How mountains, oceans and starry nights make for better people

Jo Marchant wrote an article for New Scientist on why mountains, starry skies and oceans make for kinder, nicer people.

Okay, I'm making a bit of a leap here. She didn't actually write that mountains, starry skies and oceans SPECIFICALLY make for nicer people. However, she did write about the feeling of awe and explained what it does, neurologically, in a person's brain.

The article is behind a paywall, so in case you haven't got a New Scientist subscription, I'll sum it up here.

In 2003 two University of California, Berkeley researchers named Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt started studying the feeling of 'awe' and came up with a definition of what it is. "They described awe as the feeling we get when confronted with something vast, that transcends our frame of reference and that we struggle to understand. It's an emotion that combines amazement with an edge of fear. Wonder, by contrast, is more intellectual - a cognitive state in which you are trying to understand the mysterious."

Basically, awe is something that is likely to give you goosebumps (second only to feeling of cold) and make you go, "Whoa, this is AMAZING." A bit like standing on a ridge in the mountains and struggling to grasp how vast the space is. Looking up at a starry sky at night and not being able to get your head around the fact that each star is, basically, like another huge Sun somewhere in space. Feeling the bow of a ship crash over a huge ridge of water on the Southern Ocean and thinking, sh*t, I am so small compared to all of this. That's what awe is. (Wonder, on the other hand, is likely to make you go, "Oh, wow, I wonder how that's possible?")

As Keltner and Haidt studied people who were made to experience awe, they noticed something peculiar: people who experienced awe (as opposed to just happiness or pride etc) changed their behaviour and perceived themselves smaller. They were more likely to help a person who stumbled in front of them. They were more ethical, generous and felt more connected to other people. They signed their names smaller, they drew themselves smaller. The experience of feeling awe diminished their sense of self-importance, but did not change their self-esteem.

Basically: they felt just as good about themselves as before, but they wanted to help others more.

Then, in 2017, another researcher (Michiel van Elk from University of Amsterdam) presented a study of functional MRI scans of people who had experienced awe. His findings struck a chord with what Keltner and Haidt had said before him, because the differences could be seen even on an MRI scan. "Awe quiets activity in the default mode network, which includes parts of the frontal lobes and cortex, and is thought to relate to the sense of self. 'Awe produces vanishing self,' says Keltner. 'The voice in your head, self-interest, self-consciousness, disappears. Here's an emotion that knocks out really important part of our identity.' As a result, he says, we feel more connected to bigger collectives and groups."

Meanwhile, a team from Arizona State University found that awe calms the fight-or-flight response. "Experiencing awe made people feel as if they had more time - and made them more willing to give up their time to help others.

The article goes on to discuss that humans are not the only primates to experience awe - chimps show signs of awe, such as goosebumps, during thunderstorms. The feeling of awe carries an evolutionary neurological function - but we don't, necessarily, utilise it nowadays.

Jo Marchant talks to people who say that teenagers are reporting an increasing sense of disconnect, and that the rise of hatred in the US (and elsewhere) may be connected to the lack of awe. People are spending their days gazing at their smartphones. If we are no longer getting to experience awe, then we are - neurologically - set up to be less humble, less charitable. Education, with its focus on test results rather than exploration is taking awe away from our kids. That has far-reaching consequences not just for education itself, but for the entire human race.


To me, the article is not mind-blowing per se, but it does confirm what I've thought all along: that children need to learn both that they, themselves, are important and that the world around them is important.

And to help them learn that, I need to bring them to places that will make them go, WHOA! THIS IS SO WICKED!

Svalbard 2008

New Zealand 2010

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