Proof of the Soul?



When golden light breaks through a streaky pink and orange sunset, it is easy to imagine we are seeing Heaven itself. Standing atop a mountain, we are at one with the whole world. Marble altars feel colder, paler, and more remote these days, and many of us seek nature’s wonders as eagerly as we once sought holiness.

Wonder is the emotion common to both. And we know precious little about it. The earthier, baser emotions, like lust and greed, command attention; researchers have barely glanced at wonder. But Craig Anderson, a postdoctoral scholar in marketing at Washington University, worked on Dacher Keltner’s Project Awe research team at UC-Berkeley—and what he learned made him want to know more.

“People who are more awe prone have less inflammation,” he tells me, summing up one of the studies he co-authored. Instead of looking at the sympathetic nervous system—the one that ramps us up, triggers a stress response, causes a lot of wear and tear on the body, and takes a long time to spin down—he was looking at the parasympathetic nervous system, the one that relaxes us, helps us digest a fine filet mignon, bond with a lover, take tender care of a two-year-old. “The easiest way to measure parasympathetic activity is by the vagus nerve’s influence on the heart,” he says. “As you breathe in and out, your heart speeds and slows; that’s the vagus nerve at work. It causes minute changes in heart rate, and it’s related to a bunch of positive states, including attention, curiosity, and directing our focus outward to the environment and other people.”

When we are sick, mentally or physically, the vagus nerve does not operate as well, and there is less of that gentle, rhythmic influence on the heart. We do not know why yet. But Anderson says it was clear in the lab, looking at people’s responses to film clips designed to elicit awe, that some were more prone to feeling awe. And those were the same people whose bodies were dealing with less inflammation.

Awe does even more for us, he continues: “It helps us fold into collectives. The awe we feel for a powerful leader humbles us, making us feel connected to our community. We listen to this leader and cooperate because of awe.” Not always such a good idea, I mutter to myself. Then the political cynicism dissolves, because the next benefit has more to do with nature: “Awe is connected to curiosity and how we process information.” When we see something so vast and wonderful, we cannot wrap our mind around it, a thrill runs down our spine; we are alert, eager, open to learning more. “Primates will show that response when they are around a waterfall,” Anderson says. I picture two monkeys, one with a long arm draped around the other’s neck, gazing in quiet wonder at that rush of water. Do they feel closer to each other because they are together in its presence?

“Ego dissolution can be part of wonder, too,” Anderson says, reverting (I assume) to humans. Awe takes us out of our private, self-serving frame of reference, showing us how big the world around us is. That shift of scale automatically humbles us, making us small by comparison—and thus dwarfing our problems. We are experiencing something we cannot control, something we would never want to control. “Awe changes our place in the universe very quickly, and by doing that, it changes our world view.”

We feel awe during cataclysmic life events—the birth of a child, the death of a loved one—and transcendent moments—orgasm, glorious music, maybe a psilocybin (magic mushroom) high. Most often, though, we are awed in the presence of nature. “You ask people to describe a time they felt awe, and sixty to seventy percent talk about something in nature,” Anderson says. Mountain climbing, deep-sea diving, rowing through a cave iced with crystalline stalactites, standing close enough to look into a wild animal’s eyes, breaking free of gravity and flying into space. . . .

When we are awed, even our body reacts differently. Our mouth opens softly; our jaw may literally drop, hinged open for a moment. We sigh or forget to breathe. Our eyebrows lift but do not knit together. Our eyes are wide open—and so are our mind and our heart. One of my favorite social psychologists, Jonathan Haidt, points out that experiences of awe are one of the fastest, most powerful methods of personal growth.

And people with psychopathic traits, on the other hand, prefer city life and feel less connected to nature.

So how do we avoid their fate and experience more awe? There is a slight genetic component, a predisposition, Anderson says, but “as with most things, it’s nature and nurture. If you were brought up to be devout in faith or to love the outdoors, you will feel awe more often.” Nature and religion are the two big categories, though other people can awe us, too. Which is why “being open to learning new things and meeting new kinds of people also increases the chance, Anderson says. “The less closed off you are, the better. I’d imagine the more engrossed you are in your phone, the less awe you will feel, because the phone closes you off. You stop being present and noticing what is around you.”

Another reason occurs to me: All the data flowing into my phone leaves me jaded. When there are too many texts and emails, too many search results, too many articles to skim, none of it feels especially wondrous.

“The lower inflammation—does that show up the same way with other positive emotions, like joy or contentment or amusement?” I ask suddenly, trying for a little journalistic skepticism.

No, says Anderson, the strongest link is to awe.

It is in marveling at transcendent wonders, experiences that lift us out of time and space, that our bodies relax into both physical and spiritual health. Time lengthens, we feel more satisfied with our lives, and our values sort themselves out. We are more than a system of physical properties, it seems. All those studies that show people who pray or go to church live longer, healthier, happier lives? This is what they are talking about. Not a building or a label or words of petition and praise, but the feeling deep beneath them. Today’s pervasive discontent is a toxic mix: disconnection from nature, disconnection from spirit, disconnection from one another, and disillusionment, a loss of all those institutions and values we thought were bigger than we were, strong enough to let us relax and lean against them.

The soul is the part of us that survives disillusionment; that resonates with awe. And awe is the emotion that can hold us together.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.