Awe is traditionally seen as our reaction to things that cannot be reduced or explained. What, then, do we make of reports from scientists that this powerful emotion just pushes them to investigate further? In reviewing the literature about awe, Sinai and Synapses fellowship alum Sara Gottlieb, working with Dacher Keltner and Tania Lombrozo, found that the process of accommodation, in which we adjust our beliefs in light of surprising new information, is felt just as often by scientists as by people who experience awe in other situations. Their research has been published in the new issue of the journal Cognitive Science. Rabbi Geoff Mitelman spoke to Sara about her work: how she got interested in this topic, her discoveries so far, and her hopes for future research.View Transcript
Geoff Mitelman: Hi, I’m Rabbi Geoff Mitelman. I’m the founding director of Sinai and synapses, and I’m thrilled to be sitting here with Sara Gottlieb, one of our former fellows, who has just published a paper that is amazing and important and fascinating, called “Awe as a Scientific Emotion.” So congratulations, first of all, Sara.
Sara Gottlieb: Thank you.
Geoff Mitelman: I’m excited to hear a little bit about the origins of the paper, and then I want to unpack a little bit of the role of awe, both scientifically and religiously, because it’s such a fantastic nexus to be able to explore this conversation. So, would love to hear just sort of the origins of the paper and what prompted it.
Sara Gottlieb: Sure, yeah. So I started getting interested in awe – well, I mean, I’ve always been interested in it, just kind of from a non-academic perspective. But a lot of my research has to do with scientific explanations and the ways in which scientific and religious explanations differ, and I’m really interested in why people tend to gravitate either toward science or towards religion, and why there is sometimes conflict at the more cognitive level.
And so I’m actually no longer at Berkeley, but this was done when I was at UC Berkeley, where Dacher Keltner, who’s a social psychologist who’s been doing a lot of work on awe in recent years, which I think is a really, really fascinating emotion, and of interest to a really, really broad audience, but has actually not been studied empirically until the last, I don’t know, maybe ten years, but really over the last, like, five years, is when it really started. And people from all sorts of different disciplines within psychology have gotten interested in it.
So in the early 2000’s, Dacher wrote a theory. This is before any of the research was done on it. And they hypothesized that awe has two really important key features. So the first is that it’s evoked by something vast, and that can be something either metaphorically or physically vast. Like, a canonical example is the Grand Canyon, or the limits of the universe, like something that is so grand, but it could also be invoked by somebody who has a great power, like a powerful or inspiring leader. So that would be more metaphorical greatness.
But the second aspect of awe, which is what I think makes it really interesting to conversations of science and religion, is that it triggers processes of accommodation. So we feel awe when something we see – where there is some sort of stimulus, so like the vastness of the universe, that doesn’t readily fit into our existing mental schema. So we need to accommodate what we know about the world in order to make sense of that new information. And this can sometimes – this process of accommodation could succeed, it could fail, it’s just like, you kind of have to rewrite what we know about the world to make sense of something.
And so it makes sense, I think, why historically, awe has been so tied to religion and spirituality. And there have been so many conversations about the relationship between awe and religion, and how religion and even religious structures like chapels and very, like, tall, large churches can evoke awe, but also how religious – so how awe can trigger religious experience, but also religious experiences can trigger awe.
But when you think about these processes of accommodation, it also seems really natural to think that awe would have strong links to science as well. So if you think that – I mean, scientists, for a very long time, have anecdotally suggested that science can be awe-inspiring. But there’s also reason to believe that processes of accommodation might make people more likely to think scientifically, to have these very cognitive processes of theory revision and things like that.
So that’s where the interest really came from. We just sort of took an empirical look at this very popular anecdotal story that science can be awe-inspiring, that perhaps people who are frequently involved with science or exposed to science might experience more awe in their daily lives. There’s obviously a lot more work to do there, but what we essentially found, I mean, the main focus of this paper, was that people who tend to experience awe in their daily lives at a high frequency tend to have a better understanding of how science works. They tend to be more comfortable with theory revision, things like that, like rewriting what they know about the world to make sense of new information, which is such a core aspect of scientific investigation. They’re more comfortable with the unknown, so more comfortable with not having closed kind of answers to their questions. They’re more – they’re obviously going to be more comfortable with like, wondering and exploring. And we also found that they’re more likely to believe in evolution over creationism.
Geoff Mitelman: So what’s fascinating is that you talk about the relationship between awe [and] lessening people’s belief in creationism. And awe, often at least in my mind, as as a religious person, both personally, and a lot of people that I talk to and interact with – when they look at a question of awe, there is a very natural link of “I am in awe of the universe, or the Grand Canyon” that then becomes “I am in awe of this Creator,” however people define it or experience that.
So what’s interesting is – what it sounds like [is] that awe increases the connection of the relationship to the Creator, but it lessens the connection to creationism. And that’s really fascinating to me, and I would love to unpack that a little bit.
Sara Gottlieb: Yeah, so it’s a, I think, a really complicated answer, and a very complicated question as well. And as I said before, there’s not a lot of work on this, so some of what I’m saying is speculation, and there’s a lot more work to be done, some of which I am currently working on.
But where I’ll start with the answering that question – there actually is some evidence that when somebody is exposed to awe – so, like say, I showed you – and this is how we’d do it in the lab if you came in to participate in the study. We would show you an awe-inspiring video, and you would report that you feel more awe afterwards, whereas somebody else who is not in an awe condition might just watch some sort of control positivity video – so made to feel positive, but not awe inspired.
There is one paper that has shown that after being induced with awe, people are more likely to reason somewhat teleologically. So they’re more likely to respond that random patterns were actually intentionally designed – so in some sense, more likely to believe in a creator or some sort of, I don’t know, Divine Creator, if you want to take that a step further.
Now, what I looked for in my studies was not that experimentally-induced awe. It’s called dispositional awe. So this is an individual-difference measure of how much people experience awe in their daily lives. And that’s what I found to be related to scientific thinking and a decreased belief in creationism, as opposed to evolution, despite the fact that there’s also this experimental evidence that kind of goes in the other direction.
And then there’s a third paper that I’m on that has shown some sort of moderating effect of theism. So even non-theists, when presented with awe, tend to have somewhat of an increased belief in evolution as well, except – you know, it’s all a bit more nuanced than that, but I won’t go into details now.
So, what is the relationship between experimentally induced awe and dispositional awe? It’s a really complicated question, and it seems like experimentally induced awe, or you know, the kind of state-feeling of being in awe, is more related to religiosity, and currently, I mean just in the current state of the research, that dispositional awe is more related to scientific thinking.
Now, how do those two things relate to each other? “I don’t know” is the short answer. The longer answer is: my guess is that people who experience awe more frequently in their daily lives tend to experience awe differently from people who don’t experience it frequently. So, experiencing awe makes you feel somewhat uncomfortable. It makes you face what you don’t know. And it triggers, like, a realization that there is something you didn’t know. And that can be somewhat of a positive feeling, somewhat of a positive emotion, but it also can trigger fear and make people feel quite uncomfortable, quite unstable. It’s called a destabilizing emotion.
My guess is that people who are frequently exposed to awe are more comfortable with that destabilizing feeling, and so might have more successful processes of accommodation. So it might lead to religious thinking, but it also might also have more room to lead towards scientific thinking, which has more room for like, [the] unknown and being comfortable with the unknown, and being more comfortable revising what we don’t know. So evolution is – I mean, invokes random processes.
Geoff Mitelman: Well, what’s interesting is – one of my favorite lines is from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who talks tremendously about awe, and the role of awe – one of his lines is “we praise before we prove.” And his line is that “it’s impossible to mock the dawn.” And another is that “awe is the root of faith.”
And it sounds like, at least in terms of the conversations publicly about religion and science, of creationism and evolutionism, that’s a discussion about proving something or disproving something. And what Heschel says, and it sounds like what you’re arguing as well, is that we start with the root of awe – and that can manifest itself in a variety of different ways, but we start with “what is that feeling of awe, and then how does it play itself out either religiously or scientifically?” And that may differ depending on your disposition.
Sara Gottlieb: Definitely. And this is not something that’s discussed in the paper, but I mean, something that I came to appreciate through Sinai and Synapses, and something that I think is really important – is that awe might be a common vocabulary for people to speak across science and religion. So I think people experience awe during religious experiences, religious engagement, things like ritual, song and dance, and prayer, community. People also experience awe through science, and I think it’s a really important way that people could communicate across the two. Awe also tends to make people more humble and more intellectually humble, and I think that’s a very important tenet of both religion and science, and that’s something that’s not always so appreciated about science – that science really beats you over the head with what you don’t know and happen to recognize what you don’t know.
And so I think that interplay of awe and humility and comfort with what we don’t know about the world, asking questions, is a really interesting aspect of both science and religion, and a path for people across the aisles to communicate.
Geoff Mitelman: I wonder also if one of the values of religion is giving us language to talk about a feeling of awe. Because, having been to the Grand Canyon, I remember, maybe five or six years ago, for my anniversary, we went to Sedona and then Arizona. And so we went late at night into a field in Sedona and you know, saw Jupiter and Saturn through the telescopes, and then went to the Grand Canyon a couple days later, and there are just – there are no words to describe that experience. That is [the] almost definitional to awe, of like, “I can’t talk about this anymore, it’s just – it’s blowing my mind” – that religion at least gives us some language, some tools, a community to be able to share this feeling, that we just otherwise can’t express in any kind of way.
Sara Gottlieb: Yeah, I definitely would agree with that. I mean, there’s definitely very canonical body language that is associated with awe. I don’t know that there’s so much a facial expression, but there’s a vocalization associated with it, like when you don’t have the words, like a (gasp), you know, kind of like a gasping, like a looking up, like a broadening, an opening up of the body. And that’s very inherent to a lot of religious language too – religious body language.
Geoff Mitelman: And I think what’s interesting is, too – I mean you mention this also, that that one of the wonderful things about science and its role of awe is “wow, my idea worked,” “wow, my idea didn’t” or “wow, this connects to something that I didn’t even think about before” or “wow, this totally makes me rethink what my whole belief system was, and I’ve been wrong my whole life, and so now I’ve gotta – my whole paradigm has shifted.” That there’s a level of wonder and appreciation inherent in science that can generate that feeling as well.
Sara Gottlieb: Yeah, definitely. I think that it can go both ways. I think awe can trigger scientific thinking or make people more open to science, more readily able to connect details and mechanisms and figure out how things work, or have moments of insight. But I also think it can definitely go the other way around, which is something that I’m really interested in from an empirical standpoint. Like, what is it about science that can trigger awe? Is it the very like, low-level details of how something works as a mechanism? Is it grand, generalizable explanations? Is it something about, like, nature and the biological world in particular that triggers awe? These are, I think, all open questions.
Geoff Mitelman: Yeah, I’m curious. Are there are other avenues that you think are particularly fertile ground for further exploration?
Sara Gottlieb: Yeah, I think that there are many fertile areas. Don’t want to give away too much things that I wanna do, but I think – so I think one area that’s really underexplored, really hard to study, but will definitely really broaden the conversation and deepen our understanding of awe, is studying awe in children. Because on the one hand, you can think that children are kind of always in a state of awe. Everything is new, everything requires accommodation, they’re constantly – I mean, awe is going to be very linked to curiosity. But children are so curious and they’re so exploratory, exploring the worlds around them, and gaining new data from the world and revising what they know about how things work, and causal relations, and things like that. But I could also see people arguing that children cannot – that awe develops later in life, because awe does require kind of a metacognitive ability of what you know and what you don’t know. Whether those abilities are present in very young children is debatable. So I don’t know, but I think, I know, that there are people certainly working on awe in children, and it will be really exciting to see where that goes.
I know there’s also been some work on positive and negative awe. I think that’s another really, really important area to flesh out more thoroughly, because there’s the “awesome” but there’s also the “awful”. That might also have some interesting cross-cultural work to be done. In a Western context, I think that awe tends to have a much more positive sort of connotation to it, but I think – just from what I’ve heard, like in China, that’s not necessarily the case. And I forget exactly how it’s translated, but I believe the somewhat direct translation of “awe” to Chinese is something like “trembling reverence” or something like that, like, you know, like having this more positive and negative aspect to it. And I think that positive and negative accounts of awe might have very different downstream consequences.
Geoff Mitelman: Yeah. In Judaism at least, the Hebrew word Norah has both connotations, of “awesome” and “awful,” and actually there are some old prayer books that talk about God being “awful” and that’s like, “oh, they changed that since 70 years ago”. But there is – there’s a sense of – fear, and in Hebrew, it’s also related to the same word, yirat hashem, which means either awe of heaven, fear of heaven. And it’s – how do you translate that? And it’s really, at least when it comes into English, they’re going to have very different consequences of how they’re framed to other people.
Sara Gottlieb: Yeah. Yeah, definitely.
Geoff Mitelman: Well, Sara, thank you for taking some time to talk. I’m really excited about this paper, and we’ll link to your paper here as as well. And I’m excited to see when the next few studies are going to come out and what they’re going to show.
Sara Gottlieb: In another five years. (laughs)
Geoff Mitelman: That’s right. Well thank you, for first of all taking the time, and second of all for doing the really, really interesting and important work that you’re doing on something that’s not being studied enough, and I think could really help bridge the world of science and religion in a way that everyone can have a shared language, which can then become a different language, but at least it’s a starting point that we can all start with.
Sara Gottlieb: Yeah, definitely.
Geoff Mitelman: Terrific. Well, thank you Sara.
Photo: Ian D. Keating