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The Science of How Avatar Is Awesome

Watching Avatar might boost creativity, connectedness, and even spirituality.

The big story in the news about Avatar is that some fans have turned suicidal after watching the film. "The movie was so beautiful and it showed something we don't have here on Earth," a fan-forum moderator told CNN. I don't know of any formal studies on viewer reaction to Avatar, but the movie was awesome in the most literal sense, and a smattering of studies on awe suggest that Avatar might be more likely to drive people not to despair but to creativity, social connectedness, and even spirituality. Awesome.

The psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt argue that awe comprises two core features. The first is perceived vastness, or the sense of something much larger than the self, in size or power or prestige. The second is the need for accommodation, the disorienting feeling of encountering something that challenges your current "knowledge structures" or world view.

Elicitors of awe include mountain ranges, cathedrals, powerful leaders, music, scientific theories, encounters with God, natural disasters, and James Cameron films. For me, Avatar induced awe in response to both the exhilarating fictional world but also the artistic and technical achievements I knew were required to create that world.

In a 2007 paper, Michelle Shiota, along with Keltner and Amanda Mossman, reported experimental findings on the effects of awe. In one study, people described recent experiences of either awe or happiness. Reliving an awe-inspiring event was more likely to make people to go outside for a hike after the experiment, or to do something creative like play an instrument or write. Further, subjects instructed to recall a recent encounter with beauty in nature said they felt the presence of something greater than themselves and felt connected with the world around them. Another group of subjects, after staring at a 25-foot Tyrannosaurus skeleton for one minute were more likely than people who stared at an empty hallway to use universal terms such as "a person" or "an inhabitant of the Earth" to describe themselves; they saw themselves as members of a larger group.

If you haven't been to a forest or seen a T-Rex skeleton lately, just picture a Leonopteryx or the floating Hallelujah Mountains of Pandora (which definitely challenge my "knowledge structures" pertaining to how gravity and rocks work).

Avatar might make you go all Kumbaya even independently of its Gaia-rific messages about a conscious world and ancestors who speak through trees. For a 2008 paper, the Belgian researchers Vassilis Saroglou, Coralie Buxant, Jonathan Tilquin showed three-minute videos to subjects: either panoramic nature scenes, clips documenting gestation and childbirth, a comedy sketch, or a guy talking about beer. The first two videos were meant to elicit awe and the third amusement. (The fourth was a control.) The awed subjects felt ecstasy, respect, wonder, and sadness more intensely than the other groups. They were also more likely after watching the videos to believe that life has a purpose and to feel committed and connected to humanity, endorsing statements such as "There is an order to the universe that transcends human thinking" and "I still have strong emotional ties with someone who has died."

In regards to the sadness subjects reported in that study, the authors write, "It is not impossible that the discovery of the limits of the self during a self-transcendent emotional experience may produce some negative emotions." Hence post-Avatar suicide-watch? If watching acrobatic cat people uplink their ponytails and fight giant exoskeletons in 3-D for two and a half hours doesn't make you want to run outside and play or at least write some erotic Na'vi fan fic, I think you have bigger problems back here on Earth than just not having a tree house and a hot blue girlfriend.

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