Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Writers, can’t afford a holiday? Try awe instead – by Rowena House

Midway through August, and feeling disgruntled about not being able to get away this year, New Scientist came to the rescue with an article about the psychological, emotional and creative value of experiencing awe.
Apparently, feeling a sense of awe breaks down our habitual patterns of thinking, reducing the expectations and assumptions which otherwise colour our view of the world, and thus enables us to see better what’s actually going on.
“Feeling awestruck can dissolve our very sense of self, bringing a host of benefits from lowering stress and boosting creativity to making us nicer people,” says Jo Marchant in Awesome Awe (issue No 3136, July 29th, 2017).
Awe combines amazement, a hint of fear, and a sense of transcendence: that humbling knowledge of things beyond us.
Experiencing awe quietens regions of the brain normally occupied with self-interest and self-consciousness, increasing a sense of connection to others, and leading to more charitable thoughts and altruistic actions.
Astronauts are subject to awe so often when they look down on Earth from space that they’ve given it a specific name: the overview effect.
“Researchers have also reported increases in curiosity and creativity. In one study, after viewing images of Earth, volunteers came up with more original examples in tests, found greater interest in abstract painting and persisted longer on difficult puzzles, compared with controls,” Marchant says.
All of which reminds me of a conversation that creative writers often have with each other: what on earth should we do when inspiration dies?
Eating chocolate or cake are popular remedies. Taking hot baths or showers help a lot of us, too, along with walking the dog, meditation etc. etc.
The New Scientist article suggests that we’d be better off taking a daily dose of awe instead. (Controlled doses of psychedelic drugs seem to work as well, but I’ll leave it up to you to check out what the article has to say about that.) To benefit from awe, all we have to do is find out what triggers it in us, and do that as often as possible.
Maybe it’s taking time to absorb a sublime city skyline, or to lose ourselves in some great monument: a ruined temple of the Ancient World, a medieval cathedral or the Sky Tree in Tokyo. Staring into the branches of an ancient oak tree does it for me, or encountering a wild animal unexpectedly, or sitting by the untamed sea or under a starry sky.
One thing I miss most about not going on holiday is watching the churning wake of our ferry as we pull away from land, and the crying of gulls, which always leaves me with a liberating sense of surrender to the journey and the wider world.
This loss of self, with its accompanying connection to others, may sound like mystical mumbo-jumbo or pseudo-religion, but if awe is hard-wired by evolution into our brains – if it’s a natural, creative, mind-altering buzz – why not harness its power year-round?
Alternatively, we could max out on credit cards and go find some sunshine anyway.


Rowena House said...

Ooops. SNAFU with the layout & picture there. Hope it makes sense anyway. Happy Tuesday!

Ann Turnbull said...

Lovely post, Rowena. I always find dawn awe-inspiring - partly because I so rarely get up in time to see it! I think the last time was flying home overnight from Nova Scotia, when I had a window seat and saw the dawn racing towards us. Btw, I hadn't even noticed the absence of pictures in your post until I went back to see what was wrong with them! What does SNAFU mean? (No - better not tell me. I can guess the last two words!)

Susan Price said...

Good advice, Rowena. The only thing I really took to in Philosophy 101 was the instruction to allow ourselves to reguarly be 'struck by wonder.'
Science is a great source of awe and wonder.
Being banjaxed by wonder can happen in your backyard. I know I'm sounding like some irritating and elderly Pollyanna, but I see the water-lily opening, the bumble-bees little bums waggling from the nasturtiums, the ichneumon wasps investigating the broccoli. I turn the compost and disturb whole cities of woodlice, worms and spiders, which brings in the birds... the interconnectedness of all the variety makes me feel dizzy.

Rowena House said...

Dear Ann - dawn is definitely on my list too! When my son was an infant we saw it together often. Amazing. And yes, I think you've guessed the last two letters! First three: System Normal, all...!

And Susan, I so agree with the wonder of nature in our back yard. New Scientist drew a distinction, however, between the primal sensation of awe, and wonder. Wonder, it said, "is more intellectual - a cognitive state in which you are trying to understand the mysterious." Not sure I'd draw such a clear line between the two. Really worthwhile tracking the original article down. Lots more in it.

Heather Dyer said...