This is a book about the subjective experience of awe, and how being aware of everyday examples of awe can make your life more meaningful and fulfilling; yet how (in my take) it’s about the emotion, triggered by both the subjective and the objective, and not about science fiction’s “sense of wonder,” something of which the author seems unaware.
(Penguin Press, January 2023, xxvi+309pp, including 59pp of acknowledgements, notes, and index.)
Here’s my take on a recent book that has some striking ideas, yet which prolongs those points with endless anecdotes and case studies. I skimmed the second half. And which doesn’t distinguish the emotion of awe from subjectivity or objectivity; awe is not a clue to what is real, like most emotions.
I hadn’t heard of this book until the author, presumably on a publicity tour for the book, got interviewed by a couple of my daily reads — Slate, Salon, perhaps somewhere else. (Yes, I could look it up.) I checked the book out on Amazon. Too much like a self help book? But there’s an endorsement blurb from Steven Pinker on the back! And from Frans de Waal! And from Pete Docter, the director of several Pixar films, including Inside Out – for which the author here, Keltner, consulted. Still, the book presents itself as a self-help book, posing the question — how can we live a good life? — on its first page and presenting the answer on its 2nd page, and as the theme and title of the book.
Keltner is a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and the theme of his career is about helping people find a meaningful, good life.
So again Keltner gives his thesis right away. The way to a good life is: find awe. The emotion “we experience when we encounter vast mysteries that we don’t understand.” We can find it anywhere, and it doesn’t take much time.
Keltner describes his background in the study of emotions, and how he came to focus on awe, a neglected and difficult to define feeling. The results in this book develop along four lines, or stories, that relate to awe: scientific; personal; cultural; and recovery from loss and trauma. He began by gathering some 2100 personal stories from people around the world (not just “WEIRD” countries) about when and how they felt awe. The stories grouped into eight themes:
- Moral beauty, the actions of people who go out of their way to help others;
- Collective effervescence, the feeling that comes within large groups of people;
- Nature, including cataclysmic events, the night sky, the ocean, forests;
- Visual design (buildings, jewelry);
- Stories of spiritual and religious awe, e.g. conversion stories, even sexual desire;
- Stories of life and death;
- Epiphanies: sudden insights into the meaning of life.
And then the book has a chapter on each of these, giving examples, especially personal stories, especially the *author’s* personal experiences. Author realized the most of the stories they collected were about once-in-a-lifetime experiences, but those aren’t necessary; people who kept daily diaries reported “everyday awe” just by being in museums, or suddenly understanding chemistry, or being aware of their daily surroundings.
One running theme is about the author’s brother, Rolf, who died of cancer, and how memories of Rolf kept recurring.
The gist, again, is that awe is the awareness that we are part of systems larger than the self. (He quotes the famous last lines of Darwin.) How do we do this? Perceive that everything is a system, and systems are entities of interrelated elements working together. Awe arises when we perceive change in those system (p245b), and the phenomena that bring them together. What is the purpose of awe? It integrates us into the systems of life: the ability to wonder about the great questions of living.
My problems with the book (aside from the endless personal anecdotes) are captured in those last summary lines. Sure, awe can be the perception of systems larger than ourselves, and such insights can give life a kind of meaning beyond the protocols of everyday living. But it’s wrong to ask what is the *purpose* of awe, because there is no purpose to evolution, or to our emotions; they just are. The more precise question should have been to ask – which the author doesn’t ask – what *function* does the feeling of awe serve? Why should humans have evolved that among many other emotions? We actually understand, broadly, why many human emotions exist: they motivate people to unconsciously behave in certain ways that are to the benefit of individual and group survival. (Otherwise humans would not have been able to cooperate in large groups and gradually take over the world.) But how do people who experience awe have an advantage over people who don’t? I wish the author had gone there. (I could speculate, but I won’t just now.)
Another issue I have with the book is that the author explores the many things that provoke the feeling of awe, without distinguishing which of them are subjective, or experiences of an objectively real universe. For example, when most people sense something awesome, they identify it with the only story they know to ‘explain’ it, usually the local religion (that they’ve grown up with). That doesn’t make their religion true.
Another key issue is that my first thought about this discussion of awe is that it should align closely with science fiction’s idea of the “sense of wonder,” in particular the discovery in many science fiction stories that the universe is far vaster than believed, or that the universe works to some completely different “purpose” than humans imagined.
(My two favorite examples of this are those two by Arthur C. Clarke: “The Star” and “The Nine Billion Names of God.” Each reveals a universe in which human understanding of its place in it is abruptly overwhelmed and dismissed.)
But the author apparently has no clue about science fiction or its “sense of wonder”; he even distinguishes between ‘awe’ and ‘wonder’ p39:
Wonder, the mental state of openness, questioning, curiosity, and embracing mystery, arises out of experiences of awe. In our studies, people who find more everyday awe show evidence of living with wonder. They are more open to new ideas. To what is unknown. To what language can’t describe. To the absurd. To seeking new knowledge. … They feel more comfortable with mysteries, with that which cannot be explained.
I think that’s a decent take on the philosophical stance of science fiction. (But consider the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction’s take on Sense of Wonder.)
Thus my conclusion from this book is that awe is an emotion about “perceiving systems larger than yourself” but which are not necessarily real, except subjectively. Yet even subjectively, are valuable for mental health.
Particular items I noted:
- Keltner worked with Jonathan Haidt for a time, working out a provisional definition of “awe”; and sure enough, I looked back at Haidt’s book THE HAPPINESS HYPOTHESIS and found their discussion p206ff.
- He describes a new trend for “ASMR videos,” which I had never heard of. There seem to be zillions of them on YouTube. ASMR stands for “autonomous sensory meridian response,” which author describes as “videos of caregiving acts in intimate spaces” meant to trigger soothing emotions. They’re popular with people under 30.
- The word awe derives from words meaning fear or horror. But awe is not fear, or simply about beauty. There’s an interesting chart in the book showing how people relate various terms….
- In a story about the author giving a talk at San Quentin he mentions the idea of restorative justice – which I just heard about in the Michael Shermer book I recently reviewed. With an example of a boy with a bad background, imprisoned for being a pimp, who reformed and became a restorative justice facilitator.
- Name checks and references: Einstein; Michael Pollan; Richard Holmes; William Herschel; Peter Singer; Darwin; William James; Robert Hass; Emily Dickinson, Gary Snyder; Durkheim; Steve Kerr; Rousseau, Emerson, E.O. Wilson; Wordsworth; John Adams; David Byrne; Mozart; Susanne Langer; the Mona Lisa, and De Hooch; Edmund Burke; Kandinsky; Steven Spielberg (whom author met, and heard his story about model trains, which went into The Fabelmans); Rachel Carson; Joseph Campbell; Frank Sulloway; and again Darwin.
I keep stumbling across the author, book, and thesis in various places, e.g. today Big Think, Ross Pomeroy, 7 Feb 2023: The most common source of awe might surprise you: “The most common source of awe is not sublime scenery. Rather, it is the moral actions of your fellow humans.”