What We Can Learn from Scientists’ Awe Experiences

What We Can Learn from Scientists’ Awe Experiences

In 2017, several years before video calls became an integral part of our daily lives, I logged onto Skype to start my first interview for a new research project I was conducting with professional scientists. After making our introductions, Richard spun his computer around to give me a “tour” of his home office, which was filled with relics from his five decades of experience as a paleontologist. “This thing,” he told me, bringing a small fossil up to his webcam, “is roughly 380 million years old. That still blows my mind. My wife says, ‘you know, you can think of deep time. You know how to do it. You’ve been trained. You’ve had a lot of experience doing it. Me, it boggles the mind.’ And I say to her, ‘Dear, it boggles my mind.’ I don’t know what the heck 380 million years means in terms of human existence!”

When laypeople think of science, they often think of cold, hard facts. As commonly depicted in the media and popular culture, science is an impartial, infallible enterprise, with no room for emotion or humanity. Yet, as Richard and my other research participants regularly reminded me, science progresses only through scientists, who are indeed human beings. On one level, this means that scientists have foibles and biases, just like every other person. But on a deeper level, we need to ask, “What drives them? How do they feel about their work?”. And perhaps one key to unlocking researchers’ excitement is a sense of awe.

As defined by the researchers Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt, awe is triggered by experiencing something vast that challenges or complicates our understanding of how the world works. This is a common experience for scientists, who are regularly confronted with new evidence, often about phenomena that are vast in physical size, number, duration, or complexity, that upends their current models or theories. Indeed, research (including a set of studies conducted by former Sinai and Synapses fellow Sara Gottlieb) indicates that individuals who experience awe more frequently tend to engage in better scientific thinking, perhaps because they have a general disposition toward open-mindedness that makes them more tolerant of experiences that run counter to their existing worldview.

Through my exploration of this promising research on awe and science, I observed that the awe experiences of scientists themselves had not yet been systematically examined. In the hopes of addressing this gap in the literature, I designed a study that went straight to the source: a qualitative, interview-based investigation of professional scientists’ awe experiences in the context of their field of expertise. Over the course of several years, I spoke to 30 scientists from a wide range of sectors and fields in the life, physical, and geological sciences. I asked each participant first to provide me with their own definition of awe, and then to describe several moments of awe that they had experienced in science – from their earliest memories of learning science as children, to their time as college and graduate students, to the present day. From these conversations, I observed several intriguing themes. 

First, participants saw awe as deeply connected to the process of learning and discovery in science. Their definitions and examples of awe in science were largely derived from new realizations or “a-ha moments.” Some of these moments came from big conceptual understandings, like scientists who described being floored by learning about complex ideas like the genome or relativity for the first time. Notably, however, the examples that were top-of-mind for most participants and that seemed most powerful came from their own personal experiences of discovering new information — a process that one participant likened to the experience of encountering a secret garden. As Sarah, a microbiologist, explained:

“[There is] a type of awe that comes from making discoveries that no one has known about before. And for a very brief period of time, you are the only person who knows about them and who has ever known about them. You know, I’m not going to win a Nobel Prize for my grad school thesis, it’s not paradigm shattering or anything… But to know that I know what’s happening and I’m the only person that does, to me there is a feeling of awe that goes with that.”

Like Sarah, most participants did not attribute awe to the implications or significance of their findings. Rather, they were awed by the discovery process itself. 

Participants also experienced awe in the context of their role as members of a larger scientific community. In talking about their moments of discovery, participants recognized that their work was contributing to a larger body of knowledge, even if it was in a very small way. Even though many of these scientists valued the experience of briefly being the only person on earth to know something, ultimately, they also derived awe from the opportunity to share their findings and participate in the broader scientific enterprise. Kyle, an astronomer, described a sense of belonging to “a social community of human beings that are in this together to figure out how the universe works.” This feeling of community extended not just to their contemporaneous peers but also to the long lineage of scientists who had come before them and who would come after them. 

Finally, participants overwhelmingly described their awe experiences as an important source of motivation. While much of the existing research focuses on how awe shifts our perspective and increases prosocial inclinations, the scientists in this study were much more likely to talk about awe as a type of “fuel” that enables them to persist in the face of professional adversity. Repeatedly in our conversations, I was reminded that the work of being a scientist is quite difficult: the daily experience can swing from tedium to epic failure, and the institutional pressures to obtain funding, publish in highly regarded journals, and get tenure are constantly looming. As Ana, a conservation biologist, colorfully described it: “The pay is [expletive], the hours are ridiculous, it’s mostly frustration and monotony.” Yet, one after another, scientists told me that the promise of awe is what keeps them from leaving the profession. Luke, a molecular biophysicist, said that moments of awe are “the driver for a lot of what gets you through” the challenging times. “There’s so much drudgery,” he explained, “that if you don’t hang onto those moments, I don’t know what else you hang on to.” 

So, what can we do with this new information about how scientists experience awe? I see three implications for the teaching and learning of science (for K-12 students, lifelong learners, and professional scientists themselves) – all of which, I believe, must be situated within broader conversations about educational and professional equity.

First, we need to look critically at the institutional expectations of science as a discipline. Scientists’ decisions about what questions to pursue are largely driven by institutional expectations of productivity (especially publishing and acquiring funding) in a highly competitive field. Many participants reported that the innate sense of curiosity that motivated their initial decision to pursue science is being stifled by these external, more pragmatic factors, and some have even made the choice to leave academia as a result. Making space and time for professional scientists to continue to pursue the sort of work that cultivates awe may help increase retention and reduce burnout. 

Second, science teachers and public communicators can cultivate the conditions for awe by creating opportunities for learners to experience and reflect on authentic moments of discovery, such as through citizen science projects, like Zooniverse or Foldit. The awe that is produced by the experience of contributing to human knowledge through scientific inquiry seems to be especially powerful, serving as a critical source of professional motivation and inspiring a sense of connection with an international and intergenerational community of scientists. Without access to authentic moments of discovery, no matter how small, learners are deprived of the opportunity to experience the type of awe that drives motivation and contributes to the development of professional identity for many scientists. 

Third, educators require sufficient resources, support, and flexibility in order to cultivate the conditions for awe in the science classroom. Students need the time and space to pursue questions of personal interest, and teachers need adequate professional development so that they can skillfully guide their students in open-ended inquiry and the metacognitive exercises that are needed to make sense of their experiences. While science communicators and educators working in informal learning environments are not beholden to the rigid structures of the classroom, they, too, would benefit from additional support to guide learners through the process of reflecting on awe moments, especially given that their encounters with the public are often limited in duration. While it may seem daunting to add one more activity to a learning experience, exercises to help individuals recognize and process awe can be low-effort, such as an “emotion journal” for students in a science class or an interactive gallery wall that invites museum visitors to share their reactions to an exhibit.

Finally, it is critical to understand these findings in relation to broader issues of opportunity gaps, including the disproportionate numbers of underrepresented minorities who are driven out of the field, and disparities in the development of science identity (that is, how people see themselves in relation to science). Experiencing and publicly displaying the emotion of awe in the classroom or the workplace involves a level of vulnerability that may be less comfortable for those who do not belong to dominant identities within the discipline of science. Moreover, much like the institutional constraints described above that inhibit opportunities for awe for professional scientists, there are many constraints inhibiting science teachers’ ability to cultivate awe in the classroom, including limited access to resources, inadequate professional development, and the demands of rigid standards and high-stakes assessments—all of which disproportionately impact low-income students and students of color. Increasing access to classroom conditions that empower all students to both think and feel like scientists should be an urgent priority for the field. There is a sense of comfort to be gained from envisioning oneself as being a part of the great human enterprise of discovery, and it is unjust that this feeling should only be available to those who have the luxury of time and resources to pursue it.

In a sense, my process of conducting this research mirrored the experiences of awe described by my participants. As I analyzed the interview data and witnessed these themes of discovery, community, and motivation rise to the surface, it felt as though I was stumbling into my own “secret garden.” I am hopeful that these findings will help professionals and laypeople alike come to understand the discipline of science with a renewed sense of humanity.

This post is adapted from an article published in Science Education.

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