What has made awe so central to the development of human society? Professor Michelle “Lani” Shiota is one of the pioneering researchers in studying awe’s physiological and psychological signature, and is also deeply interested in its role in spirituality. The uniquely mind-opening nature of this emotion inspires us to put aside our pre-conceived schemas about the world and approach new situations with calm and curiosity. In addition to how awe has built our traditions so far, Professor Shiota also discusses fledgling research on how it might be harnessed in the future to heal mental states like PTSD, and to collectively tackle bigger-than-human issues like climate change.
Michelle “Lani” Shiota is an associate professor of social psychology at Arizona State University. Her studies of positive emotions, emotion regulation, and emotional mechanisms of close relationships use multiple methods including peripheral psychophysiology measures, behavioral coding, cognitive tasks, and narrative analysis as well as self-reports. Shiota’s research has been funded by National Institutes of Health, the John Templeton Foundation, and the National Science Foundation, and has been published in high-impact journals including: Emotion, JPSP, Cognition and Emotion, Psychology and Aging, and American Psychologist. She is lead author of the textbook “Emotion” (Oxford), and co-editor of the “Handbook of Positive Emotions” (Guilford). She is currently on the Executive Committee of the Society for Affective Science, she is a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science (APS), Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP), and member of the Society for Experimental Social Psychology (SESP). She received her bachelor’s in communication from Stanford University, and her doctorate in social/personality psychology from University of California at Berkeley. Shiota joined the social psychology faculty at ASU in 2006, establishing the Shiota Psychophysiology Laboratory for Affective Testing (a.k.a. SPLAT Lab).
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. This was an online adult education event co-hosted by Valley Beit Midrash, a recently awarded Scientists in Synagogues organization).
Shmuly Yanklowitz: Michelle Lani Shiota is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University, a graduate of Stanford university and UC Berkeley. Professor Shiota’s experimental research addresses human emotional processes, including positive emotion and emotion regulation, and she is particularly interested in awe and wonder, what we call in Hebrew yirah.
And so friends, thank you for joining us. We will have the opportunity for a presentation to learn from the professor and then a chance to ask questions and dialogue a little bit and end right on time in just an hour from now.Professor Shiota, thank you so much for joining us.
Michelle Shiota: It’s my pleasure, thanks so much. I’m going to go ahead and share my screen now and get this presentation started. […]a I started studying awe in graduate school. It was amazing to me as a fledgling researcher in emotion, in what we call affective science the scientific empirical study of human emotional processes that nobody had studied ah there was literally not a single empirical scientific paper on awe in the journals at the point when I started graduate school in 1997. There would soon be a single theoretical paper that was written by my my advisor Dacher Keltner in collaboration with another researcher and friend, Jonathan Haidt, who has since become a very good friend as well. But there was no empirical work, no one was studying it, and I really wanted to. I was like “That makes no sense to me. We study fear, and sadness and pride, and all of these other emotional states, and joy. Why is nobody studying awe? It’s so important.” And for me, it was central to my spiritual life, and also to my sense of psychological well-being. And it was so fundamental that I couldn’t understand why, in the three decades that had elapsed since emotion had become an acceptable thing to study in empirical psychology, no one had really taken it on. And what I was told by Dacher was it’s “flaky,” or at least it is perceived as being a flaky topic of study. But he was interested in it as well, and supported some initial work. And in collaboration, the two of us – and an honor student who did a project became part of the package – We actually published the first empirical paper on awe in 2006.
What I was surprised to learn, coming at this from an entirely lay perspective on what awe meant, is how often not only researchers, but linguists, associated awe with fear or terror. The current modern English word of awe derives from the Old English term ega, which actually means “terror” or “dread.” And it’s closely related to the concept of the sublime in the English language, which since the philosopher Edmund Burke was talking about the sublime in the 18th century, became conceptualized as a stimulus, that which elicits awe and/or terror, right. Both of those things.
In the Arabic language, there are actually 12 words for fear, but two of them also incorporate this concept of awe for greatness. And one of them is wajah, which is to tremble and shiver. It’s that which penetrates deep in your heart. And then khashiya, which is when you know the greatness of the thing that you are seeing and you have reverence for it. And those are somewhat distinct from the various other different meanings of fear out there.
Within psychology, too, early psychological theorists. particularly Robert Pluchik, defined awe as a combination of surprise and fear. And then my advisor Dacher Keltner and his colleague John Haidt also went on, in their first theoretical treaties on awe, to emphasize that it has this edge of terror to it. And Dacher and I actually spent many years arguing over whether awe was fundamentally kind of a descendant of fear, and inherently closely linked to it, or not, or whether it was really its own thing that was not about fear, but was actually a more, by definition, positive state.
Well, why does this matter? Because in these cultures, the religions that are part of those cultures, and even within the language itself – this is, whatever this thing is that we talk about, whether it’s ega, or kashiya, or as it turns out, yara, this is how we’re supposed to feel about God. So which is it? Are we supposed to be afraid of God? Are we supposed to be in awe of God? Is this feeling toward God fundamentally rooted in horror and fear, or is it something more inherently positively valenced?
And it turns out that that’s actually a very widespread question. So I began to ask, “So what is this thing?” When you translate an emotion word, or really any other word across languages and cultures, you’ve got to be really careful about assuming that all of the subtle connotations of the word have the same meaning. They generally don’t. And in emotion, this comes up all over the place. So for instance, there are words for shame that are commonly translated. In shame, for instance, in Bedouin the word is hasham, that actually have a more positive meaning – it’s a good thing to feel shame, shame really means much more something like humility and graciousness than the negative version of self-loathing that we associate it with in the English language.
In Hebrew, as the rabbi noted, the root word for what is commonly translated as awe, is yara, and the literal meaning – and there’s some debate about this is, there always is, right – but various explanations of the literal meaning of this term include “to tremble,” “to be violently broken up” and “to be the recipient or observer of some extraordinary powerful external force that’s about to change the observer.” So it’s about being the recipient of impact from some great and powerful source.
Where this plays out lexically is largely in two words that, of course, are derived from the same root. One is an adjective, which is nora, and the most common place that we see this is in yamim, right, so the days of awe. That’s one way that we see the term used. And then yirah, as the rabbi mentioned, is the noun form of the word. So yirat shamayim is the yirah of heaven, or we can also say “yirat Hashem,” right, of the yirat of God.
So what are we talking about here? Again, what is this feeling that we’re supposed to have? Well, we can look to Scripture for that, and also Jewish tradition. And these are a few of the commonly referenced examples. So in Genesis, Jacob, upon waking from his revelatory dream of God in heaven, says: “Shaken, he said ‘How nora is this place, this is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven!’” So that’s one use of the term.
In the Talmud it says that the person who knows Torah but does not have yirah is like a palace servant who has the inner keys to the room holding the treasure, but not the outer key. So it’s useless, it’s pointless, you don’t have what you really need to access the treasure. So I’m a Jew by choice, I actually completed a three-year conversion process in 2006 after studying under Rabbi Stewart Kellman at Netivot Shalom in Berkeley. And I was very moved by the work of Heschel, The Sabbath was on my reading list. And I found that I really resonated with a lot of what he was saying. And he describes yirah as “The beginning and gateway of faith, the first precept of all, and upon it the whole world is established.” So for Heschel, this feeling is deeply at the root of what it means to have a psychological commitment and faith in the divine.
But these still don’t answer the question of “Are we talking about something that’s closer to awe or fear here?” The word is translated both ways, and in most translations you could replace one with the other and it still completely makes sense. So this is a consequential issue for how we even understand what it means to feel toward the Divine, toward God, toward Hashem.
So that’s the analysis from a spiritual, religious, cultural standpoint. What does the science have to say about this? And my training is not in religious studies, it’s in psychological science, and in particular the study of emotion. And one thing that jumps out at me, looking at this, is that whether we’re talking about awe or fear, in either case, we’re talking about something that would be referred to, in popular language as well as in the field of empirical psychology, as an emotion state. And it turns out that’s my job, is to study emotions. So I’m approaching this from that frame of mind.
Well, what do we mean when we talk about emotion? If you ask 100 laypeople “What is an emotion?” they will give you 100 different answers. And it turns out the same is true of emotion theorists. There are a wide range of definitions of what emotions are, how they work, what they do for us, where they come from, whether or how we’re similar in our emotions and how we’re different from each other in our emotions. And they all share certain cores, but one of those cores is that almost all definitions of emotion mention several different aspects of emotional experience, and say that if we’re really talking about this thing called emotion, we’re talking about the ways in which these converge. These include feelings. When we say we’re feeling an emotion there’s usually some intense inner experience that we’re trying to describe to other people, that other people can relate to. It’s usually valenced, it’s either a good feeling or a bad feeling. We never really talk about a neutral emotion, it either feels really good or feels really bad. We can often talk about sensations and visceral physiological feelings, like our heart pounding, our fingers getting cold, our stomach turning, or a sense of warmth in the chest and visceral relaxation.
One of the earliest empirical psychologists, William James, in fact, wrote a paper in 1898 arguing that when we talk about feeling and emotion, what we’re really talking about is the conscious awareness of changes in our body that are instinctive responses to situations in the environment. When we talk about emotions, we can also talk about actions, we can talk about observable behaviors. And those may be as simple as facial expressions or changes in our tone of voice, but they may also be instrumental behaviors that are aimed at changing something about the environment that is important to us or consequential for us. Well, I study all of these in my lab. And i’m going to talk about all of these different things today.
But I’m also going to start with the cognitive aspect of emotions, which is really rooted in appraisal: “What does this event mean to me?” And one of among all of the controversies that researchers have about what emotions are and how they work, one of the things that most of them agree on, is that a crucial starting point for emotion is this thing called appraisal.
So how many of you have ever been startled or confused or annoyed by another person who is having an emotional response that you think they should not be having? Is this an experience that you can relate to? So, most emotion researchers would say “Well, you are probably appraising they’re probably upset about something.” When we talk about having an emotion from a philosophical standpoint, they are intentional. We have emotions about things – they may not be real things, they may be imagined things, they may be memories, they may be things we just think are happening but are not actually happening in the environment, but we’re up, we’re angry about something, we are sad about something, we are proud of something, and we are awed by something. Well, this relies on certain assumptions that we’re making about what the meaning of those events in the environment are, and how they impact me, and the things that I care about. And we refer to that as “appraisal.”
So for example, if someone is frightened or anxious, that is probably rooted in an appraisal that there’s something in their environment that is a threat to them, that is a source of danger to them. And that might be a predator, is probably the most prototypical – “this thing is after me.” It might be the fear of failure and the social rejection that may come with failure, and it may be the fear of another person’s disapproval or rejection. But it is always a response to the fear that “I’m in danger from something, and something might hurt me, so I’m in danger and I need to escape.”
And the theoretical perspective that I come from on emotion argues that some of these danger appraisals are probably innate. So throughout the world, most people are afraid of the dark – at least, the dark increases inhibition in the sense that there might be dangers lurking out there. Throughout the world, humans and most other non-human animals have predators, right, and the detection of some predator elicits a very similar- looking fear response. And being stalked, right, which is closely linked to that predation thing, is a fear elicitor in many other cultures.
But there are certainly other things that we can learn from our experience. There’s a very, very rich body of literature in psychology, in behavioral science and neuroscience, on the neural mechanisms by which we learn to be afraid of new things, right. It’s called fear conditioning. And we learn other things from our culture – that there are other situations in which we are likely to be in danger – and we internalize that and begin to become frightened of those things. One of the things that really hampered research on awe in the beginning was how reliant we are on on this notion of appraisal to even know where to start with studying emotion. And it turns out that this is very important for thinking about how the science of awe links to spiritual, religious and cultural meanings of awe, as how we should feel toward God.
So I’m going to spend a little time on that, and ask you to be patient with me. What is the appraisal that evokes awe? What is it? When you ask people when they feel awe, they talk about a huge range of eliciting situations – certainly thinking about God or the Divine or a religious service, maybe one of them, but people often talk about feeling awe in response in response to panoramic views that they’re seeing for the first time, such as a view of the Grand Canyon or of the Himalayas. People talk about awe in response to art, to musical performances, to literature, to science. I mean, the range is enormous, which really raises this question of what are we even talking about as that which elicits awe. So the thing that Dacher Keltner and John Haidt really tackled in their 2003? theoretical analysis is that question is: what is this? And I really jumped in on this in early conversations in the late 90s and early 2000s, about what is the thing that evokes this response from us. And it comes back to something that’s actually very special about the way the human mind works.
So to a greater extent than any other animal on earth, as far as we know, humans have an ability to internalize their knowledge of what’s going on out there in the world. And we do this through what are called cognitive schemas. When we are exposed to some kind of object or situation or person over and over and over again, we begin to form a mental image of that object or person or situation. And we carry that around with us in a very abstract way, and we can play with those images in our minds. So you could very easily call up memories of a particular person that you encountered 20 years ago and spent time with, or a particular situation or an event that took place, and you can relive those very easily. It’s a quite remarkable ability that we have to vividly re-experience objects, things, people, events, all of us in our mind, and we refer to those as cognitive schemas.
And all of these things are swirling around inside of our minds most of the time. By adulthood we interact with the actual world around us through the lens of these internalized mental structures, by assuming that what we see out there in front of us is another example of something we’re carrying around in our heads. We have to do this to survive. If we dealt with every new person, every new situation, every new object without carrying forward our prior knowledge from previous, similar objects and people in situations, we would be starting over. We would never learn anything. And so rather than doing that, we make assumptions that the doctor we’re meeting for the first time is going to be similar to the doctors we’ve met before, that the child that we have interacted with, that the Jew that we are interacting with, that the Asian person we’re interacting with, is going to be similar to other Jews and Asian people that we’ve interacted with previously. That the chair that we’re looking at is going to behave similarly to other chairs, and therefore it’s okay to sit on it, right.
And so we’re just doing this all the time. And there’s hundreds and hundreds of studies documenting when we do this – more when we do it less why we do it, and what happens when we don’t, and when different kinds of schemes get activated. And i’m actually going to talk about this a little bit more later in the talk. So as an example, when I visited the for the Grand Canyon for the first time, I wasn’t very eager to do it. It was on a cross-country drive, it was four hours minimum out of our way, driving along 40, as you know. And I had seen pictures of it before, and my thought was “It’s way out of our way, it’s going to add an extra day to the trip, it’s a hole in the ground, I’ve seen pictures of the hole in the ground, what is the big deal?”
When we do that, that is referred to as assimilation. It’s when we assume that the thing in front of us is another example of that which is familiar and expected. And that we know perfectly well the contrast to this is when we are faced with something that is extraordinary, that violates our our expectations, that we cannot readily account for with our stored knowledge, our experiential stored knowledge. That there’s something about this thing that is so much vaster, greater, grander, that we were not easily able to comprehend all of what it means.
So I was talked into going to the Grand Canyon, and the reality, seeing it for the first time was I just froze, and my mind just stopped, and my senses and my awareness were dominated by this hole in the ground that was so much bigger and so much more complicated than I had any idea of, or could previously have comprehended.
When that happens, Jean Piaget, the developmental cognitive psychologist, said we are experiencing accommodation. This is when we stop, for a moment, relying on what we already know to understand the world. We put those processes aside, and instead we start absorbing information. We start pulling as much of it in as we can.
It’s a very different way of engaging with the world around us, and it turns out that the situations in which we talk about feeling awe are those that require us to do this. It is when we are faced with, in particular, a panoramic, large-scale, vast expanse, geographic expanse, that we’re seeing all at the same time in an unusual way. It is when we are faced with other kinds of natural phenomena that we have never encountered before, it is when we encounter artistic phenomena that are not only beautiful and complex in their own right but also speak to what humans are capable of, what we can do, that trigger thoughts and ideas about what is greater than ourselves, about human nature and what unites us and brings us together as a species.
Those can be physical performances, but they can also be products of arts. So this is Picasso’s “Guernica,” which documents the horrors of the Spanish Civil War in a very abstract way, that if you are sitting in front of it, absolutely grips you and shrieks at you – the horror of war, not only in that particular instance but as a thing that humans do, and brings home the magnitude of it.
Sometimes it is as simple as a speech by an individual that, in this case, is crafted to play on the circuitry, that picks up complex patterns and grabs onto them and tries to track them down, to link things to other things, but the content of which is actually talking about that which is great and extraordinary and important as human beings. And in this case, and I have Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech – what we owe each other as humans and as a species, and what we are capable of being that we have not yet imagined.
So when I think about what evokes awe, from the perspective of appraisal theorists, I think part of what we’re dealing with, this tension between awe and fear and all of the words that we’ve talked about, is a certain overlap in the appraisal of fear as fundamentally an appraisal that “I’m in danger,” and awe is fundamentally an appraisal that “What I’m faced with is vast and novel and extraordinary and much greater than me.” They are unified by the appraisals of uncertainty: “I’m not sure what’s happening, I don’t quite understand it and i’m not sure what’s going to happen next,” by powerlessness – whatever this thing is, it is potentially much bigger than me and I don’t have a lot of control over it – and humility relative to this thing: “I am small, I am powerless, I have very little control over this situation, and I need to figure out how to cope with that.”
So there are certain appraisals in common. I like to illustrate this with a situation that is causing, and has been causing for the last year, a great deal of fear for very many people, and rightfully so. So when we think about the coronavirus pandemic that we’ve all been living through fear. Fear-driving appraisals might be: “The virus is everywhere, it’s changing! It’s mutating, it could kill me or my loved ones, we don’t know if the vaccine is going to work, I feel so helpless, there’s nothing I can do.” But there are actually alternative appraisals for the situation that are awe-evoking. And on my good days – I have bad days, right ,where the fear appraisals and the sadness appraisals are dominating, but I have good days too. And on those days I’m thinking: “This is an extraordinary time in world history. How lucky am I to be alive through this, to see this, to see this moment that other people will only read about?” right, and wonder about, and be fascinated by. The planet is seeing demonstrable benefits of us staying home. And what if we can carry those benefits forward into the future, when this is all over and we’re in the after times?
And “This is so much bigger than me”: We have a chance here to cooperate with each other, and avoid the worst, and make it better and really show the best of ourselves. I know we’re seeing the worst of ourselves sometimes too, and I struggle with that as well, and that is also awe-inspiring in its way. But we are also seeing some tremendous beauty in what people are doing for each other and with each other, and how they are adapting to this situation to survive, and to take care of ourselves as a community. And I hate to forget that in all of the outrage, and all of the understandable anger that we are feeling.
So, starting from that as a baseline, I said “Okay, well, if that’s what awe is, if awe is there to shape how we respond cognitively and behaviorally to the extraordinary, if awe is there to nudge us out of assimilation mode and into accommodation mode, what should it look like? How should it behave?” And we started doing some research on this. So in one of the first studies that we did, we simply asked people to – we randomly assigned people to remember either a time that they felt awe or a time that they felt pride, and ask them a bunch of questions. We chose pride because it’s a pleasant emotion as well, and one that people can easily relate to with an English-language word. And what we found is that in awe, very distinctly relative to pride, they felt small and insignificant.
And this is one of the most widely replicated findings about when you get people in front of an awe stimulus or ask them thinking about a time when they felt awe. They agree with this statement, “I felt small.” But it’s not negative, usually when we say “I feel small and insignificant,” that’s a bad thing, right. “I feel worthless, I feel irrelevant.” That’s not what people are saying. They’re saying “I feel like i’m in the presence of something that’s much greater and more important than me as an individual.” They’re reporting being relatively unaware of their day-to-day concerns and connected with the world around them. So they feel small, but not alone, not isolated. They feel like they’re part of that thing that’s bigger than themselves. They don’t want the experience to end, even more so than pride. I mean, pride’s really pleasant too, but there’s something about awe that makes us actively want to memorize this and internalize it and take it away with us.
And although all of those things are commonly effortful, especially trying to remember things is usually effortful, this situation doesn’t feel challenging or difficult for people, and it doesn’t feel tiring. Pride-eliciting events are actually much more challenging, and people are more likely to feel tired afterwards. So there’s something really special about this subjective feeling of awe that differs from from pride.
And as it turns out, from other positive emotions, awe is really different in the body as well. And when I had the resources that came with joining ASU as a new faculty member, one of the first questions I wanted to ask was: “How are awe and other positive emotions different in the body from the negative emotions, and from each other?” No one had really looked at this very carefully before.
So I did a study where I brought participants, about 50 of them, into the lab. I hooked them up to all kinds of different physiological sensors, heart rate, sweat on the palms, temperature, blood pressure, all kinds of fun stuff. And then we started showing people photographs or visual images that were intended to elicit a bunch of different emotion states. I’m going to focus today on awe and fear and how people responded in response to panoramic nature views like the one you see on the right here, and then scary images from horror movies, like you see on the left.
And we looked at the changes. So I’m going to focus just on the difference between these two emotions and how people’s bodies responded to these situations. For fear, we saw something that’s just classic in the literature – this is very, very standard. So we saw, what you’re seeing here in this first panel on the left, is a change in what’s called cardiac pre-ejection period. And when it goes down, it means the heart’s more active. It’s more influenced by the sympathetic nervous system. We saw an increase in blood pressure, and we saw an increase in sweat gland activity on the fingers. And these are all consistent with an overall fight-flight sympathetic nervous system response.
So what did we see in awe? We saw the opposite of that. We actually saw something I have never seen in any other emotion state, which is an increase in cardiac pre-ejection period. Basically, what this means is that when the heart contracts, the muscle contracts more slowly. Instead of being like this, it’s more like this. What that indicates is actually a withdrawal of fight-or-flight influence on the heart. We saw, if anything, a reduction in blood pressure rather than an increase, and much less sweat gland activity. You can’t go below zero in sweat gland activity, that’s not a thing, but it was it was certainly no different from people looking at completely neutral images of household objects like phone books. So what we’re seeing, in awe, is rather than being arousing and activating, it’s much more stillness-supporting, it’s much more soothed and calming from a physiological standpoint.
So this is the last study that I’m going to present today before turning back to the implications of all of this for what we are talking about when we are talking about yirah, or awe of God in particular. And this really gets back – this is the study that we did that was the most direct test of this accommodation hypothesis, the hypothesis that when we are in an awe state, we let go of our preconceived assumptions about what’s in front of us, and we suck in information that we get out of assimilation but we get into accommodation instead. And this is a really fun study to do. So we took advantage of a research protocol that had been developed by Herbert Bless and his colleagues in the late 1990s, where participants simply came into the lab and sat down at a computer and listened to – in our case, we lengthened it, a five-minute audio story about a couple going out to a romantic dinner. And this was a very, very detailed study. People were kind of bombarded with information about this situation.
And there were four types of information that we were very strategic about. The first two types were information that we specifically included in the story. One of those was details that you would expect to see in a modern United States main-culture script or schema for a romantic dinner. And a really good example is candles on the table, right. Are there candles on the table? Actually, candles on the table was something that wasn’t there, so I’m going to reserve that. But did they have a glass of wine, right? Did he bring her flowers? Did he pick her up at the door? There’s – we all have this sort of, I can say “romantic dinner” and up pops valentine’s day in the head, right, and everything that you’re supposed to do on Valentine’s Day, and it’s supposed to be there. So we had a number of those details explicitly mentioned in the story.
We also had a number of details that have absolutely nothing to do with romantic dinners, like was the waiter wearing glasses? Well, that doesn’t – whether or not the waiter was wearing glasses doesn’t have anything to do with whether it was a romantic dinner. But we mentioned “Yes, the waiter was wearing glasses.” There were also details that we explicitly excluded, and those included things that you would expect to see. And we did some really careful preliminary research to make sure that we were right about this. So yes, most people say “If it’s a romantic dinner there, there should be a candle on the table,” but we deliberately didn’t say anything about there being a candle. We didn’t say that there wasn’t a candle on the table, but we also didn’t say that there was. And then we also had a number of details that we deliberately left out.
And after people listened to this story, we had them do a little distractor task just so they weren’t thinking about it. And then we asked them 40 questions: was there a candle on the table? Was the waiter wearing glasses? Did he bring her flowers? Was she wearing a dress?
And so we were really pinging on all of these details, some of which were script-relevant, and some of which were schema-irrelevant. I’m going to focus on one of those categories right now, and that is the schema-relevant false items. These are the details that should have been there for a romantic dinner but weren’t, right. Was there a candle on the table? If somebody says yes, what that tells us is that rather than relying on what we actually said in the story, they are allowing their mental image of romantic dinners to sneak in and populate their memory of what was going on.
So we were interested in the number of those questions that people actually answered correctly. And what we found is that folks who had previously been exposed to an awe stimulus – everybody did this task after watching a movie, right. Some people did it after watching a movie called Powers of Ten, where you start from the outer periphery of the universe and start zooming in, right, through a drop of water on a blade of grass in a Millennium Park in Chicago, I think, and then down to the subatomic level. People report awe. Some people saw a really nice skating performance the end of it that focuses not on the performance itself, but on the young skater finding out that she’s received the gold medal, being incredibly happy. And you can’t watch this without smiling, I promise. And then others watched a simple neutral video about building a brick wall.
What we found is that participants who had seen the awe-inducing video did better on these items. They were less likely to impose their expectations about a romantic dinner on their memory for this particular story. We repeated this with several other specific, positive emotions, and found that this was really unique to awe, that only awe has this effect. And interestingly, we did a third study where we presented – this used photographs right to elicit awe, but one of the other conditions was “awe-fear.” So these were photographs of terrible natural disasters that elicited both awe and that sense of horror that researchers have talked about. And what we found is that, relative to cute puppies and kittens, again, both of these actually increased correct answers to these questions, whereas cuteness decreased them.
And what we took away from this, our conclusion, is that awe is doing this very special thing, special not only relative to negative emotions, but to other positive emotions, where it actually reduces our tendency that you usually see, when people are happy, to just go “Oh yeah, that’s another one of those, oh yeah, that’s another one of those, oh yeah, that’s another one of those,” and happily sort of filter what we’re encountering in our world through what we think we already know, and instead pause and put those assumptions aside and start sucking in information from the environment.
I’m going to skip over this slide and just turn to what some of my colleagues have found in other empirical research on awe. So Carlo Valdesolo and colleagues have found that awe involves a sense of uncertainty, which I talked about earlier, and a need to explain what we are seeing. And in fact, one thing that they found is that after exposure to an awe stimulus, people are more likely to attribute events to God and to deities. So Kathleen Vohs and colleagues, and Melanie Rudd, found that when people are in an awe state, they feel like time is passing more slowly. And this may be related to an additional finding that’s come up quite a bit, that when people are in an awe state they are more prosocially motivated. They want to help other people more, and they actually do help other people more after an awe stimulus.
And finally Patty Van Cappellen and Vassily Saroglou have found in a number of studies that awe increases the sense of spirituality, defined as a sense of interconnectedness with other living beings and with the universe and the spiritual world. It doesn’t necessarily increase religiosity in the sense of agreeing to the dogma or the rituals of a particular religion, but it does increase the sense that “I’m part of something greater than me.”
So let’s take all this back. Yirah. Is it best translated as awe or as fear? Which of these things are we talking about, and what is the relationship between awe and fear? Well, there’s a reason, I think why, in the context of spiritual and religious life, when we are talking about yirah toward God in this language or other languages, these things come together. And ultimately I think the best translation is “reverence,” is, in that context, the best way to talk about what this experience and this sense.
I will say that after starting that debate with my graduate advisor Dacher about whether awe inherently involves fear or not, he said “Yes,” I said “No.” I won – yay. In research on non-verbal expressions of emotion in research that I just showed you, on physiological aspects of emotion, subjective experience, they are very, very different experiences. There’s nothing inherent in awe that involves terror. And for most people, most of the time it is a pleasant, soothing, rewarding, deeply valued experience.
But I will end with what Abraham Joshua Heschel had to say about it when asked this very question: when we talk about yirah for God, right, is this awe, or is it fear? Which is it, and which should it be? Well, Heschel voted strongly in favor of awe, and said that:
“The meaning of awe is to realize that life takes place under wide horizons, horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life or even the life of a nation, a generation, or an era. Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.”
And I love so very much that that spiritual and Jewish way of thinking about yirah, and about awe, resonates so beautifully with what we have found in the science on this particular state.
So I hope that was interesting, I know I spent a lot of time on some very technical stuff. I’m delighted to answer any questions that you have, or even just kick around ideas.
Shmuly Yanklowitz: Amazing, Professor Shiota. This is so interesting, and so right on topic of what we’re trying to do in our science and Judaism class. It’s like the perfect example of an integration of scholarship and Jewish values, so thank you so much.
Michelle Shiota: My pleasure.
Shmuly Yanklowitz: And we would love to hear from folks, questions that folks might have. I always have, but I’d love to hear from some others here.
I have a question. Do you think that thinking about language, do you think “God-fearing,” could be a synonym for awe in a religious context?
Michelle Shiota: Absolutely. I think it could be in it, and it should be it.That’s not always what people mean – I mean people there is something wrapped up in this, which is “Why should we be good?”. And usually when people talk about being “God-fearing,” it’s usually in the context of “Why I should behave myself and not be a jerk.” And that really, most intuitively, speaks to the fear, the notion that God can punish us if we are bad. But I think there’s just as strong a case, from an ethical standpoint, to be made, that we should be good, we should be kind to others, we should be decent people, because we are in awe of God, because we are in awe of all that we of God’s creation – which is us, which is humanity, and which is this lovely world that we inhabit – it’s not usually meant that way, but I think it could, very easily, with very similar implications.
Shmuly Yanklowitz: Yeah, an interesting way to connect those two feel to me like the almost ubiquitous human experience towards mortality — just the terrifying nature of death that most people hold. Even spiritualists who claim to not fear death hold some level of fear of death. And that might be connected to reward and punishment or afterlife or to nothingness, whatever it is, but some sense of that mystery of what nobody knows about, yes.
Michelle Shiota: One of my favorite stories – so I did it with one of the first studies that we did, [we] simply asked students to come in and just “Tell us about a time you felt awe – we’re just curious, we just want to know what you’re talking about.” And one of my favorites was a young woman who said she felt awe sitting at her grandmother’s deathbed while she was dying. And she said, “Of course I felt sad, and I felt sad about losing her, but in the moment, what was most salient” – the appraisal that she was bringing to that situation – was “How extraordinary none of us knows what happens next. She is about to go through this transition and we have no idea what is on the other side of that transition.” And she was awed, in that moment, by that prospect.
It links to something. A question I often get is “You know, we feel awe in response to sunsets and the night sky, and it’s not like we’ve never seen a sunset before. It’s not like we’ve never seen the night sky. And we understand what it is. Why do we feel awe?” I said “Because, you know what, you can look at the night sky and you can know where the stars are and you’ve seen it before, but you’re never going to understand what’s really out there.” So good luck with that. (laughs)
Shmuly Yanklowitz: Amazing. So we have a few hands up. Nancy Abrams has had her hand up for a while, then Dr. Solomon after that.
Thank you, that was absolutely wonderful. I read a fascinating article in the New York Times a few months ago about awe, which compared it to the other emotions, and it said – there were these experiments that were done as to which emotion was the most healing. And by using the criterion of inflammation – there’s apparently a marker for inflammation – they were able to tell that awe is actually the most physiologically healing of all the other emotions. And they had people guess, and they guessed “Oh, joy, or love,” but it turned out it was awe. So can you expound a little bit more on that? All I know is what I read in that one New York Times piece.
Sure. I’m a little cautious about that because they they looked at one mechanism of immune system responding. I’m very familiar with the study that you’re talking about; the folks who conducted it are friends – we’re all buddies, basically, in this field. It’s one mechanism of immune responding, and there’s not anywhere near enough research on this. We know that happiness is correlated with health, with physiological health. We really don’t know anywhere near enough about why. And my bet is that you would find that, say, love is actually very strongly associated with other mechanisms of health and healing, and that others maybe as well. So it’s really a question of why.
But I will say this: there are a bunch of us who are interested in this idea that when you’re in an awe state, you have this opportunity to reshape your own mind. It’s like your own mind and your own assumptions become a little more malleable than usual for a short period of time. What if we could use that in psychotherapy? What if we could use that to help treat PTSD? What if we could use it to help treat depression and anxiety and body dysmorphic disorders that lead to behaviors such as anorexia and bulimia, right? What if we could help reshape, in a healthier way, the way that people see themselves in the world? That is a largely untested, but I think very promising, hypothesis for us to chase down.
I have a question relating back to Dr. Robert Plutchik – he was a professor of mine at Long Island University, a great researcher on emotion, as you well know. And you know, he developed the theory of – I think it was eight primary emotions that were so basic to all human existence. And I think you mentioned that he believed that awe was a complex emotion made up of – and I don’t remember, sorry, can you please repeat –
Michelle Shiota: Fear and surprise.
Fear and surprise, thank you. Yeah, that make sense. So I think of awe as a complex emotion, maybe even more complicated than just those two, picking up from Heschel – amazement, expansion of our understanding and perception of our entire world. And of course, surprise is part of that, but even more than surprise, just like, you know, finding out that there’s more to this than we ever thought was possible. So I want to thank you for mentioning Plutchik, thank you for your wonderful presentation, very very good covering affect and emotion. And all the research on it is so important.
Michelle Shiota: Yeah, Dr. Plutchik’s work was incredibly influential in the tradition for how we study emotion that I was trained in, and how we even think about it. Nancy, did you have a follow-up question?
Yeah, I did. And that is: you said that awe could be used possibly for these individual improvements, like psychological improving the identity or dealing with addiction. Can you imagine how it could be used collectively so that we could figure out how large numbers of people could cooperate on climate change, for example, to actually take charge of what’s going on there?
Michell Shiota: There are some folks who are doing that, actually, and in fact we’re getting ready to do a study, hopefully in a few weeks, that’s going to look at whether an awe manipulation alters people’s sense of the relationship between the self and the environment, and whether, in turn, that pushes around their willingness to make economic compromises for the sake of ecological preservation.
So we’re really eager to do that work, and we’re not the only ones. There are other folks who are asking that question as well. I mean, awe gets used to facilitate collective action all the time. When you think about fireworks, when you think about great speeches and displays of power, when you think about palaces, you know, those are really all geared toward using awe-inspiring objects or events to bring people together, and again, sort of tweak their identities to be part of a group. You know, that awe feeling of “There’s something greater than me and i’m part of it,” can be used. It’s not always used in positive ways, it can be used in pretty nefarious ways as well, right. It’s used by cult leaders, it’s used by religious extremists to gain followers.
So I’m often very wary of the assumption that everything about awe is going to be good, because it’s not sometimes. These are mechanisms that can be leveraged for good or for evil, you know, if we want to put it that way. But yes, I mean, that potential is absolutely there. We need to figure out how to use it on a scale that goes beyond people and places that we don’t see. It’s easy to do for people in places that we do see, but that which is beyond our range of experience is much harder to connect to.
I’ve always been fascinated by Heschel’s comment that mankind will perish not from lack of knowledge, but from lack of awe. And I’ve also wondered, what was he was really talking about? What was the awe he was talking about? And it seemed to me – at least, it came as an epiphany to me, maybe not to anybody else – that he was saying something about hubris, that hubris gets in the way of awe, that you really can’t experience awe because “the Grand Canyon is just a big hole in the ground, and I know that, don’t try to impress me with it.” But I’ve always thought that’s really what he was trying to say. That that’s what gets in the way of appreciating something.
Michelle Shiota: Albert Einstein said something very similar. He wrote that “Awe and wonder are at the root of all true art and science. Without it, one might as well be dead.” And I think that what they were both saying is that if you do not have awe, if you do not have the capacity to be amazed or to wonder, you think you know everything. You think there is no longer anything great or extraordinary or remarkable to you, you have no desire to connect with it, and there is nothing left to learn. And how sad a state is that?
Shmuly Yanklowitz: And I would say, professor, just before you go to judy shaffer’s question, that this also can be interesting as a relational tool, like for couples, in that one of the things that can kind of slow down or dampen one’s connection in a relationship is a sense that “I know you, we’re known, it’s boring, it’s dry.” but to cultivate a yirah towards one another, a relational yirah, out of a sense of wonder and curiosity, learning about each other, experimenting in the world with each other. So it seems to me there’s a number of cool applications here.
It seems to me that people would also try to create an ecstatic or an awe experience chemically, and that can either be done for good, to rid one of PTSD, or to create a dependence that is an unhealthy thing.
Michelle Shiota: So I just had a great conversation last week with a researcher in addiction science. What she does is she looks for ways to help people recover from addiction with medications. And we were actually talking about this growing movement toward using psychedelics in treatment for PTSD, for addiction, for a number of other disorders – psychiatric and psychological disorders. And she didn’t really know that much about about the work that I do with awe. I sort of said, “Fun fact, that would be a great collaboration, because there’s another growing line of research that’s interested in using this externally elicited emotion state for the same thing.”
What if you put them together, right? What if you give someone a microdose of a psychedelic that has these same psychological properties, and then you put them in front of an awe stimulus and get them in that frame of mind, and then you do whatever therapy is actually going to do to be the agent of change? Really, what we’re talking about is two steps. One is introducing malleability, and then one is making the change. So the awe, the mushrooms, in and of themselves are not necessarily the thing that will make the change, but they do introduce the opportunity for change. The potential, the question, then is what happens next in the therapeutic context to take advantage of that, and hope that it’s going to be a little more successful.So I love that idea, and it’s something that multiple folks are very interested in pursuing.
Thank you, Lani, that was really a wonderful presentation. You brought everything together. But I’m interested in closing the circle a little bit more, bringing the emotion of awe back to the religious experience. And when you read Heschel, Heschel seems to indicate that awe precedes the religious experience. It is the gateway to religious experience, it’s a fundamental aspect of it.
But I’m wondering about what is it about religious rituals we have – let’s say in Judaism, or in other religions – that heighten a sense of awe in a positive sense, or skip over a sense of awe and become kind of boring. And I guess I want to bring it to Judaism, because when you go to Europe, and you look at the great churches of Europe, they’re grand, and they’ve got stained glass everywhere, and you just feel small. And you say to yourself, “They’re trying to make me be in awe of this experience.” But when I goin to a Jewish shul, you don’t see that usually. So I’m wondering, bringing it to what we do in the Jewish religion, are there aspects of it that you think draw on, enhance, a sense of awe in a positive sense?
It’s such a great question, and it gets back to this issue of how many – how do I put this – it’s easy to talk about awe in response to visual stimuli, right, but it’s by no means limited to that. A mathematical equation can evoke awe, right. I think what’s happening in services that is awe-inspiring is a little different. For instance, chanting, the fact that the Torah is something that is sung rather than spoken, lends itself well to awe. Music is a great – I mean, I could do a whole separate talk on why music pings upon the information processing and sensory processing mechanisms that seem to be linked to awe. But also, you know, a resounding theme in prayer, in services, is we, as a people, we as a history, we that is bigger than me, that is bigger than my shul, that is bigger than my country. We, we, we, on this very grand international and historical scale. I think that is very – I’m a little hesitant to say “geared toward,” because that implies deliberateness and intentionality, but I think that one consequence of it is ideally that sense of awe, of being part of something that is that much greater than me, and the reverence with which certain objects, including, of course, the Torah, in services is, I think, geared toward that as well. Does it always succeed? I don’t know.
Shmuly Yanklowitz: Amazing, Professor, this was so rich and helpful. Thank you so much for offering us your expertise in this really powerful session. Thank you all so much for joining us, thank you for being here, thank you so much.
Michelle Shiota: Thanks. It was absolutely a pleasure. Lovely to see you all.
Shmuly Yanklowitz: looking forward to continuing Judaism and science and many other topics to come. Have a great day.