Last week a friend of mine told me about “The Science of Awe”, and how it helped him understand his obsession with surfing big waves. So I looked it up.
According to a series of studies over the past 20 years, awe occurs when there’s a “perceived vastness” (a sweeping landscape, a larger-than-life person) and a “need for accommodation” (your brain must change because what it’s seeing is beyond comprehension).
So, they put some fancy scientific words to explain awe? Big deal.
Right. But what I found more interesting were the outcomes of awe. As one paper mentioned, “awe is often accompanied by feelings of self-diminishment and increased connectedness with other people…[and] puts people in a self-transcendent state where they focus less on themselves and feel more like a part of a larger whole.”
In short, awe makes us better people.
This is why traveling is more than just a self-indulgent escapism. It’s why we need to gaze over the Grand Canyon, climb Kilimanjaro and witness the towering waves of Nazaré. Why we crave chance encounters with fascinating strangers. Why Mark Twain said, “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” Because we need to experience vastness so our brains can rewire themselves and we become better, more connected people. And that’s a hard thing to do while sitting at home.
PS: If you want to learn more about The Science of Awe, check out this white paper from the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.