Wired for Awe

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Everyone, even atheists, experiences awe. Can they explain it away?

The thundering of a waterfall, the soaring heights of a snow-peaked mountaintop, a dark sky sprinkled with thousands of stars. Sights like these have inspired awe throughout history.

What moment of awe stands out in your memory? Mine lasted two minutes and forty seconds. On August 21, 2017, I was standing in an open field in Gallatin, Tennessee, as the hot sun beat down on an excited group of onlookers. On cue, twilight quietly crept over the earth, and everything grew hushed. We were witnessing a total solar eclipse.

As the sun disappeared into blackness, the corona’s glowing halo shimmered like a cosmic diamond. Those who experience totality say the feeling is impossible to put into words. I would agree.

They often describe it as a spiritual experience. Even skeptics, such as science writer David Baron, who spoke about it in a TED talk, describe being swept away in an intense, seemingly spiritual, moment.

Not just nature inspires moments of awe. The pageantry of religious ceremony, soaring orchestral music, and lofty cathedrals arouse the same sensation. One brain researcher claims it’s so predictable that he can consistently produce awe in research subjects using the same objects and sensory experiences.

What Makes Us Feel Awe?

We all experience awe. Merriam-Webster describes it well: “an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime.”

That feeling of “veneration” in the face of the “sacred” has sent atheists scurrying for generations, denying that awe even exists except among religious fanatics. But today everyone is forced to embrace its reality. Neuroscientists can detect its effects in the brain.

So instead of accepting the classic Christian claim that awe results from God’s design of human beings to recognize his handiwork and worship him, evolutionary scientists are looking for an alternative explanation.

The first attempt at a scientific definition of awe appeared in a landmark 2003 paper in Cognition and Emotion. It stresses our feelings when we come into contact with “vastness,” something larger than ourselves, that is combined with a “threat” that challenges our current understanding of the world. By defining it this way, scientists hope to find why humans might have evolved this reaction as a survival response.

Rooted in Neurology?

Neuroscientists, who study the brain and its processes, now have at their disposal sophisticated technology that is mapping how billions of neurons in our brains can produce awe and other emotions. They can also track how these emotions affect the rest of our brain and our bodies.

At the latest meeting of the Organization for Human Brain Mapping, Michiel van Elk explained how he is using MRI brain scans to show that feelings of awe shut down the brain’s default mode network, an area thought to relate to our sense of self. This would explain why we feel like we lose a sense of ourselves in moments of awe. We become less aware of ourselves and more connected with those around us.

The Disappearing Sense of Self

Brain Scan

When your brain experiences awe, it turns off the network of interacting brain regions associated with your sense of self. This is called the default mode network (above). Slowing down this brain activity explains why you lose your sense of significance and feel greater “oneness” with the world around you.

Other researchers are looking at the mystical awe claimed by worshippers of every stripe. They found these religious, spiritual, and mystical experiences (RSMEs) have their origins, at least partly, in our neurology. RSMEs, across religions, produce activity in the limbic system, our brain’s emotional center, and cause changes in our thalamus, the part of our brain that shapes our sense of reality.

Combined with the slowing down of activity in the default mode network (described above), this explains why study participants report feeling a sense of “oneness” during their experience. Awe changes our emotions and the way we see ourselves and the world around us.

And this has positive side effects. Focusing outside of ourselves, on the bigger picture, can improve health and quality of life. It helps us feel less stressed and even happier. It even gives our immune system a little boost by decreasing the production of cytokines, which increase inflammation. And these benefits aren’t just for the moment but can be felt weeks later.

Awe also calms our fight-or-flight response, makes people more willing to give of their time, and can even help us remember details or improve our focus. It’s also been shown to increase creativity and curiosity. Experiencing this sensation is good for us!

No Religion Required

Describing what is, isn’t the same as establishing where it came from or why it exists. Even atheists now accept that this feeling of “vanishing self,” or transcending yourself, exists and is a healthy benefit to people. To them, it doesn’t mean you have to worship God.

Researcher Dacher Keltner, who has interviewed thousands of people about their awe-inspiring experiences, says it goes beyond religion: “People have always felt awe about nonreligious things. It’s available to atheists in full force.” Andrew Newberg, another neuroscientist, emphasizes the same thing, that it doesn’t matter whether your belief system is atheistic or theistic: “You don’t have to have any given belief system in order to have these experiences.”

If that’s the case, where does this sense of awe come from? Evolutionary experts are of two minds. Researchers like Dr. Newberg propose that, as human brains supposedly got bigger and more complex, we started philosophizing and from that came religion and awe. That supposedly had the survival advantage of uniting societies and connecting people.

At the other end of the spectrum are experts like Dr. Keltner, who argue that awe evolved before religion. They conjecture that our supposed ancestors responded to powerful forces in nature through group bonding. Since this bonding helped them survive, those who felt awe survived while others died out.

How does the same data produce contradictory stories? The problem is that these aren’t observations like the data we gather from MRI machines. The stories are conjectures built on assumptions about the past. If the assumptions are wrong, the conclusions will be wrong.

Created for Awe

Thankfully, the Creator gave us an eyewitness account that documents the past to keep us from falling into error. The Bible clearly explains that the Lord created us to worship him from the very beginning, and he made our minds so we could stand in awe of his handiwork (Romans 1:20). We’re wired for awe because God designed our brains that way.

As scientists learn more about the brain, our reasons for awe should just keep growing. This design is a gift from God and truly gives us a survival benefit! Our loving God wants everyone, even in our fallen, rebellious, dying condition, to see that true life and fulfillment can come only from him.

The psalmist David described this universal sense of awe—and our proper response—as he gazed into the night sky: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? . . . O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8:3–4, 9).

Avery Foley is a writer for Answers in Genesis from Ontario, Canada. She holds a master of arts in theological studies (MATS) degree from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary.

Answers Magazine

March–April 2018

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