Midway through the school summer holidays, and feeling disgruntled about not being able to get away ourselves this year, New Scientist came to the rescue with an article about the psychological, emotional and creative value of experiencing awe.
Apparently, feeling a sense of awe breaks down our habitual patterns of thinking, reducing the expectations and assumptions which otherwise colour our view of the world, and thus enables us to see better what’s actually going on.
“Feeling awestruck can dissolve our very sense of self, bringing a host of benefits from lowering stress and boosting creativity to making us nicer people,” says Jo Marchant in Awesome Awe (New Scientist issue No 3136, July 29th, 2017).
Awe combines amazement, a hint of fear, and a sense of transcendence: that humbling knowledge of things beyond us.
Experiencing awe quietens regions of the brain normally occupied with self-interest and self-consciousness, increasing a sense of connection to others, and leading to more charitable thoughts and altruistic actions.
Astronauts are subject to awe so often when they look down on Earth from space that they’ve given it a specific name: the overview effect.
“Researchers have also reported increases in curiosity and creativity. In one study, after viewing images of Earth, volunteers came up with more original examples in tests, found greater interest in abstract painting and persisted longer on difficult puzzles, compared with controls,” Marchant says.
All of which reminds me of a conversation that creative writers often have with each other: what on earth should we do when inspiration dies?
Eating chocolate or cake are popular remedies. Taking hot baths or showers help a lot of us, too, along with walking the dog, meditation etc. etc.
The New Scientist article suggests that we’d be better off taking a daily dose of awe instead.
(Controlled doses of psychedelic drugs seem to work as well, but I’ll leave it up to you to check out what the article has to say about that.)
To benefit from awe, all we have to do is find out what triggers it in us, and do that as often as possible.
Maybe it’s taking time to absorb a sublime city skyline, or to lose ourselves in some great monument: a ruined temple of the Ancient World, a medieval cathedral or the Sky Tree in Tokyo.
Staring into the branches of an ancient oak tree does it for me, or encountering a wild animal unexpectedly, or sitting by the untamed sea or under a starry sky.
One thing I miss most about not going on holiday is watching the churning wake of our ferry as we pull away from land, and the crying of gulls, which always leaves me with a liberating sense of surrender to the journey and the wider world.
This loss of self, with its accompanying connection to others, may sound like mystical mumbo-jumbo or pseudo-religion, but if awe is hard-wired by evolution into our brains – if it’s a natural, creative, mind-altering buzz – why not harness its power year-round?
Alternatively, push the credit card to the max and go find some sunshine anyway.
This post first appeared on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, the blogging site of the Scattered Authors’ Society, on July 15th, 2017.