Putting The Awe Back In Awesome
We use the word "awesome" very loosely in conventional speech - typically to describe someone, something or a situation that's agreeable or favorable in any way. But the genuine feeling or experience of awe is rarer, much deeper and less understood when compared with other emotions. However, emerging research, such as that conducted by psychologists Keltner and Haidt, is helping to unravel this mysterious state of consciousness and it's evolutionary potential.
Awe may best be defined as a blurring of the emotional boundaries between admiration and fear. Therefore, some psychologists hypothesize that it is felt in the autonomic nervous system when both the fight-flight and relaxation responses are turned "on" - to some extent - at the same time.
This feeling can be triggered by encounters with vastness or in the presence of unfathomable qualities in nature, art, technology and people. MRI studies point to a reduction of activity in the parietal lobe of the brain. This region is involved with our sense of self as distinct in space, and inactivity in that part of the cortex may account for or correlate to self-transcendence and a sense of oneness. These brain and perceptual changes have also been observed in studies of meditation, sensory deprivation, and psychedelic drugs.
Awe is not nearly as inaccessible as it sounds. It is uncommon because it is subtle. Thus, mindfulness may be our most practical tool to safely explore this state and derive it's unique benefits.