The Science of Wonder
By Lou Fancher
When witnessing transcendent awe anywhere in the world, the most common utterances people emit are “ooooh,” “aaah” and the ubiquitous “whoa.” Studies in China, Japan, South Korea, India and the United States, including research involving students at underserved schools in Oakland, have shown that in the presence of scientific, cultural or personal phenomenon involving wonder, people also assume a universal posture: spine elongated, arms akimbo, eyes wide, eyebrows raised, jaw dropped, a slight smile, chin elevated.
And then there are the outliers, people like writer and UC Berkeley professor of psychology Dr. Dacher Keltner, whose immediate, instinctive response to witnessing awe is not “whoa,” but “why?” and “how?”
The best-selling author and recognized expert on emotions—including awe—is likely to embark on a globe-spanning quest before hunkering down in a lab, temple, jungle, riverbed, playground or other location. Revealing fierce concentration by curving his extremities forward, his eyes will narrow in concentration, chin dropped and most voluntary body movements placed on pause to allow for close, 100% undistracted observation.
Ok, admittedly, in the face of an awesome or awful sight, sound or story, Keltner might gush one “whoa” before the “whys” erupt. But soon enough, he’ll revert to his default, questioning mindset that has resulted in over 200 scientific publications, articles in The New York Times, Slate and other national publications, and six books, (Born to Be Good, The Compassionate Instinct, The Power Paradox and others).
Keltner was the scientific advisor for the Pixar film Inside Out and has consulted extensively for Google, Apple and Pinterest, mostly on topics such as emotion, but expanding into well-being, social class, power, morality, decision making and more. He is the co-director of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. His new book released in January 2023 is AWE: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life (Penguin Press).
In his latest book, Keltner presents the newest scientific research into awe and its impact on history, culture, evolution, society, the economy, and the human brain and body. Most poignant are personal narratives and the stories told by other people that arrive from all around the world and are broadened by a specific lens that illuminates their implications based on eight wonders of life Keltner has identified.
The eight wonders are at first glance deceptively simple and relatable: the strength, courage and kindness of others; collective movement in actions like dance and sports; nature; music; art and visual design, mystical encounters relating to spirituality and religion; the marvelous aspects of life and death; and big ideas or epiphanies. The most common inspiration for awe among all of these categories, as proven by his studies conducted across 26 different cultures, is moral beauty displayed by other humans, especially when kindness, courage, strength and overcoming are the primary components.
It was the death of Rolf, his younger brother, who had colon cancer and died via assisted suicide, that caused Keltner to explore how awe plays out during periods of intense grief and write a book about it. His personal journey and search for meaning amid loss was propelled in part by a belief that he and all people have a “basic human need” for awe, in part because it reminds that “we are part of many things that are much larger than the self,” he says.
Arguably, the personal accounts and the inclusion of his emotion-filled responses to other people’s stories of awe (along with Keltner’s intrinsically easygoing, happy, best beer buddy personality that has proven to be genuine in more than one two-hour interview I’ve had with Keltner over the years) are why AWE reads fluidly and without intimidation, despite the extensive and immersive science presented in every chapter.
Among the highlights of the book, not just for Bay Area readers who might favor a local story, is Keltner’s account of visits made to San Quentin Prison. An interest in restorative justice prompted his first experience with prisoners: What he found there kept him coming back. Prepared to speak to the men in blue about awe, Keltner was cast into self-doubt about the all-male group’s interest in such a topic.
Throwing caution to the wind, he asked, “What gives you guys awe?” The answers came: my daughter, visitors from the outside, singing in the church band, the air, Jesus, reading the Koran, learning how to read and more.
These men, denied what he calls the “cashmere blanket” of wealth or status and facing all manner of difficulties, demonstrated that awe “is almost always nearby, and is a pathway to healing and growing in the face of the losses and traumas that are part of life,” says Keltner.
He presents the surprising idea—and cites empirical studies that show—that awe is perhaps less accessible to people who live in fancy homes, vacation in exclusive resorts and shop at high-end stores. Sharing their stories of racism, injustice and economic inequities, the incarcerated men at San Quentin were clearly able and even eager to identify the awe in their lives.
Expanding beyond the individual benefits of awe, such as lower rates of heart disease, autoimmune problems, depression and anxiety disorders, Keltner tracks the societal impacts of awe. He writes, “Viewing art activates the dopamine network in the brain. When paintings decorate the walls in public buildings and offices, people’s minds open to wonder: they demonstrate greater creativity, inspiration, problem-solving abilities, and openness to others’ perspectives.
“Art empowers our saintly tendencies. One impressive study, which involved more than thirty thousand people in the United Kingdom, found that people who practiced more art, like painting and dance, and viewed more art, for example, by going to museums or musical performances, volunteered more in their community and gave more money away two years after the study’s completion,” he continues.
And in another chapter, Keltner is both more direct about the dour and devastating biological threats to the body due to a lack of awe experiences and more aspirational about the benefits. “The trouble, though, is that the human mind treats social threats like an invading pathogen: studies find that social rejection, shame, being the target of prejudice, chronic stress, loneliness, and threats to loved ones elevate cytokine levels in your body,” he writes. (Elevated cytokine levels lead to increased inflammation linked to a host of negative health conditions.)
“Awe, by contrast, heightens our awareness of being part of a community, of feeling embraced and supported by others,” Keltner points out. Later he adds that people feel more “nourished, strengthened, empowered, and alive” and moved to “greater humility, collaboration, sacrifice and kindness.”
If there is a downside to awe, such as the dangers of mystical awe that can and have resulted in tribalism, charismatic sociopaths, genocide, colonization and the oppression of people outside of the favored group, Keltner’s not afraid to include it.
And if there is a downside to Keltner’s writing style, it is that his unrelenting optimism might cause a skeptic to mistakenly turn away, or the relaxed, just-hanging-out-to-chat presentation of the book’s science that could cause an expert to dismiss it as another self-help book on the shelves. For the latter, extensive footnotes for the studies referenced provide not just a rabbit hole, but an entire warren for additional discovery and deep research.
Ultimately, after a first reading of Keltner’s AWE, I’m left with one wish and a realization. He writes with most expression and interest about his relationship with his brother and the loss that clearly still seared his heart and mind. More on that and maybe one or two less examples of awe in the world would provide better balance…or maybe that would make for a fascinating, separate, next book?
And interestingly, I was not even in one moment struck by awe while reading about it. Sure, I could understand and even imagine awe in the stories told and examples provided, but I never felt it. Which means it’s time to put down the book, stop analyzing and look outward: at art, nature, birth, death, the moral beauty of people and all of the eight wonders of the world.