Awe-inspiring sights

Despite what the barely post-pimple youth at the supermarket checkout may tell you, it is not in fact “awesome” when you pay for your groceries. Neither is a new t-shirt “awesome” nor a waiter placing your coffee on your table. “Awesome” is a pounding sea breaking over a timeless headland, a flock of pelicans flying in faultless formation, or sunset over a moonless desert. We have devalued the word “awesome” to it becoming a mere pleasantry but that doesn’t mean that awe has lost its psychological power. In fact, new research is showing that the experience of truly awesome sights can generate a spiritual or supernatural belief.

The study began by showing people either awe-inspiring scenes from the BBC’s Planet Earth series or neutral news-based interviews. The subjects were then evaluated for how much awe they were feeling and whether they believed that events unfold according to God’s plan or some other non-human entity’s plan.

People who had watched awe-inspiring natural scenes were more likely to believe in God, even when the awe-inspiring sights had been of impossible events like a waterfall cascading through city streets.

In another study it emerged that people who watched awe-inspiring events became increasingly intolerant of uncertainty. Again, this led to a belief in spiritual and supernatural control. In another experiment people who watched awe-inspiring images were more likely to believe a string of random numbers had been designed by a human hand.

So it emerges that awe-inspiring sights might be wonderful but they also make us uncertain, possibly feeling our insignificance, and so we search for meaning. We can find that meaning in God, a belief in the spiritual, a belief in the supernatural, or even a belief in science. This might also be why religions have us adopt postures that might dispose us to feelings of submission and inferiority such as kneeling, bowing, and gazing up.

This doesn’t mean that spiritual or supernatural beliefs are untrue of course. It just indicates that awesome things make us feel for spiritual things which could mean they are pointing us in the direction of truth. Awesome!

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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Do you use the word awesome?

Some perfectly good words have been taken up by popular culture and had the meaning wrung out of them in the process: awesome is one of them. The next time you hand some money over to the seventeen year old checkout dude and he comments, “Awesome”, you might respond, “Actually, Mt Kilimanjaro is awesome, all I’ve done is pay you and I haven’t even given you the right amount. I need change.” Perhaps you will be telling your office mates that you have just cleaned the office sandwich maker for the fifth time this week and when Tina the Tattoo-ed exclaims, “Awesome” you could advise, “No, birth is awesome, cleaning is just a basic civilised function.” We need to reclaim the gravity of the word awesome, not just for the sake of linguistic pugilism but because genuine “awesomeness” (thankyou Kung-Fu Panda!) has some real effects on you.

The implications of awe for the human who experiences that are have been established in a series of experiments conducted by researchers from Stanford University and the University of Minnesota. They felt that while awe seems to be a universal emotion it has been sparsely studied.

The results of their research showed that awe-inspiring moments made the person who experienced that moment feel that they had more time available to them. They also felt more patient, less materialistic, and more willing to volunteer their time to serve others.

Awesome experiences change your subjective experience of time making it seem to pass more slowly. You are also brought more into the present moment so that life feels more satisfying than when you are contemplating the past or projecting into the future. So not only does the experience of something that is really awesome turn you into a Time Lord but your wellbeing is boosted into the bargain.

Just a note for the unwary traveller in search of awesome experiences: standing with your legs spread, raising the index and little fingers on each hand, and jiggling those hands while squealing a falsetto “Awesome!” is not, in fact, awesome behaviour at all. It is, in reality, clichéd, incredibly trite, and mildly nauseating in its banality. Sunset on the beach, dancing in the rain, lying on the grass watching the stars at midnight, on the other hand…now that’s awesome.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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