There was a day many years ago when I was driving in Wisconsin, doing some shopping errands close to my home at the time. My mind was, most likely, on the paraphernalia of life: raising two children, my work as a musician, keeping my family running smoothly. There was a field off to my left, and I suddenly noticed a flock of birds rise from it to the sky, a sight I’ve seen hundreds, if not thousands of times in my life.
But for some reason, this time, the experience took me to a different place entirely. I was seeing the birds as if it was the first time I had ever witnessed such a thing, and the awe and wonder of it overwhelmed me. It was as if I had stepped out of my everyday existence on Earth and had gone to a place where everything around me was miraculous, breathtaking, appreciated, and so obviously easy. It seemed I had woken up from a troubling dream, and realized that I was back in the land of everyday miracles. I felt like I was part of something wonderful and special.
Then the feeling went away as quickly as it had come. My mind went back to the tasks at hand, and my mental chatter resumed. I don’t believe I even mentioned the experience to anyone. But, I’ve never forgotten what that moment felt like, and have often wondered if there’s anything I can do to get the feeling back.
And of course, there are things we can do to stimulate or recapture the feeling of awe: looking at the night sky, for instance (especially in a place without a lot of light pollution) reminds us that we are small specks in a grand, incomprehensible universe. Spending time in nature is a demonstration of the many miracles going on there on a daily basis, miracles that will continue with or without humanity. Experiencing great art can transport us to another place and help us to see our lives in a different light. Sometimes a religious experience can get us to that same place.
Our bodies respond differently when we are experiencing awe than when we are feeling joy, contentment or fear. We make a different sound (usually a sucking in of breath), show a different facial expression (eyes wide, mouth open). It has been shown that awe activates the vagal nerves, clusters of neurons in the spinal cord that regulate various bodily functions, slowing our heart rate, relieving indigestion, and deepening our breathing. Some of us get frisson, a chill that travels through our body.
Awe has also been shown to open us up as humans: we are more willing to share and give back, to be generous, to view our fellow humans not as threats, but as convivial travelers on the path of life.
And we’re not the only ones experiencing these feelings. The primatologist Jane Goodall was observing chimpanzees in Gombe, Tanzania when she noticed a male chimp gesturing excitedly at a beautiful waterfall. He perched on a nearby rock and gaped at the flowing water for several minutes. Goodall and her team saw such higher consciousness responses on several occasions.
Wonder and awe inspire curiosity, so are useful in keeping our species moving ahead. If we didn’t feel wonder, and its follow on, curiosity, there would be no reason to investigate further, to build on what we already know.
If wonder and awe are found in all human beings and higher primates, why do science, art and religion appear to be recent developments in the history of our species? Modern humans have been around for an estimated two hundred thousand years, yet the earliest evidence for things that use wonder (like religious rituals) appears only about seventy thousand years ago (in the Kalahari Desert, where archeologists say the first known drawing in history was made) and the oldest cave paintings (at El Castillo in Spain) are only forty thousand years old. Science as we know it, which is also inspired by wondering about stuff, is much younger than that — perhaps only a few hundred years old.
For one thing, we were just trying to survive. We had no time or inclination to make up stories and create artwork when our very lives were at stake. It took getting to a place of relative calm to start processing the things that struck us as awesome. And for another, we didn’t yet have scientific measuring devices like telescopes to explain what the heck that streak in the night sky actually was. So in our infancy, we took these things for granted: they happened, end of story.
But wonder and awe began to show up and reshape humanity’s future by inspiring us to dig deeper into explanations for stuff in this incredible world. The first housed artwork, for instance, only initially existed in houses of worship - art was not originally a thing for art’s sake, it existed to inspire people to support their local church.
My question, though, is this: when in our history did we get to the point of saying something like, “Mom, Dad…I want to be an artist!” Where did that impetus come from?
We weren’t just suggesting goofing around, making decorations; at some point, it occurred to us to make a whole career out of creating. The only reason I can see that we would express such an idea, would be to follow our sense of wonder and awe to the creation of something amazing and novel, something that points the way to Truth. Wonder stimulates creativity as a way to express something bigger than ourselves, which as evolved humans, we are compelled to do.
This is a rather astonishing part of our human journey, as to try something as scary and unsafe as creativity takes a lot of “damn the torpedoes” courage. It’s so much easier and safer to stay moored in the harbor. But perhaps that’s the true role of wonder and awe, to prompt us to peek behind the curtain, draw in our breath, and find our own inspiration to make something new and wonderful.