Previously I reviewed a *new book about awe. In this entry I share some of the author’s significant, hopefully useful observations. Today: Awe as a whole-body phenomenon.
Social scientist and author Dacher Keltner describes the physical characteristics of awe-filled experiences, adding details to the truth that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14). His specific findings add up to something amazing: Awe unifies soul, body, mind and spirit.
Bodily movements or reactions might just be the first language of wonder. When we’re awed in any way, our entire vagal nervous system reacts up and down its entire length. (This central neuronal system connects all vital internal organs to the brain.) A feel-good hormone/brain chemical called oxytocin floods the vagal system and our brains. We might tear up or start shuddering and shivering (goose bumps). When rhythmic music is present, we may feel like dancing or mimicking the movements of others around us. We might express our emotions with involuntary vocal bursts—the whoa’s, ooh’s, aah’s or wow’s that take the place of carefully chosen words and phrases.
An equally amazing set of thoughts and feelings accompanies those physical reactions: Deep pleasure, empathy, love and appreciation of others around us, understanding of foundational concepts and values and unity with God’s presence or purposes. Our brains and bodies are attentive to and synchronized with other’s bodies and brains. We realize that we’re part of something much greater than ourselves, finding joy and generosity that can transcend any narrowly focused self-interest. Awe experiences can satisfy our deepest longings for meaning and intimacy. We realize that our true identity is collective, relational. “These qualities do not fit neatly within the hyperindividualistic, materialist, survival-of-the-selfish-genes views of human nature….” (Keltner, page 6)
When we experience awe, then, these automatic biological, emotional and spiritual responses help connect us to God’s presence. It’s no wonder, then, that awe can remain a meaningful, memorable and desirable part of our lives!
*Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life. By Dacher Keltner. Copyright © 2023. New York: Penguin Press. ISBN 978-1-9848-7968-4
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