The Importance of Awe

The emotional experience we need the most might be the one we’re missing.

Scott Irving
Feb 24 · 10 min read

Awe is unique among emotions in that it always cuts to our core. Paradoxically, it changes us while taking us back to who we really are. The experience of it is perhaps the most profound of all emotionally fueled transformations.

In his well-known 1757 work on aesthetics, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke regards awe as belonging to the aesthetics of the Sublime (as opposed to the more traditional aesthetics of the Beautiful), an area of aesthetic experience where we are faced with our insignificance of scale when presented with something bigger than ourselves and beyond our grasp, literally or figuratively. The aesthetic territory of the Sublime also covers the experience of feelings such as terror, wonder or humility. The feeling these experiences always engender, though, is awe.

Uluru / Ayers Rock showing the remarkable reddening it undergoes at sunrise and sunset. (Image courtesy of Pixabay)

We feel awe when the sublime leans in over us. We feel it when faced with the vastness of a mountain or waterfall, the centuries-long achievement of a finished (or unfinished) cathedral, the heavenly grandezza of the Sistine Chapel ceilings — or even just a flyby photograph of our home planet from space. It’s a manifold emotional experience. A man confronted with the devastating power of a tsunami, as in this Exisential Comic, feels awe in his final moments. Awe predominates in the fearful reverence of the Australian Aborigine for Uluru / Ayers Rock. A sensitive literary personality like Ernst Jünger, attuned to the universe, even finds it in the tree.

We caress the bark of our elder brother; he was there to witness jousts and was already stately when Columbus was preparing his caravels. Here there is more powerful life, a dreaming life, and our own life, with all its temporal worries, becomes a dream. What will remain of them after even one century passes?

In moments such as those, we are keenly aware of the brevity and fragility of human life.

A photograph taken of the earth from the International Space Station, clearly over Central Southern Europe. You can see the Italian mainland to the right, with Sardinia and Corsica in the lower centre of the picture. (Image courtesy of Pixabay)

Sublimity can also be defined as our experience of radical finitude in the presence of the infinite. The Mediaeval philosopher Nicholas of Cusa describes in De docta ignorantia our wonder as our finite minds contemplate the universe and approach — but never quite achieve — the infinite, omniscient mind of God. His analogy is the closeness of an indefinite or infinitely sided polygon (the human mind) to a circle (the divine mind). God already knows all. The human mind, by experience, deductions and conjecture adds more sides to its polygon and so comes to resemble the divine mind, but no matter how many sides we add, it will never be a circle. Awe is the experience of approaching the vast prefection of the circle, while being presently and actively reminded that we’re polygonal.

Myth and ritual provide ample fodder for our sense of awe. In the religious ecstasy of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, if we were pressed to cover the modes of tremendum and fascinans with one term, it would be ‘awe’. Even a radical atheist like Nicholas Humphrey emphasizes the importance of transcendental experience — albeit to deny apologists of religion the ‘grain of truth’ argument. Scientifically at least, the transcendent is having its ‘moment.

Awe is where you find it, to use an old turn of phrase. It’s why we step to the edge of the Grand Canyon to peer into its mind-boggling vastness first-hand; the reason we jump into rollercoasters or out of airplanes. We seek it both actively and passively. In any and every kind of art or public media, we seek awe-inducing experiences; in cinemas, paintings, epic verse, oratory — you name it, it’s the means to express or seek awe.

Stained glass detail from Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona. (Image courtesy of Pixabay)

On this last point — poetry and oratory —we see that even the written or spoken word has a stake in our finding awe. Indeed, Cicero describes oratory or rhetoric in terms which make its awe-inducing qualities abundantly clear. He claims to be left wanting by his own work because of a taste for something beyond; and even Demosthenes is unable to sate his ears, for “ita sunt avidae et capaces et saepe aliquid immensum infinitumque desiderant”. That is, “they are greedy and insatiable and so desire the vast and infinite”. Indeed, David Hume refers to this in his essay ‘Of Eloquence’, preceded with the observation that

[t]those of fine taste … pronounced this judgement of the Roman orator, as well as of the [Greek], that both of them surpassed in eloquence all that had ever appeared, but that they were far from reaching the perfection of their art, which was infinite, and not only exceeded human force to attain, but human imagination to conceive.

David Hume, ‘Of Eloquence’ in Essays Moral, Political and Literary, Liberty Fund: Indianapolis (1987), p.98.

Spoken or seen, our sense of this beyond-ness found in awe is shown everywhere. We pursue it so unceasingly — even obsessively; consciously and unconsciously. It is a basic human need, which seems to transect and transcend Maslow’s hierarchy. Indeed, Maslow later revisited his hierarchy to emphasise transcendence (de-emphasising the earlier, clunkier concept of self-actualisation), typified by “peak experiences”. In any case, we seek experiences which allow us to feel awe.

The ultimate (literal) peak experience. (Image courtesy of Pixabay)

One reason could be the wholesome effects of experiencing awe. Cleansing the doors of perception, to use Aldous Huxley’s famous phrase, can trigger a process of radical renewal. The microcosm is re-structured in its alignment with the macrocosm. This is the hermetic way of stating it, but there are more modern ways too. Breaking down our phenomenlogical barriers to experience unmediated existence — or mind-at-large, to use another of Huxley’s phrases — allows us to rebuild those barriers with awareness, rather than drift on the inertia of the default settings.

So, awe is immensely conducive to mindfulness, along with many other virtues of the mind.

The Possible Health Benefits of Awe

This experience may, furthermore, have lasting measurable health benefits for both mind and body — not to mention sociability. Evolutionary psychology suggests that this is why we seek it so purposefully, even unconsciously.

Extensive research by clinicians, neuroscientists and psychologists over many years has indicated awe as a necessary determinant in human health and happiness. Recent studies only reinforce this and take it farther. Health, happiness, sense of wellbeing and pro-social outcomes are all strongly correlated with awe across the research literature.

There is even compelling evidence to suggest immunological benefits. Research led by Jennifer Stellar, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, and published in 2015 pointed to links between awe and harmful inflammation.

Research into the effects of art on health and wellbeing says much the same.

Another University of Toronto academic, Jordan Peterson — who’s famous for some reason — believes that the awe-inducing power of mystical experiences completely changes us for the better.

Surprisingly, the health benefits of experiencing awe have been suspected long before quantitative psychometric research and advanced brain imaging techniques made these benefits measurable. Centuries before, in fact. We are affected by the sublime for natural and providential reasons, according to Burke — reasons written into us: our tendency toward self-preservation. Awe is necessary to the ‘finer and more delicate organs’ for the same reason that exercise is necessary for ‘the courser organs’. In today’s terms, this would mean that awe is to the brain and nervous system what exercise is to the muscles and cardiovascular system.

Labour is not only requisite to preserve the coarser organs in a state fit for their functions, but it is equally necessary to these finer and more delicate organs, on which, and by which, the imagination, and perhaps the other mental powers act … As common labour, which is a mode of pain, is the exercise of the grosser, a mode of terror is the exercise of the finer parts of the system; and if a certain mode of pain be of such a nature as to act upon the eye or the ear, as they are the most delicate organs, the affection approaches more nearly to that which has a mental cause. In all these cases, if the pain and terror are so modified as not to be actually noxious; if the pain is not carried to violence, and the terror is not conversant about the present destruction of the person, as these emotions clear the parts, whether fine, or gross, of a dangerous and troublesome incumbrance, they are capable of producing delight; not pleasure, but a sort of delightful horror, a sort of tranquility tinged with terror; which as it belongs to self-preservation is one of the strongest of all the passions. Its object is the sublime.

Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Oxford: OUP (1990), Part IV, Sections VI-VII, pp.122–3.

We can see quite plainly, in fact, that Burke takes a more extreme view than we’re used to hearing today: not only is awe good for our health in the divinely ordered plan, its absence is actively bad for us.

It would seem that we really do need what Jason Silva calls ‘shots of awe’, in his web series of the same name. Awe is probably the best medicine you could ever take — and it doesn’t taste like dumpster juice.

The Awe Drought

Here’s the rub: our sense of awe and our late-modern penchant for instant gratification are often at odds. The awe deficit may even be as bad as the attention deficit — and our technological crutches seem to be the exacerbating factor in both cases.

Technology can be used, in isolated instances, to enhance our experience of awe, but its predisposition is otherwise. We may even accept, for the same of argument, the insistence of futurists and other technology enthusiasts that technology itself isn’t the problem, but this doesn’t diminish the problem by a single iota — and so it’s an irrelevant point. The spread and development technology follows the autonomous path of what the Germans are inclined to call Technicität and the French, notably Jacques Ellul, technique — that is, technicity.

Ellul insists:

Man must make allowance for a background, a great deep above which lie his reason and his clear consciousness. The mystery of man perhaps creates the mystery of the world he inhabits. Or perhaps this mystery is a reality in itself. There is no way to decide between these two alternatives. But, one way or the other, mystery is a necessity of human life. […] Man cannot live without a sense of the secret. The psychoanalysts agree on this point. But the invasion of technique desacralizes the world in which man is called upon to live. For technique nothing is sacred, there is no mystery, no taboo.

Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, Vintage: New York (1964), pp.141–2.

The problem is that our attitude to technicity as autonomous technology — autonomous, that is, even as it endangers our own autonomy — allows it to fully follow the default settings of its application, the pre-installed inclination to desacralise our world.

There are a number of factors operating here concurrently. Even as technicity diminishes our experiences of awe in society by its ubiquity —like ski resorts littering mountainsides (in more than one sense) or the way that taking photos with smartphones cheapens our memories of important events — it also, at the same time, reduces the frequency or possibility of inducing awe ourselves, continually strip-mining us of our opportunities. We’re always-on, but we never have time. In other words, it cheapens both the quality and quantity of experiences, in private and public settings alike. The quality/quantity diminution on the one hand and the elimination of public/private opportunities on the other leave us deeply impoverished.

The recollection is dimmer, more blurry. (Image courtesy of Pixabay)

Added to these two factors is a third: the shell game. The most important aspect of technicity as an autonomous strategy, rather than technology as an inert pool of mere instruments, is the implementation of immense capacities of distraction and misdirection. Consumerism demands it — and its first casualty is our sense of awe. The bait-and-switch technology which distracts us from our pressing tasks and social interactions through simulating the same in compulsive newsfeeds of online ‘friends’ is the same technology which, in the same way, leads us astray with virtual promises of awe and mere simulations of the sublime.

The instantly gratifying inducements of technology mislead us into the plane of the ‘hyper-real’, whose vivid temptations we can’t ordinarily distinguish from reality. Over time, the simulacrum becomes less and less a stimulus to the original feeling and more of an escapist drug which dulls the wits. We give up on the ecstatic and give in to the narcotic.

We become alienated from each other and even from ourselves. Our sense of joy and wonder in the present moment becomes a remote prospect. We’re disconnected, ‘always-on’ and always indoors. We’re even deluded and misled. Not only do we lose our opportunities for life-changing experiences of awe but, more dangerously, we start to become hopelessly muddled about what awe is and how to attain it. Furthermore, as a result of all this, we may even be destroying ourselves.

Today, the rarity and remoteness of the transcendent is bringing us to the point of crisis. We are at the same time more in need of them and less able to access them — we do so less frequently, less meaningfully and we no longer achieve the escape velocity we see in the soaring meditations of bygone thinkers like Nicholas of Cusa.

The journey to a much-needed revolution may start with the first step we take outside; our re-armament beginning with the first moment we take to stop and look around — look up — into the trees which surround us and the limitless sky. Art, history, myth, religion, science — and even our embattled health — each implore us to reconnect with our sense of awe. Or else.

It’s time to listen.

Scott Irving

Written by

Scottish | Versifier | Critic | Philosoph(ast)er | 50/50 Split on Clear or Oblique | All-Round Littérateur | Always Rhetorical

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