The Science of Awe

Who would have guessed that the feeling of awe is now analyzed by scientists and can stem from such disparate events or activities such as a mind-blowing experience to a fine work of art, an idea raised in a great speech or nature’s grandeur? It really isn’t too difficult to find something to become awe-struck by in Lake County, whether it is the striking glitter of a hummingbird’s feathers or the gleam of a gopher snake as it slithers into the sunlight for warmth.

The science of awe can be defined as an emotion which produces optimistic results in one’s way of thinking. When serendipity places an awe-inspiring view within your midst it may create a feeling of ease about the world. It certainly won’t make bad news stories disappear,  but viewing profound beauty, psychologists recognize, can produce positive effects in a person’s mental outlook. It is said that awe inspires us to feel more and to forge connections in our surroundings, both with nature and with humans. While in the midst of our ancient and inspiring lake, or viewing the vastness of the Milky Way in our clear, clean skies, an unexpected effect may occur due to the stimulus we have engaged with; and we may sense that we really hold quite a small place within this backdrop.

Scientists and groups such as the Sierra Club who have studied awe, explain that it can be prompted by many things, but that it is mainly brought forth by nature. In a paper written by Summer Allen, Ph.D  for the John Templeton Foundation by the Greater Good Science Center at U.C. Berkeley, she discusses awe as experiences which are self-transcendent. In other words, awe takes us out of ourselves and allows us to undergo a change that depicts a greater good while eliciting a generosity of spirit. Since the early 2000s the feeling of awe has been studied by psychologists and others who posit that awe stems from a huge variety of sources; and that while it can overtake you through sighting something grand in nature it can also arrive from learning a difficult and multifaceted idea. It has been determined that those experiences which produce feelings of awe go together with changes in our heart rates, that special reaction we get with ‘the chills’ and may even aid in chronic inflammation.

 Whether your eyes are fixed on the lake’s beauty or trained up toward the stars there is no shortage of events that elicit awe. The solemn reverence of nature is found daily in the myriad rhythms and transitions of our planet. With awe being a relatively new area of study, there are many more questions to investigate, with one being, how may we derive this feeling more often?  Awe is out there, and may have even played a part in our ancestor’s will to continue living and thriving. Maybe it is something we all need more of. If we feed the need to find that which inspires us to our limits, and it can alter and realign our ability to connect with others it may just be worth the effort to become awe-inspired more often.

Kathleen Scavone

Kathleen Scavone, MA., is a retired educator who has resided in beautiful Lake County for over 45 years. She freelances fiction, poetry, nature writing, curriculum ideas, and local history. She writes for The Press Democrat, Napa Valley Register, News From Native California, Green Prints, etc. She has published three books, a play and a poetry chapbook. The second edition of her locally set historical novella, People of the Water- a novella of the events leading to the Bloody Island Massacre of 1850 is available in local museums and stores, as well as on Amazon.com and IngramSpark in both paperback and e-book formats. She has written Anderson Marsh State Historic Park- A Walking History, Prehistory, Flora and Fauna tour of a California State Park, and Native Americans of Lake County. Kathleen is a photographer and potter. Her other interests include hiking, assisting on archaeology digs, travel, gardening and reading.

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