The Power of Awe: "A Star Is Born" Images and the Small Self

Awe-inspiring images of the birth of a star could promote prosocial behaviors.

Posted Apr 07, 2017

ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), J. Bally; B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF); Gemini Observatory/AURA
Composite image of the OMC-1 cloud in Orion showing the sometimes explosive nature of star birth, when several young stars were ejected from the region about 500 years ago.
Source: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), J. Bally; B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF); Gemini Observatory/AURA

Last night, the U.S. launched 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base in response to an atrocious chemical weapons attack that killed over 80 civilians. This morning—amid cable TV channels replaying images of glaring rockets being launched from aircraft carriers—a team of astronomers led by John Bally from the University of Colorado at Boulder coincidentally published mind-blowing images of Technicolor fireworks occurring in outer space. 

The dramatic new stellar images by Bally et al. capture the birth of a star in Orion (the "Hunter" constellation) that occurred about 500 years ago but are currently visible from Earth. The stunning composite photographs were published April 7 in the Astrophysical Journal.

The state-of-the-art images from Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) are otherworldly and awe inspiring. Astronomers believe that the fleeting cataclysmic interaction that created this newborn star released as much energy in a singular dramatic explosion as our Sun emits over the course of 10 million years. The powerful eruption that gave birth to a new star also launched hundreds of mammoth streamers of gas and dust into outer space at approximately 336,000 miles per hour. 

When I first saw these breathtaking "a star is born" images earlier today, I said, "Wow!" out loud. For a minute or two, I lost myself in a sense of wonder and awe created by being able to peer back in time and witness the birth of a star that occurred centuries ago. And I forgot about the human suffering, destruction, and loss of life currently taking place in civil war-torn Syria which has been dominating my thoughts lately. 

Pondering these truly awesome stellar photos simultaneously reminded me of four seemingly unrelated things: (1) The military doctrine of 'rapid dominance' known as "shock and awe" used in 2003 by the U.S. military in Iraq; (2) Recent studies linking nature-inspired awe with altruism and human solidarity regardless of nationality; (3) The fact that light pollution means that 80 percent of Americans can no longer see Orion or the Milky Way; (4) Recent comments about the psychological toll of Washington politics and the need for a "nature getaway" made by Sigourney Weaver (star of "Aliens"). 

First, in May 2015, a study, “Awe, the Small Self, and Prosocial Behavior,” led by Paul Piff of the University of California, Irvine was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Piff and colleagues found that the power of awe experienced in nature (i.e. visiting the Giant Redwoods in the Sequoia Forest) can promote altruistic, prosocial behavior and puts our individual lives in perspective by helping people realize that there is something much bigger than yourself in the universe.

I reported on Piff's research in a Psychology Today blog post, "The Power of Awe: A Sense of Wonder Promotes Loving-Kindness." Obviously, the magnanimity and kindhearted altruism triggered by the awe inspired by natural wonders is the polar opposite of the "shock and awe" created by rapid military dominance. 

In March 2016, another eye-opening study about the power of awe, "The Overview Effect: Awe and Self-Transcendent Experience in Space Flight," led by David Yaden of the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center, was published in the journal Psychology of Consciousness. Yaden et al. found that when astronauts peer down on Earth from outer space for the first time, they often experience a life-changing spiritual epiphany about the oneness of humankind (regardless of nationality or religion) which has been coined "the overview effect." 

Sadly, as 21st-century Earthlings, light pollution at night caused by global trends of urbanization means that one-third of humanity (and 80 percent of Americans) can no longer see the Milky Way that contains Orion, according to a June 2016 study published in Science Advances

Taken together, this scientific research suggests that the modern-day disconnection from stargazing may hypothetically be causing more navel gazing, a larger sense of self, and fewer prosocial behaviors. 

Lastly, seeing the new explosive stellar images reminded me of Hollywood sci-fi special effects from movies such as "Star Wars" and "Aliens." A few nights ago, Sigourney Weaver told Stephen Colbert on the "Late Show" about a sojourn to Hawai'i she recently took as a "health break" to connect with nature and escape the upsetting political news from Washington. Weaver and her husband hid out in remote island locations in the Pacific that are close to the Mauna Kea Observatories, which is one of the most significant astronomy sites in the world.

Weaver admitted, "I know it’s selfish and I’m in denial,” in reference to unplugging herself from news about the current U.S. political climate by taking an exotic getaway. But she also described her time being away from a 24/7 news cycle as “incredible.” Adding, "I was almost afraid to come back. I wasn't sure I could function."

Yes, connecting to nature and stargazing may be escapist. But profound awe can also put the current events of today and your small self in a broader universal perspective that is good for your chronobiology and well-being. If the news of today is upsetting you, maybe the image below can offer a brief moment of cosmic awe, right here and now, regardless of your current geographic location? 

ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), J. Bally/H. Drass et al.
Stellar explosions are most often associated with supernovae, the spectacular deaths of stars. But new ALMA observations of the Orion Nebula complex provide insights into explosions at the other end of the stellar life cycle, star birth. Astronomers captured this dramatic image of the remains of a 500-year-old explosion as they explored the firework-like debris from the birth of a group of massive stars, demonstrating that star formation can be a violent and explosive process too. 
Source: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), J. Bally/H. Drass et al.

In a statement, John Bally described the above image saying, "ALMA has given us new insights into explosions on the other end of the stellar life cycle, star birth...What we see in this once calm stellar nursery is a cosmic version of a 4th of July fireworks display, with giant streamers rocketing off in all directions." Luckily for us, visual images of this spectacular explosion are visible from Earth today using advanced technology and have the power to fill us with awe.

In closing, Alice Walker touches on the importance of the small self in her poem Expect Nothing. Walker writes: 

Wish for nothing larger
Than your own small heart
Or greater than a star; 
Tame wild disappointment
With caress unmoved and cold
Make of it a parka
For your soul.

Discover the reason why
So tiny human midget
Exists at all
So scared unwise
But expect nothing. Live frugally
On surprise.

Walker's timeless words of wisdom echo Paul Piff's empirical evidence about the power of acknowledging the potential liberation that comes from embracing the 'frugal surprises' held in nature and your small self.

Hopefully, the latest images from ALMA of a star being born can serve as a catalyst for each us to make an effort to connect with the awe of nature in ways that encourage self-transcendence, the small self, and promote prosocial behaviors. 


Paul K. Piff, Pia Dietze, Matthew Feinberg, Daniel M. Stancato, Dacher Keltner. Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2015; 108 (6): 883 DOI: 10.1037/pspi0000018

David B. Yaden, Jonathan Iwry, Kelley J. Slack, Johannes C. Eiechstaedt, Yukun Zhao, George E. Vaillant, Andrew B. Newberg. The overview effect: Awe and self-transcendent experience in space flight. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, 2016; 3 (1): 1 DOI: 10.1037/cns0000086

John Bally, Adam Ginsburg, Hector Arce, Josh Eisner, Allison Youngblood, Luis Zapata, Hans Zinnecker. The ALMA View of the OMC1 Explosion in Orion. The Astrophysical Journal, 2017; 837 (1): 60 DOI: 10.3847/1538-4357/aa5c8b

F. Falchi, P. Cinzano, D. Duriscoe, C. C. M. Kyba, C. D. Elvidge, K. Baugh, B. A. Portnov, N. A. Rybnikova, R. Furgoni. The new world atlas of artificial night sky brightness. Science Advances, 2016; 2 (6): e1600377 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1600377

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