When’s the last time you experienced the power of AWE?Posted: June 12, 2016
Last weekend I had the privilege of attending The Art and Science of AWE Event organized by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. It was a day to increase awareness of this universal feeling and see it in a new light; as a positive emotion that brings a multitude of benefits to our health, well-being and society overall. The day was spent hearing from researchers, artists, other professionals, and practitioners alike. And yes, I was awestruck many times through out the day by how powerful AWE is, and moved by performances at the same time.
What science shows is that awe benefits us on all levels: cognitively, physically, emotionally and socially, in the way we process information, and the perspective from which we view the world . Awe is accessible to all of us, at any time. We don’t have to wait for something miraculous to happen (such as the birth, or heroics). We can experience it right in our own backyards, and within ourselves.
What is AWE and What Does It Do?
Dacher Keltner, Ph.D. of UC Berkeley, and Founder of the Greater Good Science Center, defined awe as a feeling of “being in the presence of something vast, beyond our current understanding.” Michelle “Lani” Shiota, Ph.D. of Arizona State University adds that AWE is “an emotional response to physically or conceptually extraordinary stimuli that challenge our normal, day-to-day frame of reference, and are not already integrated into our understanding of the world.” Both scientists show that awe not only affects the individual emotionally, cognitively, and physiologically, it also affects us socially as a community as well.
Awe moves us from our own self-interest toward the good of the group (which speaks to being an antidote to the narcissistic epidemic we have in the West). Awe makes this shift by enabling us to gain a sense of our “small self”, where we become more humble and generous, and connected to something larger than ourselves. While it doesn’t make us feel shameful or unimportant, it does help put our problems into perspective. Awe also shifts us from our isolated self to an integrated self, as we become more curious, creative, and purposeful. Cognitively, awe allows us to take in more information and discern it’s quality at the same time. Lastly, awe aids in breaking down the “us vs. them” mentality that runs amuck in our society, leading us to feel more compassion toward others.
On a physiological level, the effects of awe on the body have been shown to lower cytokine levels, or proteins that help boost our immune systems fighting disease, infection and reducing inflammation. High cytokine levels are associated with poorer health and diseases such as heart disease, depression, type-2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s. Physiologically, awe has the effect of relaxing, soothing and calming; turning down the fight and flight response of the sympathetic system, while at the same time decreasing the rest and digest response of the parasympathetic system, so that we are more relaxed but alert.
Avenues to Elicit Awe
We heard from numerous sources on ways to elicit the social emotion of awe, from being out in mother nature and her wonders, to experiencing The Arts (music, dance, literature/poetry, visual arts), as well as The Sciences (from the macro- universe to the micro- inside ourselves). Awe can be elicited by others such as powerful leaders who inspire us to become better , while encouraging us to fold into the collective. Awe can also arise from witnessing acts of altruism and courage.
The Vocal Artist Melanie DeMore, reminded us that in feeling awe, we are the smallest and the biggest we will ever be: The smallest as it humbles us, and the biggest as we become interconnected. She also reminded us to walk around in the world AWAKE, and awed us with her incredibly soulful voice.
Awe In Education
Researchers and educators alike touched on awe in education, and invited the audience to do an exercise, which is the same one we do at the AWE Inspired Retreat (next one 6/18/16 at the Keys Creek Lavender Farm). Try it for yourself and see what you notice. Or better yet, attend the retreat:
AWE AWAKENED Exercise
- Start by checking in and gaging your well-being /happiness level. On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being low and 10 being high, rate your level of well being before you start this exercise.
- Close your eyes gently, or gaze downward at the floor.
- Take a deeper than normal breath through your nostrils.
- Release your breath slowly through your mouth, releasing any tension that you may be carrying as well.
- Now reaching back into your childhood, recall a moment when you felt awe or wonder. Bring to mind the feeling you experienced as a child with as much detail as possible. Savor that experience staying with it by taking a few extra breaths. Notice the feeling that is awakened.
- Notice the way your body is responding right now to this memory. What do you notice?
- When you are ready, gently open your eyes and write down what awe meant to you as a child and what it means to you now.
- If possible, share this memory and insight with someone else.
- Revisit your well-being /happiness level again. On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being low and 10 being high, rate your level of well-being after completing this exercise. Did the level stay the same? What do you notice?
We heard from an inner-city High School Teacher in New York on how she is facilitating the feeling of awe in her classroom, specifically through journaling with prompts and metacognitive reflections, and through AWE walks (we call these Sense and Savor walks in the AWE Inspired Retreat).
AWE in the End
No matter how you slice it, AWE is a gift and privilege of being alive. It is a universal human experience. We are here for a short time, in the grand scheme of things. Our lives are now. What are you doing to acknowledge it’s gift? What will you do to increase your quotient of awe in your life? If you are wanting to get out in nature, consider registering for the retreat at the Lavender Farm in Valley Center. Or you don’t have to look far, for you can find awe in the world around you and inside yourself if you slow down to pause and notice, taking in the treasures that life provides.