Why Do We Feel Awe? Essays & Opinions
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Shaun Gallagher

The Awesomeness of Space

Lillian and Morrie Moss Professor of Excellence at the University of Memphis.

Gazing at the heavens has long been known to elicit feelings of awe and wonder. The first forays into philosophy and science put the night sky at the center of inquiry. Thales, often considered the first philosopher, was an accomplished astronomer who predicted the solar eclipse of May 28, 585 BC. An old tradition, derived from Plato, holds that after dusk he would walk about, eyes fixed on the stars, until the night he tumbled into an open well.   

Of course, one need not be a philosopher to be awestruck by natural beauty. Sunrises and sunsets, views from a mountaintop or from the edges of the sea, desert vistas or the silence of deep forests—all of these can inspire a sense of awe and wonder. What precisely are such feelings, and from where do such experiences arise?

For the past few years, I have headed a research team of philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists, engineers, and art historians in a project to study a special case of awe and wonder. We were interested in specific experiences reported by astronauts and cosmonauts during space travel, who described deeply aesthetic, spiritual, and sometimes religious experiences generated in almost all cases by visual stimuli—views of deep space or of earth as seen from the windows of the space shuttle or the International Space Station (ISS).

These particular experiences had not been studied scientifically before, and we wanted to know if we could replicate them in the lab. At the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Simulation and Training (IST), we set out to build two experimental simulation environments. The first was a mixed reality mockup of the interior of the ISS with window views of dynamic virtual space scenes. The second was a dynamic visual from the perspective of launch and earth orbit. While constructing the simulations, we partnered with art historians at Humboldt University in Berlin to research the best images in the NASA archive. 

The creation of realistic simulations took many hours of detailed work by a team of postdoctoral computer engineers. Other researchers, led by two philosophers, conducted an in-depth analysis of 51 texts authored by 45 astronauts and cosmonauts, taken from in-flight journals and published interviews in which they described their experiences in space. Critically, we needed to devise clear and precise categories of the experiences described by the astronauts that would fit with our working definitions of awe and wonder.

Awe: A direct and initial feeling when faced with something incomprehensible or sublime.

Wonder: A more reflective feeling one has when unable to put things back into a familiar conceptual framework.

In a complex analysis of the astronauts’ journals and interviews, we found explicit descriptions of 34 different categories of experience related to these definitions. They included, for example, experiences of being captured by or drawn to the view of the earth from the ISS; a feeling of connectedness with what they were seeing; a feeling of contentment (tranquility); a dream-like feeling (a feeling of unreality); a feeling of elation; a feeling of being overwhelmed; an experience of a perspective shift (a change of moral attitude); an experience of scale effects (feelings of the vastness of the universe or one’s own smallness or insignificance); and so on. It was important to have good descriptions and categories of the astronauts’ experiences for our attempt to replicate them.

We were interested in answering a variety of questions. What are experiences of awe and wonder during space travel really like? What is the actual phenomenology? What aspects of the environment motivate such experiences? With a precise simulation timeline, we could know precisely what our subjects were viewing when they had specific experiences. What happens in the brain when subjects are having these experiences? To measure this, we used electroencephalography (EEG), which measures dynamic changes in the brain, and functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), which records activity in the frontal and temporal cortices. We also measured changes in heart rate using electrocardiography (EKG).

We were likewise interested in exploring whether such experiences correlate in any way with differences in psychological or cultural backgrounds. To test this, we administered a battery of questionnaires after the experiment, measuring aspects of personality, cognitive style, as well as religious practice. We wanted to know, for example, whether people who have a high tolerance for ambiguity, or a high proclivity for being absorbed in a cognitive task, or a comforting experience of religious faith would be more likely to experience awe and wonder.

After testing 116 subjects in our simulations, but before administering the questionnaires, trained researchers conducted a phenomenological interview with each subject designed to hone in on precisely what they experienced during the simulation. We used different methods to correlate the neurological and physiological data with the phenomenological data and the results from the questionnaires.

What did we learn? It is not possible to summarize all of our results here, but there are four major highlights worth discussing. (For more details see UCF’s Space, Science and Spirituality website.)

First, although not all subjects experienced awe and wonder, we were able to replicate all 34 categories of experience in the simulations. Compare, as one small sample, two texts, the first from an astronaut, the second from an interview of one of our subjects:

[You] suddenly get the feeling that, hey, this is just one small planet which is lost in the middle of space… [A] very important feeling about the fact that we’re just drifting through an immense universe. . . [scale effects]. [Y]ou become a little more conscious about the fact that we shouldn’t be doing silly things on Earth like fighting and killing each other [perspectival (moral) shift].

So, it’s a different view on Earth… I think it just really makes you feel less important when you look at everything in such a view like that. You’re just a speck on the Earth that’s in a universe of many different planets. You’re small compared to everything else [scale effects], and I didn’t feel too bad, but it kinda makes me feel like my problems now are not really as big as I think they are compared to everything else in the world [perspectival (moral) shift].

Second, views of earth in near-earth orbit elicited higher responses of awe and wonder than did views of deep space. 

Third, we were able to track definite changes in EEG data (i.e., greater alpha suppression in both the frontal and the occipital/parietal areas, in both left and right hemispheres) correlated to experiences of awe and wonder. 

Finally, and perhaps surprisingly, those subjects who indicated higher measures of religiosity (specifically those who expressed a more intense connection with a higher power and those who engage more in religious practices) experienced less awe and wonder than those who indicated lower measures on this scale. One possible way to explain this result is that those with higher religiosity scores may better be able to incorporate the space-related experiences into their expectations or conceptual schemas, thereby undermining conditions for experiencing awe and wonder.  

We are really just beginning to explore these experiences using scientific and interdisciplinary methodologies. But, we have already learned that the sky is not the limit.

Shaun Gallagher is the Lillian and Morrie Moss Professor of Excellence at the University of Memphis.

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