The importance of Awe!

I was going to entitle this entire blog site “Awesome Antarctica” because it relates to how I feel about many of my Antarctic experiences and because it ties into the book I have just written. But then I realized my blog was going to cover a wide variety of topics unrelated to Antarctica. Also, the word “awesome” is so overused these days that it has lost much of its power. However, the feeling of awe is more important than most people realize. In fact, it has become the topic of a number of psychological studies.

Scientists think that one of the reasons why we as humans experience the feeling of awe is because such a transcendent experience helps us think more about beauty, nature and humanity. Studies have shown that such feelings help us think more of others and less about ourselves. In an evolutionary sense, it has helped us realize that we are part of something larger, part of a group. And that has aided in our survival as we began to live in social collectives.

Studies also show that the experience of awe helps to stimulate feelings of wonder and curiosity, which undoubtedly has led to numerous important discoveries to advance civilization.

I’ve not seen any studies about when feelings of awe begin, but I think they begin early in life. When my lovely granddaughter, Emily, was only fifteen months old, she ended up having to watch a home video. I assumed she would find it thoroughly boring. I took the video when my wife and I traveled to France along with a small group of adults. I didn’t think Emily would have any interest in such things as cathedrals, medieval towns or World War II battle sites. I guessed the only reason why she didn’t start squirming right away was because she was comfortable resting in grandma’s arms while she quietly sucked on her bottle and passively watched the video. Twenty-five minutes later the video showed a scene of Monet’s Garden— a classical shot of an arched bridge over a reflective pond filled with lily pads and surrounded by flowering trees. Emily suddenly sat upright, dropped her bottle and said “Wow.” I didn’t even know that word was part of her limited vocabulary. There was no doubt in my mind that she was awestruck by the beauty of the scene. And I was similarly awed by her reaction, not only because it was so unexpected and so welcome, but also because I realized we both shared the same sense of beauty. In a sense, the same shared humanity.