Leiden Law Blog

The relevance of experiencing awe

The relevance of experiencing awe

Most of us are familiar with powerful experiences that for a brief moment completely dissolve our sense of separation. They could be triggered by various events, for instance by listening to a wonderful piece of music or looking at an impressive painting. But for me, in this respect, nothing compares to being confronted (unexpectedly) with majestic natural scenery – with overwhelming landscapes. The English language has a beautiful word for the kinds of experiences I am referring to: awe. This short word very aptly expresses the fact that they leave us quite speechless. We are only beginning to realise the relevance of these experiences.

More regard for the needs of others

The American psychologist Dacher Keltner and some of his colleagues have done some very interesting, groundbreaking research into the experience of awe. Their research has made it clear that ‘awe imbues people with a different sense of themselves, one that is smaller, more humble and part of something larger. Our research finds that even brief experiences of awe, such as being amid beautiful tall trees, lead people to feel less narcissistic and entitled and more attuned to the common humanity people share with one another. In the great balancing act of our social lives, between the gratification of self-interest and a concern for others, fleeting experiences of awe redefine the self in terms of the collective, and orient our actions toward the needs of those around us’.

Crime and empathy

Experiences of awe often appear to make people more friendly and empathic. Since there is a relationship between lack of empathy and crime, we may wonder whether criminals who regularly experience awe would become less criminal. Could these kinds of experiences transform them into ‘better’, more law-abiding citizens? Interestingly, it has been argued that ‘nature-deficit’, a lack of confrontation with nature, might stimulate criminal behaviour. So might – on the other hand – decreasing this ‘nature-deficit’ then help to reduce crime? If this is true, it could have great significance for the legal authorities.  

Being awe-deprived

Unfortunately, however, our modern society doesn’t really help us to experience awe. According to Dacher Keltner and his colleagues, most people in Western countries are awe-deprived.  They point out that nowadays both adults and children spend less time outdoors, or going to art events. There might indeed be a recent downfall in this regard, due to the rise of comfortable homes and digital communication. But if we go back in history – say a few thousand years – for the majority of our distant ancestors there was much less indoor comfort and definitely a lot more time spent outdoors. Being regularly triggered by experiences of awe might have been quite common to them, and have given them an expanded sense of self, an intimate connection to their natural environment. Because of this, they might have been more empathic towards their fellow human beings than we modern, awe-deprived humans.  

Reconnecting to our roots

So if collectively we have had more direct and widespread access to this expanded sense of self in the distant past, we can imagine that it was gradually driven to the background when the ego started to dominate the human world from about 6000 years ago – as has been described so well by Steve Taylor in his book The Fall. Thinking a little further along this line, we might wonder whether experiences of awe in fact reawaken this very ancient awareness in us – an awareness which existed before language evolved, and can still leave us speechless in 2018! They can make us realise how thin the surface of our sense of separation actually is when it can be dissolved that easily. Who knows, Mother Nature herself offers us these experiences of awe every now and then to help us heal our sense of alienation and to reconnect to our roots – to help us remember who we actually are!

The ego and awareness knob

Although all experiences of awe are of course temporary and always fade away, they tend to leave residues in our minds, strong reminders that we are not just separated selves,  mere egos, but at a deeper level interconnected beings – that essentially we have a dual nature. In this respect, Anita Moorjani has suggested (in her book What if this is Heaven?) that we all possess two remote control knobs, an ego and an awareness knob, which are both at level 10 when we are born. I’d say that the ego knob only evolves after a few years, but this doesn’t take away the power of her imagery. According to her, through our awareness we know ‘that we are far more expansive, more powerful, and more magnificent than we have ever been led to believe.’ She further argues: ‘If someone has a high ego volume, making them appear to be overly egotistical, they just need to be encouraged to turn up the volume of their awareness and allow them to feel connected with everyone else again.’

Turning up the awareness knob

Interestingly, Moorjani points out that no one is excluded from having both knobs, however much the volume of the awareness knob might have been turned down to almost zero – as for instance might be the case with criminals. In their case, it is particularly important not to focus on trying to turn down the ego knob, but on trying to create opportunities that will turn up the awareness knob. This is where the experiences of awe come in. If we believe in their healing power, we can see that projects to take prisoners out of their cells and confront them with wild scenery, preferably even for longer periods, make a lot of sense. When Mother Nature provides them with experiences of awe – thereby turning up the volume of their awareness knob – the results can only be beneficial.

The general message is, of course, that we can all contribute to making the modern world a nicer place to live in by spending a little more time outdoors in natural environments – and in the process exposing ourselves to potentially transformative experiences of awe.

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Photo: a panoramic view over the bay of San Sebastian in Spain

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