Just as fear had forced our ancestors to congregate to face a common enemy, that of being overwhelmed by an awesome sight had forced them to come together

One day a lecturer in the medical college told us of his experience. Being from an inland village, it was only in his twenties that he first went to Chennai and Marina beach. He was almost dumb struck and in complete awe when he first contemplated the sea of the Bay of Bengal; he never thought that the ocean could be that wonderful, and almost wept with joy.

This seems to be an experience that each one of us could have when exposed to some huge, vast aspect of the environment, such as flying above the Amazon forest, seeing the earth from a satellite in space, gazing at the torrential falls at Niagara or a western sky bathed in the wondrous hues of a sunset: all can make us feel small, and elicit awesomeness. Some religious people who meditate do also experience similar feelings, as they allow their ego to be dissolved into the vastness of the universe. Having been used to our daily ego, we suddenly discover something extraordinary emanating outside us which triggers a sense of awe.

Psychologists investigate

Whenever religious experiences were mentioned scientists used to keep aloof; but not so nowadays. Now that they can witness the neural firing in the brain that follows a mental event on fMRI, they gladly investigate. That’s how a sensation of awe is found to silence the area called pre-frontal lobe, the very site concerned with the conception of the self, thereby quieting that lobe’s default working mood and allowing the brain to be toned down. This transcends the self and initiates the individual into an ego dissolution exercise, prompting him to identify himself with an external experience.

Psychologists, like Dacher Keltner from the University of California, Berkeley, are using physical means to assess the degree of awe by asking the subjects to plot their amazing experience on a scale. Cold is the first factor that produces goose flesh and awe is only second to it in doing so; this is taken advantage of to assess subjects experiencing awe.

It is a subjective feeling of amazement tinged by a degree of fear, while wonder evokes mostly an intellectual appreciation. All of us can easily have access to it: either by being religious and meditating, by becoming open-minded or by using some selective drugs. One can be an atheist, yet do as good as the religious counterpart in this experience. It also induces people to become more ethical, generous, humble and charitable, better than what happiness or pride could achieve.

Most experiments have pointed out that its effects last months after first experiencing awe; the subject will get connected to other individuals more easily and becomes more helpful. After being exposed to a wonderful piece of music, say, an individual, when asked to draw his own portrait, would draw a small one; if given a text to write he would do it in a smaller handwriting, yet there is no self-deprecation or loss of self-esteem. It is found that the subjects have a predominance of their parasympathetic system, the very one which counteracts the reaction to stress of ‘fight or flight’. There is a slowing of the heart rate and a decrease of the inflammatory agents called cytokines; as a result there is less inflammation of the body organs, hence less health problems.

Is it possible that this sensation of awe predates religion which had been used to transcend the self and plunges someone into an immensity, infinitude and indescribability?

Some psychologists think so. Just as fear had forced our ancestors to congregate to face a common enemy, so also the opposite – that of being overwhelmed by an awesome sight — had forced them to come together, to share and support each other and to communicate feelings of delight. There was a reinforcement of bonding together among individuals and of the tribe, as the self becomes quiet in face of fear and awe. That could have been an evolutionary advantage.

Today after experiencing that awe we come to fold into a social collective, allowing us to transcend our usual frame of reference and the bubble we live in. Such subjects are also found to become more creative; should they be indulging in conversation they would remember the details of such conversation better than they would otherwise.

The mushroom

As chemical substances are being used for recreational purposes, scientists have investigated their effect on the brain. They have been used to treat depression and anxiety. LSD and the addictive psychotropes may prove to be too strong and dangerous to induce awe; but psilocybin, derived from mushroom, is less addictive and is metabolized faster in the body. It does induce a sense of awe as the subjects have some form of hallucination of vastness of space, which experiences are said to be as good as that experienced by religious people because they act on the same neural network in the brain. They also knock out the sense of self, the voice in the head, and self- consciousness, hence allowing the subjects to become part of the whole.

It sounds a bit paradoxical – because here we have a subjective feeling which reduces our sense of self, yet makes us feel part of a whole!

As we get immersed into the world of electronics, and as our children and youngsters get absorbed into the magic of their mobile phones or iPad, they would become disconnected from nature, from the wide open space and its stimuli. They would become more self-centered, egoistic and narrow-minded perhaps. We should expect them to go into more conflicts with other people. Modern educationalists are afraid of that scenario, and propose that they be trained from early childhood to experience awe, to enjoy natural surroundings so as to promote interpersonal relationship.

Astronauts coming back from space have also been investigated by neuroscientist Andrew Newberg at Pennsylvania university. They also experience awe followed by tranquility and elation – especially as they had viewed their blue planet from above as never before, better than seeing outer space from earth. This has been called the “overview effect”. And they talk of altruism and of kindness. Virtual space simulation experiments, together with space tourism, have joined the fray to explore that venue to induce awe and compassion in people.

Some scheming politicians had previously used this awe sensation to their advantage; they would have their political meetings in front of famous historical monuments, in huge spaces and buildings that would induce a sense of puniness in their audience; and the latter would be easily impressed by their speech and rendered docile. One cannot avoid thinking of Napoleon’s speech in front of the pyramids of Egypt, pontificating his troops about centuries of history looking down at them, before waging battle.

So awe is not rare, it can be made more routine to raise the ‘awe quotient’ and expectations, all leading to better interpersonal human relationships.

Yet what to say of the experience of a little girl: waking up around sunrise in the Chennai bound train, she pulled at her mother’s sari, pointing out to the beauty of the rising sun on the eastern horizon. The latter was totally absorbed in the popular magazine ‘Kumudam”, so she brushed aside the innocent kid’s amazement, missing a wonderful moment and opportunity to inspire her child. It was awful to the co-passenger.


* Published in print edition on 12 January 2018

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