2012 by Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.; all rights reserved.

Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., is a writer and anthropologist interested in how parents, peers, evolution, and cultural forces combine to shape the way kids learn and grow.

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