Source: Fast Company, Dec 2016
Imagine standing at the edge of a deep canyon, the rocks painted pink and red by the setting sun. The sky seems endless. There’s a giant sequoia tree next to you, towering into the heavens.
That feeling you have of being small, a part of something larger, is awe. And it’s not just something that’s merely nice to experience now and then; it can actually shape the way we make choices.
feeling responsible for another person, and thus connected to the world—with its attendant feelings of wonder and awe—lights up our altruism circuits.
The brain can either be a navel-gazer—thinking mainly about ourselves—or a star-gazer, considering our connectedness to the wider world. As navel-gazers, our brains are head down, our focus narrowed to our self-doubt, our social anxiety, our self-aggrandizement, our vainglory. As navel-gazers, we inhibit the connections between brain regions that lead us to think of others first. Our minds are underwhelmed and uninspired, and so are the choices they lead us to make.
But as star-gazers, our brains sit with heads thrown back, the star-filled sky stretching overhead. That causes a whole other set of synapses in our brains to begin firing together. The anterior cingulate cortex and insular cortex connect, and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex comes online, too. Feeling inspired—overtaken by awe—we’re newly reminded of our place in the wider field of existence.
Want some other (comparatively) easy ways to inspire your brain to feel awe?
- Get to high places. Gazing out across a vista, whether it’s from the top of a hill, a mountain, or even an office building gives us a sense of perspective about ourselves and our place in the universe.
- Get to bodies of water. The ocean, lakes, running rivers—all help us relax and remember that we rely on these water sources for our survival. They also remind us that there are huge swaths of the planet where we don’t belong.