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How awe-inspiring experiences bring people together

Posted April 5
Updated April 7

Brother Guy Consolmagno has been looking up at the stars for more than half a century, but he's still awestruck by the night sky.

The Jesuit priest's advanced degrees in planetary science enhanced his understanding of the universe without dampening his appreciation for simple pleasures, like spotting the Big Dipper.

"If you know the science, the nuts and bolts, the thrills are still there. You've just got another reason … to be excited about it," he said.

Consolmagno, who serves as director of the Vatican Observatory, credits this excitement with sustaining a career that bridges the worlds of science and faith. A sense of wonder links his astronomical research with his religious devotion, just like it brings together students who participate in the Vatican Observatory's biennial Summer School program.

"We all live under the same sky. That sense of awe in looking at the sky is something that can unite us," he said.

Psychological science backs up Consolmagno's presentation of the emotion, to a certain extent. Awe, or the feeling elicited by a brilliant sunset or the view from the top of a mountain, shifts people's normal frames of reference, challenging the assumptions that guide our everyday lives, wrote Michelle Shiota, an associate professor of social psychology at Arizona State University, in an email.

Experiences that astonish or amaze us "yank us out of our normal way of going through the day (and) make us slow down and pay close attention," she said.

Although adversaries who admire the Grand Canyon together will likely still argue afterward, awe might help people approach old challenges in new ways, paving the way toward more meaningful engagement with the world.

Investigating awe

Awe could boost cooperation by reminding people that they are a small piece of a very large world. Research has shown that looking at a beautiful nature scene or a famous painting can help individuals put their own needs into perspective, Shiota said.

For example, one of her studies, published in 2007 by the journal Cognition and Emotion, found that college students who were awestruck by a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton were more likely to reflect on the world outside themselves than those looking at an empty hallway. Members of the first group answer the question "Who am I?" with references to universals.

"They were perceiving themselves as members of an extremely large whole," Shiota said.

Other studies have offered more insights, highlighting how awe can make people more generous or more willing to volunteer because it can make people feel as if time is passing more slowly, meaning they have more time to share with others.

Awe's influences on our social relationships are still under investigation, and not every study has put the emotion in a favorable light, Shiota said. But it does seem likely that, by focusing an individual's attention on the outside world, awe can, in some cases, encourage selflessness.

Preparing yourself

Consolmagno was grateful for the unifying power of awe when his team at the Vatican Observatory recently hosted a group of Muslim scholars. Their shared excitement about the skies helped build understanding between two groups with different religious concerns.

Recognizing how astronomy evoked the same emotion in everyone "was a great way to break down national barriers," he said.

Researchers continue to work to measure and analyze these types of experiences in order to understand how awe can be nurtured, Shiota said.

But, unfortunately, society seems to be becoming less and less attuned to wonder and amazement because of the growing role of technology in people's lives, she added.

"We spend so much time engaged with these little screens now. Awe will very, very rarely be found in those screens," Shiota said.

Her research has hinted at the awful consequences to those who lose that sense of wonder. Shiota's 2007 study quoted Albert Einstein saying, "The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the power of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead."

Science, faith and awe

Researchers study awe by investigating how people react to novel experiences. But the emotion can also characterize an investigation or relationship that spans long periods, as Consolmagno's relationship to his career illustrates.

It's this other interpretation of the emotion that intersects with faith. Some religious people might be more open to awe than others because they view their faith as a source of new revelations about the purpose of their life and how the world works, Shiota said.

"For these people, religion is part of a search for meaning, for an increasingly deep understanding of the great questions of life and death. … Participation in religion and faith are part of their quest to grown and learn," she said. "I can't point to specific data, but I would hypothesize that people with this orientation to religion might be quite awe-prone."

Scientists sometimes approach their work in the same way, opening themselves up to repeated astonishing experiences, Consolmagno said.

Science is "a groping in the dark towards truth," he said.

Bill Tammeus, who has written on the intersection of science and faith during his more than 35-year career with the Kansas City Star, thinks of awe as the root of both science and faith.

Echoing Consolmagno, he said it's a potential bridge between the two disciplines, which many people believe are in tension. Nearly six-in-10 U.S. adults (59 percent) say that science and religion are often in conflict, according to a 2015 survey from Pew Research Center.

"People in both areas understand what awe is about. They understand that it is to be explored, encouraged and shared with others," Tammeus said.

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com Twitter: @kelsey_dallas

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