“The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.” – Steven Johnson
Do you remember that sense of wonder you felt as an innocent child? It was what triggered that peal of laughter at a game of peekaboo, that squeal of delight as your uncle stole your nose or pretended to detach his finger from his hand. You felt it even at the most commonplace of things … because you did not yet know they were common place.
With age and experience you realised what was what and those moments became fewer and far between. It is much rarer now, to feel awe strike. To experience something so beautiful, so sublime, as to feel the mixture of reverence and respect and wonder and, possibly, dread all in a moment.
Think. When was the last time you settled for the mundane, where the child in you would have stubbornly crossed their arms and stamped their feet?
Related: The Most Poetic Idea in the Universe
As a child of six or seven my family lived in lush Switzerland. And on weekends my parents would take us hiking in the Alps. I keenly remember my sense of wonder at the far-stretching mountains. The sight of rolling hills and smell of wet grass in spring; the glaring snow on jagged rocks and icy chill of winter. The all-encompassing monstrous scale. My mum used to say to me; “What do you see?”, “How does it make you feel?” “Describe it to me.”
I think she was training me, perhaps unknowingly, to heighten my sense of the sublime. But I never really understood it, linguistically speaking, until I read the works of the Romantic poets – Shelley, Blake, Keats, Byron – whose pantheistic visions were so articulately rendered.
These were my formative years – neurologically speaking – and perhaps my synaptic tendency towards awe was cemented then, so that it never really left me.
Today, when I listen to the likes of astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson celebrating the astounding fact that we are “the enriched guts of the universe”, I share in his awe. When I internalise Ross Anderson’s articulation that “the Hubble has given us nothing less than an otological awakening… [that] gazing upon the famous deep field photograph literally allows us, to mainline the whole of time through the optic nerve”, I rejoice.
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Have you ever read William Wordsworth s poem, “My Heart Leaps Up” (1807)?
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky.
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
Wordsworth held childhood in high esteem and frequently wrote about the value of innocence. His wish for our childlike selves to be “bound” to their grown-up versions is precisely what filmmaker Jason Silva is getting at. Though, centuries later, one can now feasibly translate Wordsworth’s “natural piety” as “biological advantage”. Silva explains that he was influenced by the ideas of psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, who wrote The Biological Advantage of Being Awestruck, in which it says, “being enchanted by the magic of experience, rather than being just an aid to survival, provides an essential incentive to survive.”. Mr Silva argues:
“our ability to awe was biologically selected for by evolution because it imbues our lives with sense of cosmic significance that has resulted in a species that works harder not just to survive but to flourish and thrive…”
This view is further inspired by a Stanford study called Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being that you can find it here. Scientists Melanie Rudd, Kathleen D. Vohs, Jennifer Aaker wrote the following abstract:
When do people feel as if they are rich in time? Not often, research and daily experience suggest. However, three experiments showed that participants who felt awe, relative to other emotions, felt they had more time available and were less impatient. Participants who experienced awe were also more willing to volunteer their time to help others, more strongly preferred experiences over material products, and experienced a greater boost in life satisfaction. Mediation analyses revealed that these changes in decision making and well-being were due to awe’s ability to alter the subjective experience of time. Experiences of awe bring people into the present moment, which underlies awe’s capacity to adjust time perception, influence decisions, and make life feel more satisfying than it would otherwise.
If this is true, our tendency to feel wonder is wired into our fibres so as to be a driving factor in our species’ evolution. According to Silva, we are confronted with such “perceptual vastness that you literally have to reconfigure – upgrade – your mental schemata just to accomodate… the scale of the experience”. It’s not illogical to consider this reconfiguration goes on in the temporal lobe, which is responsible for higher cognitive function, and as such drives a boost in intelligence.
Whatever the neurological activity that produces awe, it seems to directly correspond to compassion, empathy and satisfaction and intelligence. So thanks, Mum, for helping me forge the tools to be a better human being.
Related: The Magical Mystery Show of Consciousness [WSJ]
This article by Alexander Phillips was previously published on the Urban Times on September, 6, 2012