Episode 2: Is Awe the Secret Sauce to Nature Connection? Feat. Dr. Michelle Shiota, Professor at ASU
Is Awe the Secret Sauce to Nature Connection? Featuring Dr. Michelle Shiota, Professor at ASU.
Episode 02: Show Notes
Today we talk to Dr. Michelle Shiota, Lab Director and Principal Investigator in the SPLAT Lab at Arizona State University. SPLAT stands for Shiota Psychophysiology Laboratory for Effective Testing. It’s a social psychology lab that conducts research on the nature an implications of human emotion, using a multi-method approach that integrates physiological, behavioral, cognitive, narrative and questionnaire measures of emotional responding. I wanted to know if awe has any connection to the healing benefits of nature? So it would make sense that Dr. Shiota be the right person to ask! Dr. Shiota received her BA in Communications from Stanford University and her PhD in Social Personality Psychology from UC Berkeley. Her research is published in high impact journals, such as: Cognition and Emotion. Today, we discuss the physiological measures of awe and discover whether we can determine someone’s emotion from their physiology. An insightful episode about our body’s reaction to perception, the science of emotion, empathy and ultimately, all that could – or could not be – awe. Take a listen!
Key Points From This Episode:
• The physiological measures of awe.
• The Threat Challenge Distinction.
• The effect of perception on physiology.
• Sympathetic versus parasympathetic nervous system.
• Can you determine someone's emotion from their physiology?
• Awe’s function in forming mental maps of the world.
• Creating new schema through accommodation and vastness.
• Could awe be a personal trait?
• Cultivating a beginner’s mind.
• The relationship between awe and mindfulness.
• Physiological reactions to digital screens.
• Is nature inherently awe eliciting?
• The connection between awe and empathy.
• And much more!
“The ways that you interpret the same thing can show up in your physiology.” — M. Shiota [0:09:40.0]
“Can you just tell from someone's physiology what emotion they’re feeling? The answer is no.” — M. Shiota [0:14:20.0]
“When people talk about times when they’ve felt awe, they talk about things that blew their mind.” — M. Shiota [0:29:35.0]
“We may be unwillingly expressing traits that make us less likely than others to benefit from awe.” — K. Lockhart [0:30:34.0]
“What I found is that people who are awe prone are low on need for cognitive closure.” — M. Shiota [0:33:42.0]
“Awe is kind of like an environmentally evoked mindfulness state.” — M. Shiota [0:37:32.0]
“It wouldn’t kill you for five minutes a day to look at something in a way that you've never looked at it before.” — M. Shiota [0:41:32.0]
Links Mentioned in Today’s Episode:
Awe in the Raw – https://www.katherinelockhart.com/podcast/
Kate Lockhart on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/tonicpublishing
SPLAT Lab on Twitter – https://twitter.com/TheSplatLab
Dacher Keltner – http://psychology.berkeley.edu/people/dacher-keltner
Carlo Valdesolo – http://www.valdesolo.com/Cognition and Emotion Journal – https://www.researchgate.net/journal/0269-9931_Cognition_and_Emotion
EPISODE 02: TRANSCRIPT
[0:00:11.4] KL: You’re listening to Awe in the Raw, I’m your host, non-fiction author, Kate Lockhart. This show lifts the curtain on natures quiet dance with the human mind as I take you through the process of researching and planning my next book and what I reveal is pretty risqué. That is, if you’re a nerd like me, who gets off on interviews with scientists, authors, artists and trailblazers, all asking the burning question: ‘How can we live more happily connected to nature, ourselves and each other?’ Yeah, I know, it sounds pretty corny actually but it may just be the most revolutionary idea of our times.
Stick around and you’ll overhear wildly diverse conversations, positive psychology, neuroscience, integral ecology, animal rights, non-violence, addiction, thrill-seeking, enlightenment, oppression and futurism in abundance. Every season will explore a different angle for a new book with an episode released every Friday for you weekend pleasure. This season we tease out the power and promise of awe. I recommend you start at Episode 01.
And now away we go.
[0:01:24.4] KL: This show happens for you and because of you, so my warm thanks goes out to everyone who supports it through subscribes, views, shares and donations. If you also enjoy the content, consider hitting the subscribe button on Pod Catcher, It’s a free and easy way to say “Hey, keep up the good work.” And if you want to play a larger part in running the show, head to patriot.com/katelockhart. Where your pledge of a dollar an episode buys quality editing for the show and exclusive monthly Q&A’s for you. Win win, is good good.
[0:02:04.1] KL: Today we talk to Dr. Michelle Shiota, Lab Director and Principal Investigator in the SPLAT Lab at Arizona State University. SPLAT stands for Shiota Psychophysiology Laboratory for Effective Testing. It’s a social psychology lab that conducts research on the nature an implications of human emotion. Using a multi-method approach that integrates physiological, behavioral, cognitive, narrative and questionnaire measures of emotional responding. It has four core themes: positive emotions, emotional processes and close relationships, emotion regulation and last but not least, awe. Which is why I’ve tracked her down. I want to know if awe has any connection to the healing benefits of nature. Scientifically speaking. Dr. Shiota received her BA in Communications from Stanford University and her PHD in Social Personality Psychology from UC Berkeley. Her research is published in high impact journals, such as: Cognition and Emotion, and has been funded by the John Templeton Foundation and the national Institute of Health. If that weren’t enough, she also teaches jazz and ballet at a local dance studio, is a proud member of Bay Area Flashmob, and is the lead vocalist for the San Francisco based Blues Disaster. And she is hardcore about data.
Now I have a secret I’ve never shared before. I actually find hardcore scientists incredibly endearing. They go about their lives having taken a solemn oath to their data. In sickness and in health they remain loyal and true. If their data turns around and spits on them, tells them they were completely wrong all along, they publish a paper about it. If the data suggests they might be on the right track but have so many things to learn, they say “Thanks, I needed to hear that.” And they devise a new study. If their data turns solid and robust they tell the world with a glowing pride that only comes with love. And when some well-meaning third party bumbles onto the scene and acts like they know their data more than their tireless lover, well, that tireless lover makes it clear that their data won’t be misunderstood. We hear things like...
[0:04:20.1] LS: “This is not an area where I want to overstate what we’ve found. Theories in science are fundamentally there to help us ask questions, develop hypothesis and collect data. And use the data to poke at the theory. And go ‘Okay, well it could be this or that aspect. Can we expand the theory? Was this part of the theory wrong? The rest seems right.’ That sort of thing.”
“Okay. Complicated question. So I’m going to go ahead and unpack that a little bit. The proposal, the initial proposal about — Let me back this up a little bit. It’s tricky, because this is one of those areas where there's actually not very much data, and the data are of the kind where — And I'm not accusing the researchers of this. Researchers are usually super, super cautious about what they claim about their own findings, but you go one degree of separation away from that and the claim is just to expand all over the place.
“So the things that the data suggest are that – I would like to see that replicated in more studies before we’re both super confident about that. Partly because the effect was no longer significant when you control for breathing and there's some funky stuff that goes on with your breathing. Maybe. That's kind of an idea that we’re just starting to tinker with. Again, I need data for —"
[0:05:38.1] KL: If only we could all find a partner who so devoutly, so tenderly, so fiercely lived and died for us. So when I hear a statement like this…
[0:05:51.1] LS: “The sympathetic finding, I'm pretty confident about. That was a really solid and very unexpected finding. It doesn't look like any other positive emotion that I know of, except –“
[0:06:07.1] KL: I perk up significantly, statistically significantly in fact. So we delve into the world of awe as seen by a hardcore emotion researcher. And discover that what we don’t know could be even more interesting than what we do.
There’s an emerging field of science called Epigenetics, that among other things, points out how our mental perceptions can affect out physical wellbeing. Historically, such mind-body concerns have been relegated to alternative medicine or new age philosophy. But there is no doubt that the emotions we feel dictate our physiological responses. This matters when we talk about applying emotion research to health treatments. In other words, if I want to know if awe can help people connect, to nature, themselves and others as a way of healing from trauma, addiction, depression, anxiety, ADHD, obesity, heart disease, etcetera. Then we first need to understand how awe impacts our physiology.
[0:07:10.1] KL: “Yeah. I had question, and that kind of goes into the next question about more of the physiology and the physiological measures of awe. I think this is really interesting, because what you’re saying is that one of the things that affects awe the most is just like any other emotion, your perception is filtering that. If your perception is filtering it in one way or the other, that in turn affects your physiology, right? If you're perceiving something as a threat as supposed to something amazing, you're going to have the physiological response to threat as apposed to amazing.”
[0:07:47.7] LS: “Correct. In fact, one of the places where there’s really strong research in terms of physiology and emotion is it's called The Threat Challenge Distinction. You put people in a stressful situation, and if you just give them the instruction — If you emphasize to them that the task they — We often use this. It’s called a mental arithmetic task. It’s a serial subtraction task — And nobody likes doing math, right? But no one likes doing math where you’re doing it out loud and people are telling you you’re wrong all the wrong time. This isn’t what this this task is.”
[0:08:14.7] KL: “Oh God.”
[0:08:15.2] LS: “Okay. Basically, imagine you're sitting in a lab with sensors. You're hooked up to sensors and someone’s on the other side of an intercom with sort of cold voice saying, “Your starting number 1732. Start subtracting 17 from that over and over and over again. You have to go as quickly as you can. You can’t make a mistake. When you make a mistake I will stop you and you’ll have to start over again,” and you do that for like two minutes. It’s not fun. People do show stress response.
If you just give them that instruction and say, “It's important to be accurate. This is going to be difficult. It’s important that you do it accurately and as quickly as possible. They show a classic fight/flight response. Their blood pressure goes up. Their heart rate goes up. Their sympathetic nervous system activates.
If you give them the same task and the same instructions but just say, “Just think of this as a challenge and think of yourself as someone capable of overcoming that challenge.” What they show is arousal, cardiac arousal. Their heart beats faster and harder, but their arteries actually relax instead. It's just a different profile and it doesn't classify well into fight/flight versus not fight/flight. That distinction doesn't even really mean all that much anymore or learning about how the peripheral nervous system works. But that distinction is pretty clear-cut and it's just a really good example of how the way that you interpret the same thing can show up in your physiology.”
[0:09:44.9] KL: “That’s amazing. I love that, because it’s something that I think that a lot of people have sort of felt or known to be true, but science hasn't really caught up to that sort of wisdom or tribal wisdom about certain things. That doesn’t feel the same, or perceptions can change how your body reacts and that kind of thing. It’s just fascinating.”
[0:10:12.1] LS: “I know. Emotion researchers will not disagree with you that how you perceive things change how your body is reacting. How you see things change is how your body reacts a lot, a lot.”
[0:10:20.1] KL: So it’s not secret in the social science community that our mental perceptions change how our bodies react on a physiological level. Certainly this matters when it comes to managing stress and anger and even diseases such as cancer. And now we can explore how this illuminates our understanding of awe. But first, I have to hear about that unexpected and solid finding that Dr. Shiota referred to earlier…
[0:10:56.0] KL: “Awe, going back to awe’s special markers, think it sounds like the research is still trying to really figure out what the unique markers of awe are.”
[0:11:02.5] LS: “Very much so. This is not an area where I want to overstate what we found.”
[0:11:04.1] KL: “Yeah. Absolutely. It does like there's a situation where the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems both kind of decrease. They kind of ramp down when in an awe state, which is unusual, right?”
[0:11:16.1] LS: “Yeah. A couple of things. The sympathetic finding, I'm pretty confident about. That was a really solid and very unexpected finding. It doesn't look like any other positive emotion that I know of, except maybe contentment. It's actually hard to get real contentment in the laboratory, believe it or not.
As a state of change, it's like you can be neutral and then like contentedly neutral, but that's not — It's not something that you can suddenly induce in the lab. Having said that, that's the one other candidate for something that may decrease sympathetic nervous system activation. Most of their positive emotions increase sympathetic activation, which kind of make sense, because most positive emotions are elicited by some reward out there in the environment that you should move toward, and movement requires activation, right? Glucose and oxygen and blood moving through the system and of all that stuff in order to move. This is helping you do that.
As you said, awe seems more geared toward making you stop. In the interesting about that is the very, very tentative. I really want to emphasize this finding that we had that it may actually reduce parasympathetic activation. I would like to see that replicated in more studies before we’re super confident about that. Partly because the effect was no longer significant when you control for breathing and there's some funky stuff that goes on with your breathing.
However, if that is the case, the way that a colleague and friend of mine talked about it is that when you are in a physically aroused stage, very aroused state, often what's happening, especially if physical exertion is involved, often what’s happening is that actually both your sympathetic and your parasympathetic systems are amped up.
The sympathetic just to crank up your activation levels, but the parasympathetic, to fine tune. The parasympathetic can respond much more quickly and in a fine-grained way than the sympathetic can. It’s almost like the sympathetic system is activating to handle the mean levels and parasympathetic is fine-tuning.
If the exertion stops, you don't need either of those to be quite as cranked up. This is the way that he put it.”
[0:13:15.1] KL: Most of us inherently understand the sympathetic nervous system. The well-known fight or flight mechanism. That makes our heart pound, our palms sweat, our pupils dilate. A host of stress response hormones activate. The parasympathetic nervous system is more subtle by design. It’s the rest and digest function that sends pro social hormones out into our blood stream, so we’re more likely to feel calm, relaxed, open, cuddly. But as Dr. Shiota mentions, these are not either or systems but rather ones that work together in a dance. One a bit too complex to place any definite conclusions on, apparently.
[0:14:11.7] LS: “Can we use physiology to verify an awe state?” The answer is no.”
[0:14:14.4] KL: “Yeah. Bummer.”
[0:14:17.9] LS: “Just to be super clear. Everybody wants to know this. Can you just tell from someone's physiology what emotion they’re feeling? No. There’s no ambiguity about this at all. The answer is no. We can't do that, and I can tell you more about why that is later, but I don't think that we need to. People know perfectly when they’re in an awe state.
I think the question of when people get into awe state and how long they spend there is where we have some really interesting work to do. It hasn't yet been done.”
[0:14:46.1] KL: Ooh, now we’re talking. And just to spice things up, let’s go beyond the when and how and ask, why?
What would the evolutionary reasons be for adapting such a unique response. Sure, we may just be starting to recognize the physiological effects associated with awe. And I heard it loud and clear that we can’t use physiological reactions as indicators of any physical emotion. But I had to at least ask, why do we feel awe anyway?
[0:15:21.4] LS: “I'm not 100% confident of this, but you sort of asked in one of your questions what the function of this response might be. This gets to be super hypothetical, because what you're asking me to do is go back in time and say, ‘Given what we know about this emotion, why might this characteristic have emerged?’
The only thing that I can say is that when we ask people to describe an awe-eliciting situation, at least in the United States, the most common response is a view from a high place. Once you get away from video and television and photographs and stuff, the only way you see a view from high places is by climbing to a high place. Some physical exertion would've been necessary to get to where you are suddenly in a high place looking over a vast new area. That would be awe-eliciting. It would be a novel, very, very large vast and potentially quite important piece of information to start taking in.
Right. You would stop behaviorally. You would stop moving. Your body would have a chance to kind of stop whatever arousal it had cranked up in order to deal with that. Then, arguably, for a species that roamed around and migrated as much as our did, those kind of situations would be opportunities to basically construct a mental map of your environment, and that’s a game changer. That’s a game changer. Being able to imagine in your mind, “Okay, this lake, relative to that mountain, relative to the fields where we found the really good trees, and this stream, and where the fish.” Again, and to have that opportunity to construct one big picture of where everything is relative to everything else. That might — Might, maybe, I don't know, and we’ll never be sure. It's the kind of theory that, again, we go, ‘Okay. If that's what happened, then what should this emotion look like?’ That’s sort of where we go from there.”
[0:17:34.1] KL: Those things like vastness and taking in new information come straight from a research paper by Dacher Keltner and John Hait published in 2003. Which served for the foundation of the very definition of awe, in scientific terms.
[0:17:50.4] KL: “I'm just curious then, what is awe really doing for us? What is it that’s so valuable about it? Is it something that we can actually — The things that you're discovering through your research and your colleagues, is it something that you can see a clear path to actually treating people?”
[0:18:10.2] LS: “Okay. Complicated question. So I’m going to go ahead and unpack that a little bit. The proposal, the initial proposal about — Let me back this up a little bit. When that Keltner and Hait 2003 paper, there were sort of multiple proposals. Not always explicit about what the function of awe might be. Dacher and John really emphasized social hierarchy actually in their articulation of what the function of awe might be, because they were focusing on the sociological literature. In which leaders had used awe as a way of getting buy-in from the people following them without having to resort to violence, and I buy that. I think that's accurate.
When we talk about the functions of emotions, we can talk about them in many different levels. We can talk about it at the individual level, at the dyadic level, and we could talk about it at the societal level. When they were talking about the function of awe in groups and large-scale societies, I buy that that is one important function that it may serve. I have actually focused in my research on a different one, and that is embedded in this need for accommodation idea. That awe may be a state that our mind snaps into when it is presented with something extraordinary, but importance. Facilitates our taking that information in for the future so that we can use it, because that's pretty much one of the —
There are multiple characteristics that define the human species, but this idea, this ability to form mental maps of the world around us. Operate on those so that we can make decisions and think through possible courses of action without physically having to do it. That's a whopper. Awe may actually help us to form those kinds of cognitive structures.”
[0:20:08.7] KL: “I could see that, because it really does physically make you pause and you really get quiet usually, and that’s kind of one of the other things.”
[0:20:24.7] LS: “You orient toward the thing that’s eliciting the awe. People often report actively trying to memorize it.”
[0:20:27.8] KL: “That’s true. Thinking like I don't ever want to forget this image, or whatever it is. Interesting. I like that.”
[0:20:36.1] KL: You may have guessed that I was the kid in school always asking, “Why?” It just didn’t seem right to get one tiny puzzle piece and ask me to fit it into its neighboring pieces without also showing me the image on the puzzle box. Sure I can fit the pieces together, but I want the big picture first. And I was satisfied enough with this one, to move onto the little pieces.
[0:21:07.1] KL: “I wanted to start just with what your definition is, because I know so many people have different definitions scientifically, and in your community there's some pretty clear outlines for what awe is, or what constitutes awe.”
[0:21:19.2] LS: “Yeah, there really are, and you mentioned in the question that you’ve sent, the Keltner and Hait 2003 paper, that has really become a foundation for developing theory around what this emotion is and why we have it. My definition is strongly grounded in what they proposed, which is that awe is an emotion that we experience in response to perceived vastness and the need for accommodation. The term accommodation, in a sense, it’s actually a very specific cognitive and developmental psychology term, which means that it's in contrast with assimilation rights. Jean Piaget, in studying the cognitive development of young children, said there seem to be two modes with which they approached world. There’s assimilation when they sort of have a behavioral or cognitive routine and they’re just doing that thing over and over and over again.
I have a young niece who is now six months old and the way that she engages with the world is like putting it in her mouth. You get something, well you put in your mouth. That’s what you do with things. That’s assimilating. She’s just doing what you do to engage with the world. The truth is as adults we go through the world mostly assimilating too. It would be very overwhelming if we tried to process every stimulus that came at us as though it were something new. With adults, we have behavioral routines, and when we drive to work, we’re sort of following a routine. When we go to the grocery store, we’re following a routine. When we get up in the morning, we’re following routine. Much of what we do at work involves sort of going through the routine and taking in the necessary information to complete that routine and kind of closing out everything else. We’re filtering out information that we don't need for our immediate purposes and focusing on the information that we do need for our immediate purposes and making a lot of assumptions about what’s going around us.”
[0:23:19.1] KL: What she is describing here is basically the foundation for stereotypes and snap judgements. In essence, the shortcuts that our brains take to process the megatons of information coming at us from the environment. The paths these shortcuts follow are predetermined scripts called, schema.
[0:23:39.3] LS: “Accommodation is the opposite of that. Accommodation is the recognition that what you are faced with is somehow doesn't fit your expectations or that your filters are not appropriate for what you're dealing with, and so instead you interrupt your routine. Whether it is a behavior routine, or cognitive filter, or habit, or both. You kind of go and you start from scratch and you go, “What is this thing that I'm looking at here?” You are open to changing, primarily, your mind, your way of thinking about or understanding what is going that’s going on around you.
What Keltner and Hait were saying is that when we are exposed to these very, very fast stimuli, especially if we hadn’t seen them before and we don't have kind of mental script for what it's supposed to be. We stop relying on our mental scripts and we start taking in information instead. That's fundamentally what accommodation is in this context. It’s just taking in tons of information about whatever is in front of us.”
[0:24:43.2] KL: “And sort of creating new rules, so to speak, in your minds to say, “Okay. I'm trying to kind of situate this, but I'm creating a new guideline for this.”
[0:24:53.3] LS: “Yeah, creating a new schema is the term that we use. It's new mental structure for this new thing that you've encountered. It doesn’t have to be – people often talk about accommodation and assimilation as though they were – you’re in one state or the other state. The truth is we’re sort of doing them both to some extent all the time but you can change the proportions. Awe is probably something that pushes us toward accommodation in terms of taking in more information from the environment and relying less on knowledge that we've already stored to understand what’s happening.”
[0:25:28.1] KL: “This is when people take a step back and go, ‘Whoa!’”
[0:25:29.8] LS: “Yeah, exactly.”
[0:25:29.1] KL: I should know it here that this process of accommodation is rare. Few exceptions or experiences provoke our ability to do this. Which means that most of the time, experiences are fast-tracked through our brains via the unconscious pathways whose very purpose is to assimilate everything that is unfamiliar into something that is already familiar. This means that we are rarely seeing things from a truly new perspective. This might not be a good thing in a diverse global community with high levels of conflict.
[0:25:59.1] KL: “Okay. Then the other side of that is vastness. The other kind of component of awe is —"
[0:26:08.8] LS: “Right, it’s this component of vastness. That’s where I've tinkered with things a little bit more. They were really drawing heavily from literature and sociology and religious studies to come up with that proposal. As we’ve gotten more data, I’ve started moving them around to, yes, vastness, but for one thing it doesn't have to be physical vastness. It can be conceptual vastness. I've moved away a little bit from using the term vast to using the term extraordinary and sort of breaking that word down in extra outside of ordinary, right? We are faced with something that is outside of, or challenges are ordinary experience.”
[0:26:51.5] KL: “How is that different from accommodation? That's where I was trying to understand some things to me, like looking at the ocean, for instance, like that vast. I don't find that I'm necessarily trying to accommodate, and yet that's considered —That I could definitely say I’ve had awe experiences looking at the ocean.”
[0:27:09.8] LS: “It’s a good question. For one thing, it’s not necessary to assume that every time you look at the ocean you’ll feel awe. One of the fundamental principles in emotion theory, emotion researchers are arguing with each other all the time about a whole bunch of different stuff, but there's one thing that nobody argues about, and that’s that our emotional responses are to our — We call them appraisals of stimuli. Our interpretations of what stimuli mean and how they relate to us, not to their objective properties.
You and I might have completely different emotional responses to the same event depending on what we think that event means for us. If we’re talking about something like the ocean, if you live by the ocean and you're looking at the ocean all the time, there are days when you walk by it and it’s like, ‘Yep, there’s the ocean again.’”
You feel awe when you look at the ocean and you think, “Wow! That's huge, and it reminds you of — The best way I can put this is how much bigger the world is, the ocean is, the universe, the new process on a day-to-day basis.”
[0:28:27.7] KL: “In essence, you can have a sense of extraordinary, but accommodation seems to almost always follow that.”
[0:28:37.8] LS: “Right. I think a useful way to think of this is that when they proposed vastness, what I'm calling extraordinariness and accommodation, you can think of those as sort of vastness is the thing that we perceive. That’s our appraisal, and then accommodation is the result.”
[0:28:55.0] KL: “Aha! Interesting. Okay. In essence, those are two kind of processes that are related, but it's not like an either/or kind of situation.”
[0:29:08.2] LS: “No. Not at all.”
[0:29:09.4] KL: “You would have one, but not the other.”
[0:29:10.7] LS: “Totally not at all. In fact, the idea is that perceiving vastness or extraordinariness is the thing that leads to pushing the system, the cognitive system toward accommodation. What we've learned about the stimuli that people say elicit awe are consistent with this notion of extraordinariness, it doesn't — Again, they support this idea that it doesn't have to be physical vastness at all. In fact, it doesn’t have to be physical at all, but when people talk about times when they’ve felt awe, they talk about things that blew their mind. Things that expanded their sense of what is knowable. It typically has something to do with the unknown, with what is unknown out there in a very, very big way.”
[0:29:58.0] KL: “Right. Absolutely. Do drugs fall into that? I'm curious about that. The mind expanding drug, hallucinogens, that kind of thing.”
[0:30:06.1] LS: “Sure. If you are on a substance that is causing hallucinations. Again, your response to that could be anxiety. It could be calm, but it certainly could be awe.”
[0:30:21.1] KL: This is where perception, disposition and attitude have everything to do with awe. A too cool for school attitude can keep you locked out of any mind-blowing experience you might be seeking in that tough motorcycle jacket. Not only that, but we may be unwillingly expressing traits that make us less likely than others to benefit from awe.
[0:30:49.8] LS: “There are two pieces of information that on the surface might seem to contradict each other, but I actually love both of these findings and I think they work very nicely together. In my own early work, it was pretty much the first empirical paper on awe. This is one of the studies and that we found that at the trait level, people who are very awe prone, report being low on what's called ‘need for cognitive closure.’ They're comfortable with things being ambiguous. We don’t need to lock everything down. They don't need to know the rules for everything. They don't need for everything to be explained. That’s cool.
My colleague, Carlo Valdesolo, published a series of studies in which they found that awe actually promotes a tendency to ascribe agency intent, to the causes of some outcomes and rather than allowing things to be random. And one outcome of that was sometimes to increase belief in a control in God.”
[0:31:46.6] KL: “Could you just back up for a second and explain that a little bit more? What does she mean by the agency that enables one to feel like they have ownership over their actions?”
[0:31:58.2] LS: “Right. It’s he.”
[0:31:59.2] KL: “Oh, I’m sorry.”
[0:32:00.8] LS: “It’s okay. It is a complicated plane, so let me take it back. What Carlo finds is that when people are in an awe state, if they see — I’m trying to remember exactly what tasks they used, but like a sequence of random numbers or something that's confusing that could be random and you ask them to what extent is this caused by an intentional agent. If they've been in an awe state, they’re more likely to say, ‘Yes. This reflects the actions of intentional agent.’ What that agent is depends upon what options you give them. This is where I'm not remembering unfortunately, but it's actually a pretty easy study to find. The last name is V-A-L-D-E-S-O-L-O. You can find out more about the details there, but the idea is that when people are given ambiguous information and then asked, ‘Did this occur because someone or something caused it to occur or did it just happen?’
What he finds is that people are more likely to say, ‘This was caused by an intentional agent.’ Somebody made this happen rather than it's just random. Those things happen sometimes.”
[0:33:19.3] KL: “That can often be a habit of people who want cognitive closure, right?”
[0:33:22.6] LS: “Exactly. Actually, what he found is that this effect, the agency effect, is mediated by — He used a different scale, but effectually like, ‘No. I’m not comfortable with this uncertainty thing. We need to lock this down.’
It sounds like the opposite of what I found. What I found is that people who are awe prone are low on need for cognitive closure. They're fine with ambiguity. What he found is that if you put people in an awe state, their tolerance for ambiguity goes down. Actually, I think that's the scale that he used, was tolerance for ambiguity.
It seemed like they’re in opposition to each other, but I think they're not and neither does he, because I'm studying trait level stuff and he’s studying experimental states and sometimes those have funky relationships. Look at it this way, if awe makes you uncertain, which it does, and you're not dispositionally super cool with that, you’re going to look to lock things down. You’re going to look to find a way to lock things down.
I think the effect that I'm seeing is actually going in the opposite direction, where people who are dispositionally comfortable with uncertainty and don't need for things to be locked up and tied up in a pretty way cognitively. Those are people who are comfortable experiencing awe. They like experience awe. They seek out awe-inspiring experiences more and perceive the world around them in a way that has that effect.”
[0:34:54.9] KL: “They might even consider what they’re experiencing as awe as apposed to somebody who’s in the midst of trying to lock something down and get rid of the ambiguity.”
[0:35:01.7] LS: “That’s a really interesting question. I don’t know…”
[0:35:04.1] KL: Is she testing my need for cognitive closure here? Because I have questions. Okay, basically if I have a personality that doesn’t like loose ends and needs to lock things down most of the time to feel comfortable. I am not very likely to have my mind blown. But here’s the rub, because awe is an emotion, all of us experience it. But whether that leads to accommodation or a mind-blowing perspective shift, depends on whether or not I’m cool with feeling an emotion defined by ambiguity and extraordinariness. If I’m cool with it, mind blown. If I’m not cool with it, stress is comfort, anxiety, snap judgements, denial, justification and/or stereotyping ensues. So riddle me this, can we cultivate the ‘I’m cool with it’ trait? Can we cultivate a beginners mind to everything? So that it all may seem extraordinary, over and over again?
Awe and mindfulness might have a I’ll scratch your back, if you scratch mine, kind of relationship. First, mindfulness might be able to move us from experiencing the emotion of awe to the act of accommodating new information. Since mindfulness gets us to accept things as they are. And second, awe might just give us the pathway to mindful state that so many people resist. Through meditation for instance.
[0:36:49.3] KL: “One thing you mentioned that people who have awe or that you’ve found is being cool with things as they are and not completed, not explained. I'm thinking, that makes me think about mindfulness and meditation and how those practices are really all about just allowing what is to be as it is. It seems to me like those two things might be playing with each other quite a bit.”
[0:37:12.2] LS: “Yeah. I’ve actually described awe as a — Mindfulness is a state that you choose to be in, or at least the way we talk about it currently. It's focused on something that you train. Something that you invest effort in to being in. I’ve suggested — It’s actually more of in a grant proposal recently that awe is kind of like an environmentally evoked mindfulness state.”
[0:37:36.4] KL: “I like it. Does that mean — This is what I was thinking is that if you could — Let’s say, first of all, meditation and mindfulness might enable a person to be more open to keeping things, reducing their need for cognitive closure and they're experiencing awe. Does that mean that you can actually kind of short circuit may be mindfulness, like how some people are just so resistant to doing meditation or mindfulness practices. Like you said, it's an intentional thing. Can an awe experience be a shortcut to mindfulness? I guess is the question.”
[0:38:20.6] LS: “It depends on whether you talk about mindfulness as a state or a trait. It might be a shortcut to a temporary experience of mindfulness, but I don't think it's going to make you more mindful in your everyday life. That what takes practice, is being able to maintain that sense of awareness and present moment attentiveness without it being yanked from outside.”
[0:38:51.8] KL: “Right. Is there any findings that show that repeated exposure to a state, like an awe state, can cumulatively affect a state of mind? In other words, kind of shift a person’s level?”
[0:39:11.7] LS: “Certainly not for awe. I am trying to think whether there's anything like that for other emotions. There might be not quite the way that you're saying. This really gets tied in with that point I was emphasizing earlier, that emotions are pretty widely agreed to be responses to the way that we interpret what's going on around us. We’ve been talking about trait tendency to experience awe, but you can also talk about trait tendency to experience sadness, trait tendency to experience anger, trait tendency to experience fear, or pride, or any other emotion you want talk about. It's about how we see the world.
I don't know that being angry as it’s evoked by genuinely anger inducing experiences in the environment in and of itself, makes you more likely to be angry in the future. But if you’re having experiences that make — Let’s put it this way. Let's take fear, because that's I think a pretty clear-cut example. If you’re experiences over and over and over and over and over again where you are genuinely threatened, you perceive that you are being – legitimately. That you are you are in danger, and that just keeps happening to you over and over and over again.
Then at some point, yes your filter is going to start biasing toward, “My threshold for feeling like I'm in danger is coming down. I get over that threshold more easily,” and that just his common sense. That’s changing the way that you perceive what's going on in the world in such a way that you might be, even given the same stimulus, more prone of being scared than some who’s not. Does that happen for all? I don’t know. I have no idea.”
[0:40:54.4] KL: “Yeah. It’s interesting. It’s interesting to think, thinking about it in terms of, obviously application, to well-being and that kind of thing. It makes me curious.”
[0:41:02.5] LS: “I will say this. As you've noted, there are multiple ways of teaching mindfulness and training mindfulness and you can tell, ‘Start with focus on your breathing. You can start with focus on an external object.’ People do, for a variety of reasons, resist that.”
There’s no statement that you can make about the entire human’s — Everybody, but what most people don't argue with is it wouldn’t kill you for five minutes a day, slow down and look at something pleasant in a way that you've never looked at it before.”
[0:41:43.1] KL: Okay, the door is ajar on whether repeated awe exposure leads to a greater disposition to experience awe. I’ll take that. I’m excited about how a mindfulness practice could boost our chances of getting through the accommodation gates. The gates to the land of, “Whoa!” and “Wow!” and “Now I get it!”
But something else is bugging me. In the lab, awe is constantly aroused by using digital images and movies of vast scenery. So what about all those digital screens everyone is clued to? Parents are serious about employing screen-time quotas in their homes, for many good reasons. Screen-based personal technology keeps kids and adults from going outside to experience things like wonder and awe and “Wow!” It can provoke our sympathetic nervous systems as we engage in hunting for Pokemons and discount tyres. All which tires us out.
[0:42:52.1] LS: “Okay. I’m not sure what you've heard about the physiological reactions to screens. I suspect it's pretty drastically overstated though. It is true that we have physiological responses to new media — Like we do for anything else. A lot of it comes down to when we pay attention to something, when something grabs our attention. We have physiological changes that go with paying attention to something. They’re not qualitatively different for digital screens than they are for anything else. It’s just the digital screens are really, really good at capturing our attention.
I am not familiar with research that says that being exposed to a digital screen is fundamentally sympathetically activating. It just depends on what's on the screen. When we did the original awe studies that looked at physiology, we were showing them pictures on 48-inch monitor and we saw their sympathetic activation decrease.
There's nothing about a TV screen that inherently puts human to fight/flight mode. That’s not how that works. It just depends on what's on the screen.”
[0:43:51.3] KL: “For instance, a videogame might be something that’s putting you into fight or flight.”
[0:43:56.2] LS: “Sure, but it’s not because of the screen. It’s because you’re playing a videogame.”
[0:43:59.3] KL: “Yeah. Exactly. Would it be fair to say that digital screen activities tend — A larger majority or a larger percentage of those activities tend to be activating for the sympathetic nervous system?”
[0:44:15.9] LS: “I think I would honestly just say it depends on what’s on screen.”
[0:44:16.8] KL: “Yeah. Okay. It depends on the person and their viewing and activities and that type of thing.”
[0:44:23.3] LS: “A screen is a medium through which you are exposed to an emotion eliciting stimulus, which might be a movie. It might be a videogame. It might be a commercial. It can be anything, but it's the emotional — It’s the stimulus itself that’s going to have the dominant effect and any sort of visual properties of it. The complexity has physiological effects, rapid movement has affects. All of that stuff, but it’s still about the content, not the medium itself. If you’re asking can we used digital screens to elicit awe? Sure, we can.”
[0:45:09.4] KL: “The other thing I wanted to know about is because I am interested in nature connection, obviously. Awe and nature seem to go hand-in-hand that nature seems to be one of the biggest elicitors of awe. I'm wondering, does having that knowledge and the research that’s coming out about awe, is that possible that that can change our relationship to nature or the way that we interact with nature?”
[0:45:21.4] LS: “Yeah. I don't know. That seems really obvious that that should be the case. I'm not sure that it is. There's two parts to this. One is that I don't know that nature per se is an awe elicitor. For a lot of us who live in urban environments in the Western world, it's awe elicitor because we’re never in nature right. It’s extraordinary. If you live in that environment all the time, then it’s no longer extraordinary to you.”
[0:45:47.4] KL: “Yeah. That makes sense.”
[0:45:48.2] LS: “Nature isn't inherently awe eliciting, it's awe eliciting to the extent that we perceive it as being remarkable or are thinking about it in such a way that it makes us think about remarkable things. There are certain aspects of nature, like I was talking about being at a very high place where you can see a whole bunch of stuff that I suspect is inherently awe eliciting, but that’s a little different from ascribing it to nature per se.
For that reason, I don't know that awe as awe will necessarily make us more thoughtful about nature. What it might do is put us into a state where we’re more receptive to changing our mind about things, and that's one thing I’m going to be looking out. I haven’t really started yet, sort something that's just been bubbling up with some colleagues and we’re going to start checking this out. The notion of what awe is doing is it’s not pushing our minds in any one direction. It's not making us better people. It's not making us worse people. It’s not making us more pro-nature or more anti-environment. It's not directional in that sense, but it may make us more cognitively malleable for a short period of time.”
[0:47:13.8] KL: “For a short period of time. If we’re able to assimilate or accommodate, I guess, what we’re seeing then we create a new schema in which case that may be positive in terms of what we do next.”
[0:47:27.2] LS: “Maybe. Maybe. That's kind of an idea that we’re just starting to tinker with. Again, I need data for you.”
[0:47:36.1] KL: I could understand that we could say digital screens themselves can’t put us into flight or fight mode and that we can’t say nature objectively possesses more awe elicitors than the built world. It’s kind of like the argument that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. But I’d run with that further, as the argument stands a larger percentage of screen based activities that we engage in, do activate our sympathetic nervous system’s intentionally. Everything from CNN, to Sin City, to Candy Crush, to click bait – and all the advertising that pays for our all access ticket to the internet. All of it is precisely designed to get our attention and keep us wanting more. By any means necessary. I would also argue, and the literature bares this out, that the majority of our awe experiences happen in nature settings. We have the ability to experience awe in any place but for now why look for the challenging options when nature is a freebie? I’ll definitely take this as a call to make digital environments more awe inspiring and less sympathetically activating. But let’s start where we’re at. Especially when the survival of the planet and all of its freeloaders, yes that’s us, could get a real win from it.
So what does all of this mean? I still want to know and have to ask of awe.
[0:49:02.1] KL: “Does it have a connection to wellbeing then? I've heard a lot of connections with empathy, that it increases the ability to empathize, that it increases generosity.”
[0:49:13.2] LS: “It’s tricky, because this is one of those areas where there's actually not very much data, and the data are of the kind where — And I'm not accusing the researchers of this. Researchers are usually super, super cautious about what they claim about their own findings, but you go one degree of separation away from that and the claims just to expand all over the place.
The things that the data suggest are that odd does facilitate pro-social intent and pro-social behavior, so that's helping. That may or may not reflect empathy. We don't actually know that yet. Empathy is defined as the ability to understand what someone else is feeling and then the tendency actually feel what other people are feeling, which are the two definitions in psychology of empathy. We don't know that yet, but we do know that from this is Paul Piff’s work, that awe seems to promote a greater inclination to help other people in sort of a simple, neutral way.
We also know that awe slows people's perception of time. It feels like time is moving more slowly, which actually makes sense with pro-sociality, because there's ample evidence that the more — It’s going back decades, that the more rushed people are, the less likely they are to be helpful. Not [inaudible 0:50:30.3] finding, but certainly if you feel like time is moving in a more leisurely pace, you might be more inclined to notice someone else who needs help and then invest the time in helping them.”
[0:50:41.1] KL: This is the kind of stuff that gets me excited, which I mentioned to my brilliant guest.
[0:50:50.6] KL: “That’s fascinating. I can't wait to see how this research developed. That’s just very mind blowing, in fact. It seems to make sense. It seems to follow. It will be interesting to see what the findings are.”
[0:51:04.8] LS: “But data is nice, right?”
[0:51:05.7] KL: “But data is nice.”
[0:51:06.4] LS: “We like data.”
[0:51:09.1] KL: Alright, I’ll leave you two alone now. As awe promises to elevate our mindsets to a universal worldview, this makes me think of Jean Piaget and other childhood development experts. Who identify a clear developmental progression from selfish egocentrism to the fully mature universal world-centric perspective. Integral ecology builds on this. Saying that a universal worldview is critical to solving human-kind’s catastrophic issues. And so I went to talk to an integral psychologist about this tantalizing promise of awe and wonder. Could tapping these emotions fast-track us to the level of maturity required to help us save the world? And who better to speak to than the preeminent expert who founded the field. That’s the ride coming to us next week. Hold onto your bridges.
[0:52:09.1] KL: I hope you got something from the show. For transcripts, click on the link in the shownotes. That will take you to aweintheraw.com. There you can start a conversation or learn more about show guests, my books and up-coming events. And don’t forget, you can share the love by subscribing to the show or leaving a review. Have an awesome week!