Natural Awe

Back in my dues-paying years, I worked at a historic Vanderbilt mansion in Western NC called the Biltmore House. Its decorating scheme might best be called “late gilded age opulence.” There is more texture, color and pattern on the ceiling than most people see in their entire house. And their entire house might fit onto the entry foyer.

Many people find this overwhelming. They walk in and find their eyes pulled in a hundred different directions. Having spent their lives living with a much more streamlined modern esthetic, they are stunned by the amount of visual stimuli spread out over such a vast area.

Their jaws drop, they wander too and fro, they try to process all they’re seeing. The marketing department called it “the Enchantment.” Another name for it would be “awe”.

Over at The Atlantic, Cayte Bosler has an article up about the nature and effects of the experience of awe. Working from a study published in Psychological Science last year, she gives a thumbnail sketch of what awe is:

The study describes awe as an experience of such perceptual expansion that you need new mental maps to deal with the incomprehensibility of it all.

“The experience of awe is one where you are temporarily off-kilter in terms of your understanding of the world,” explains [researcher Kathleen] Vohs. “People mostly walk around with a sense of knowing what is going on in the world. They have hypotheses about the way people behave and what might happen; those are pretty air-tight. It is hard to get people to shake from those because that’s just how the brain works. We are always walking around trying to confirm the things we already think. When you are in a state of awe, it puts you off balance and as a consequence, we think people might be ready to learn new things and have some of their assumptions questioned.”

This is something I wish we could get across to Oprah and Time magazine. Awe is a natural phenomena that is interesting in itself, and the experience of it doesn’t gain anything by linking it to muddy concepts like “spirituality.” Telling people that every experience of awe is a brush with the divine seems to me to actually cheapen both the experience and the divine.


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