Turns out scientist have been studying the feeling of awe, and I just happened to find out because the postal worker accidentally delivered Sierra magazine to my house instead of our next door neighbor. (Don't worry- we're giving it back.)
Scientists sent 25 kids on a rafting adventure to measure their levels of 'awe.' The students spat at specific moments of their adventures (before, during, and after) into vials to measure their hormone levels (like dopamine) and other hormones. Other controlled experiments also took place in the laboratory, in efforts to elicit the high on life, jaw dropped open, shut you up- type of feeling.
Awe, as “psychologists are coming to understand, can have profoundly positive effects on people. It happens when people encounter a vast and unexpected stimulus, something that makes them feel small and forces them to revise their mental models of what’s possible in the world. In its wake, people act more generously and ethically, think more critically when encountering persuasive stimuli, like arguments or advertisements, and often feel a deeper connection to others and the world in general. Awe prompts people to redirect concern away from the self and toward everything else. And about three-quarters of the time, it’s elicited by nature.” From Science of Awe by Jake Abrahamson
In July, I visited the Amazon. We got to float down the Rio Arajuno in a tube. It was kind of similar to most of my lazy river experiences, except this time I felt an incredible feeling of anxiousness. The rains the night before raised the water level by about a meter. The one hour and fifteen minute normal ride lasted only forty minutes. We zoomed down it.
Our guide told us to stay in the middle, away from the trees on the edges. You didn't want anything falling on you after all. Anyway, being scared of snakes from dropping out of the sky was sillier than being scared of ants and spiders, who could easily cause more damage. So I used my arm strength to stay steady in the middle, chaffing my under arms from the rapid useless steering movements I was making. It looked like for every one stroke our guide made, I easily made a hundred.
But I was still uneasy, and my uneasiness didn't come from the fact that things could drop on me from overhead, but what lurked beneath the light brown muddy waters with zero transparency. Two nights before my partner saw a huge snake slithering below our raised walkway. Our guide told us it was most likely an anaconda because of the description. Naturally, as I floated down this peacefully swift river, I remembered how scared as an eleven year old I was watching the terrible movie Anaconda, in which the swift killer took out different members of a National Geographic team. I looked for the biggest stick floating around me (there was more than the usual number of chunks of wood due to the river's engorged state). I paddled hard to reach the piece I wanted, chaffing my underarms ever more, only to find it rotten. One piece after the other was more rotten than the next.
I finally settled on a stick about the length of the donut hole of my tube. It would be my weapon against the anaconda that would ambush me. I'd stuff it in its mouth, propping its jaws open, unable to shut it due to my cunning maneuvers. This imaginary weapon of mine, despite the fact that it was constantly shedding bits of barks and splinters onto my skin, would be my chance of survival under that force of nature. Or so I forced myself to think to appease that anxiousness feeling.
When we rounded the corner, our guide told us to hop back in the boat, so we could dock at the pier. It was clearly obvious my steering skills would not allot me an easy debarkation. I grabbed onto the metal edge, imaging myself being pulled under by that enormous beast, but I was pulled upward by the Amazonian wife of the navigator. I'm sure her three year old kid was snickering at me.
During that rafting trip with the 25 kids, graduate students wore GoPro cameras on their heads to tape the expressions of each child. They would later review that footage to see who experienced fear or joy and any other emotion. I'm not sure how my face would of read while I floated down that not-so-lazy river, but I'm pretty sure it would lean more toward the fear side.
So what was the point of my less than stellar ending to that anecdote, and how does it relate to the scene of awe? Well, when I was sitting in that boat for those couple minutes before docking, I was floored emotionally. The sky had turned pink. Insects began to screech at a deafening volume. A toucan gleaned blue on the top of a branch. You could see nothing else as you looked into the thick jungle, but you could hear life beneath the lush growth. Goosebumps sprung up on every inch of my body. This place made my existence look pitiful. I was induced into awe.
Its the same type of feeling you get when you look across an ocean with no ending or into a night sky one hundred miles away from civilization. We start to remember that our selfish desires aren't so significant to anyone, including ourselves, anymore. Seeing a beautiful place like this ruined by our selfish human nature is something impossible to fathom. We care about preserving its raw beauty.
Those kids during their rafting experience kept journals, many of them writing about their awe-inducing experiences gave them a deeper connection to the natural world. They gave them a connection to that specific park, because of the appreciative experiences, prompting them to start to wonder 'how can I preserve this place.' If you've ever wonder about awe, and would like to learn more, just read the article, The Science of Awe, here.