This recent image of the Nevada desert is one of my husband’s favorites. The road in the foreground wanders into the foothills of the Humboldt Range to Star City, a former mining community and now a ghost town listed on the Nevada registry of landmarks. A couple of months ago when we stood here, we were awed by the view and the daunting prospect of entering those mountains.
Today I came across a piece titled, “The Science of Awe” by Jake Abrahamson. Abrahamson quoted an article published in a professional journal in which researchers described awe as, “[i]n the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear…” That phrase characterizes my overall vast experience of desert travel. Through my journeys it has become clear that a response of awe to nature yields beneficial effects–it stimulates the spirit and settles the mind. Awe is the antithesis of neuroses, an antidote for modernity and a portal to reverence and prayer. Awe provides an important perspective that every loving parent gives his child: you are many things, but among those is not the author of this wild and wondrous world. There is a certain sense of surrender that I enjoy with being made to feel small in this way.
According to Abrahamson, awe also has the healing power to inspire (and presumably reinforce) virtue:
…[A] state of awe…psychologists are coming to understand, can have profoundly positive effects on people. It happens when people encounter a vast and unexpected stimulus, something that makes them feel small and forces them to revise their mental modes of what’s possible in the world. In its wake, people act more generously and ethically, think more critically when encountering persuasive stimuli…and often feel a deeper connection to others and the world in general. Awe prompts people to redirect concern away from the self and toward everything else. And about three-quarters of the time, it’s elicited by nature.
It was only 11 years ago that psychologists Dacher Keltner of the University of California, Berkeley, and Jonathan Haidt, then at the University of Virginia, proposed awe as an emotion worth studying. “In the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear,” they wrote in the journal Cognition and Emotion in 2003, awe is felt… Fleeting and rare, experiences of awe can change the course of a life in profound and permanent ways.” –Jake Abrahamson, “The Science of Awe,” Sierra Magazine: November-December 2014.