May 31, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

Why Awe Is Uniquely Human

Psychologists are noticing that a sense of awe makes you a better person. Why is it a uniquely human trait?

Animals have some of the best views of the world: geese that sly over Mt. Everest, squirrels that gather nuts at the edge of the Grand Canyon, butterflies that travel over the continental United States to Mexico. No adventurer in a wingsuit (video) gets a more thrilling ride than a peregrine falcon gets every day. But we don’t see animals pausing to soak it all in. Birds and whales sing for communication or to attract mates, but we don’t know of any animals that vocalize music in response to the pure beauty and majesty of the earth. None of them write poetry about it. It’s a uniquely human experience to express transcendental thoughts in response to majestic sights and ideas beyond ourselves. We call it awe.

As reported in “News from Eden” (5/20/15), the American Psychological Association has recognized awe as a motivator for altruism. Expanding on that theme, Paul Piff from UC Irvine says that “Seeing awe-inspiring natural sights makes you a better person” (New Scientist). Simple experiments proved to him that “no matter who you are, awe” has the power to make us nicer. The abstract of his APA paper explains what 5 psychologists did to test this hypothesis:

Awe is an emotional response to perceptually vast stimuli that transcend current frames of reference. Guided by conceptual analyses of awe as a collective emotion, across 5 studies (N = 2,078) we tested the hypothesis that awe can result in a diminishment of the individual self and its concerns, and increase prosocial behavior. In a representative national sample (Study 1), dispositional tendencies to experience awe predicted greater generosity in an economic game above and beyond other prosocial emotions (e.g., compassion). In follow-up experiments, inductions of awe (relative to various control states) increased ethical decision-making (Study 2), generosity (Study 3), and prosocial values (Study 4). Finally, a naturalistic induction of awe in which participants stood in a grove of towering trees enhanced prosocial helping behavior and decreased entitlement compared to participants in a control condition (Study 5). Mediational data demonstrate that the effects of awe on prosociality are explained, in part, by feelings of a small self. These findings indicate that awe may help situate individuals within broader social contexts and enhance collective concern.

This implies that awe could reduce the size of government. Too many people feeling entitled? Are entitlement programs breaking the budget? Save money; take them to the rim of the Grand Canyon, or give them a night looking at the stars through telescopes.

It’s not clear if the team feels that evolution produced the human sense of awe.  The trait is already present; looking at nature just brings it out (that’s what he means by “naturalistic induction of awe” in this context). The experiments showed that the participants were less likely to help others when looking at a building rather than a grove of tall trees. But that only works with humans. Apes and birds look at tall trees every day; why don’t we see them as the most altruistic beings in the world? If the city mouse moved to visit the country mouse, would the new surroundings make it more altruistic? Do geese get goose bumps from looking at a sunset?

Why do people get goose bumps? Paul Piff asked that in the New York Times:

Here’s a curious fact about goose bumps. In many nonhuman mammals, goose bumps — that physiological reaction in which the muscles surrounding hair follicles contract — occur when individuals, along with other members of their species, face a threat. We humans, by contrast, can get goose bumps when we experience awe, that often-positive feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world.

Piff feels that humans today are “awe-deprived” and that society has an “awe deficit,” but he makes no attempt to explain where this uniquely human trait comes from, other than to speculate that “awe might help shift our focus from our narrow self-interest to the interests of the group to which we belong.” That provides neither a necessary or sufficient condition for awe, nor does it explain why it is unique to the human species. Bees will sacrifice themselves for the hive but do not, as far as we know, do it because of awe.

Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr, on his Friday 5/29 podcast “The Briefing” (text here), commented on this study and noted that people with a naturalistic worldview “have nothing but natural explanations and everything has to be defined in purely natural terms, including a three letter word that doesn’t appear to work in a naturalistic worldview. That three letter word: awe.” The word awe makes sense in a Biblical worldview, but not a naturalistic one.

Now once again we have the naturalistic worldview at work. Here we have a couple scientists trying to explain that one of the problems of the modern world is that we are so disconnected now from nature, we’re so attached to our digital devices, we stay indoors so much of our lives, that we’re not outdoors have any experience of looking at a valley, looking at a sunset, looking at the stars, and having experience of awe, complete with a goose pimples they physiologically described.

But of course the biblical worldview would respond by asking the question, why in the world would human being even looking at the stars, or looking at a valley, or looking at a sunset, or looking at anything experience what might be described as awe?

Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, goes on to describe how the word awe is used in the Bible. Most often, it is a response to the presence of God—and not always a positive “goose bumps” type of response. It’s more dread (as when Moses or Daniel fell on their faces), or Isaiah saying “Woe is me!” in recognition of his sinfulness before a holy God (Isaiah 6).

Having just talked about the FIFA soccer scandal, which seems an inevitable human outcome when play becomes sport becomes business becomes money, Mohler draws the distinction between the two worldviews:

So let’s think about the deep distinction between the Christian biblical worldview and the naturalistic worldview. The naturalistic worldview tells us that sin is something that happens by some biological necessity or evolutionary accident for which largely we are not responsible. The biblical worldview responds that we are moral agents made in the image of God, and that we are inherently, inescapably responsible.

The naturalistic worldview says that we are impoverished if we don’t take a look at nature and have the experience of goosebumps in looking at the fact that we’re so small and nature is so large. The biblical worldview responds by saying looking at nature and being impressed simply isn’t enough. When one has a vision of the one true and living God, the response is an awe that leads to an understanding of the fact once again that we are sinners. And we shouldn’t be surprised that sin makes its way into every dimension of our existence, even in our play.

Awe may have a positive effect on anyone, Christian or not, since we are all made in the image of God and know deep inside about God from the things He has made (Romans 1). But only the Bible believer can explain awe as a unique part of human nature. And only the Christian can experience the fulness of awe combined with joy resulting from God’s salvation (Romans 5, Romans 8).

Have some awe on us!  Hymn writers often combined awe from nature with joy from salvation in Christ. Here are a couple of examples.

George W. Robinson put these thoughts into his hymn, “I am His, and He is Mine,” in 1876. Notice the unique Christian experience of awe in verse 2.

(1) Loved with everlasting love, led by grace that love to know;
Gracious Spirit from above, Thou hast taught me it is so!
O this full and perfect peace! O this transport all divine!
In a love which cannot cease, I am His, and He is mine.
In a love which cannot cease, I am His, and He is mine.

(2) Heav’n above is softer blue, Earth around is sweeter green!
Something lives in every hue Christless eyes have never seen;
Birds with gladder songs o’erflow, flowers with deeper beauties shine,
Since I know, as now I know, I am His, and He is mine.
Since I know, as now I know, I am His, and He is mine.

And who could forget “How Great Thou Art!” by Stuart K. Hine. Verse 3 is often omitted in congregational singing, but shouldn’t be; it flows into verse 4.

(3) When through the woods, and forest glades I wander,
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees.
When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur
And see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art.
Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art!

(4) And when I think, that God, His Son not sparing;
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;
That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art.
Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art!


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