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How We Live Now: Dacher Keltner on awe, humility and purpose
The wonder and fathomlessness of awe as a human emotion
I stumbled across Dacher Keltner’s work when I was first researching Enchantment. At the time, it was a completely different book based around the concept of humility, and I was trawling Google Scholar for papers that backed up my hypothesis that humility was a vital component of a good life. What I found took me in a completely different direction. Dacher and his colleagues certainly valued humility, but they linked it to awe.
They saw clearly that experiencing awe induced a feeling of being small within a vast universe - a radical shift into context. We humans spend a lot of time forgetting that we’re one in eight billion, and when we remember it, it changes us. By absorbing ourselves in awe, we become better people, more motivated to go out and do good. It’s similar to the ego dissolution that Michael Pollan writes about when he explores psychedelics (you can listen to my On Being interview with him here): when you experience being nothing, you make a deep connection to everything.
This set off a train of thought that made me realise that humility was just one of the qualities I was seeking at this point in my life, and at this point in history. Eventually, through many winding paths, it led me to explore awe as an everyday practice in my own book. Then, just I was was gearing up for the publication of Enchantment, I realised that Dacher was publishing a book about the very topic that had inspired me. So, for the final episode in this enchantment-focused season of How We Live Now, I’m honoured to close the loop and speak to Dacher Keltner about Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life.
Dacher is a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and the director of the Greater Good Science Center. He has more than 200 scientific publications and six books, including Born to Be Good, The Compassionate Instinct, and The Power Paradox. He has written for many popular outlets, from The New York Times to Slate. He was also the scientific advisor behind Pixar’s Inside Out.
Awe is a fascinating human emotion, one that speaks of connection, fluidity, attention and contemplation. But it also touches the ineffable. We don’t have words to describe the exchange that happens when we experience awe. It is, by nature, fathomless. Here, we try to put it into words.
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From the transcript
What's the first big memory of awe that you kind of conjure when you're thinking about that huge life changing moment?
Early on, I had these experiences camping when I was six or seven, and for ever after, I've found meaning in camping. I just freaked out with awe when I was a young kid outside of the LA County Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, there's this reenactment of a saber-tooth tiger and a wooly mammoth in the tar. And as a kid I was like, "There were beings like those things?" I got fascinated with dinosaurs, and evolution, and science. I remember seeing Nelson Mandela freed from captivity. He was making this tour in the 1980s, and being there with 50,000 people, and thinking about the end of apartheid I just started crying. It's interesting to think about the big sources and then the everyday forms of awe.
Yeah, the shifts. So what are the bodily signs that we're experiencing awe? What is happening, and how do we sense it?
What a terrific question. William James, a great philosopher in America, really wrote about the bodily responses of awe. I love Walt Whitman writing about the soul being in the body, and that begs the question of, does this transcendent emotion of awe have bodily sensations associated with it? There's been a lot of progress on that very question. It's interesting. When people hear I study awe, some of them are like, "God, I don't quite know if I've had an experience of awe, but let me tell you about one. I was walking along and then I saw Brad Pitt and I got to give him a hug or whatever."
That's different to awe.
Yeah. OK, well maybe. Let me think of another example. "I saw this comet pseudo sort of..." And then they'll describe these bodily sensations of you tear up, which is a regular response of awe. You vocalise, that's a bodily response. "Whoa." You get this warm feeling in your chest; that is the vagus nerve that's activated by awe, which is this big bundle of nerves scientists are increasingly interested in that sort of slows your heart rate, deepens your breathing, calms your body. And then let's not forget the goosebumps. The chills are these little tingly sensations up your back and your neck and your arms that people feel with awe that are a very ancient mammalian physiological reaction where your muscles contract, fluffing up your fur if you have fur.
As I write about in this book, those aren't just random responses. Those are all part of this broader physiological response where you become more open to the world, more curious, and more interested in connecting with other people, which is right at the essence of awe.
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