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How Awe Stops Your Clock

The experience of vastness slows perception of time
sunrise



iStock/Sava Alexandru

It might be time to pencil in "awe cultivation" on your to-do list. Although religious thinkers like Søren Kierkegaard cast awe as a state of existential fear and trembling, new research by psychologists at Stanford and the University of Minnesota shows that experiencing awe can actually increase well-being, by giving people the sense that they have more time available. That sounds much more enjoyable than trying to power through one more hour on Redbull and fumes. Just what is this elusive emotion, and how can one nurture it in our time-pressed world?

Although awe has played a significant role in the histories of religion, art, and other transcendental pursuits, it has received scant attention from emotion researchers. Noting the paucity of data, social psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt developed a working prototype in a 2003 paper, delineating awe's standing in the research taxonomy. After reviewing accounts of psychological, sociological, religious, artistic, and even primordial awe (awe toward power), the researchers surmised that awe universally involved the perception of vastness and the need to accommodate the experience into one's present worldview. That is, awe is triggered by some experience so expansive (in either a positive or negative way) that one’s mental schemas have to be adjusted in order to process it.

Nearly ten years later, awe research is beginning to come into its own. The self-help market has continued to grow quickly, and research on positive emotions has kept apace. Even corporations and politicians have taken note of some of the ways that emotion research links into everything from productivity to voting and buying behavior. So it should come as no surprise that psychologists are now experimenting in domains formerly left to clergy, clinicians, and artists.

The latest study, led by Melanie Rudd, looked at something most of us feel acutely these days: the paucity of time. Researchers speculated that the experience of awe might increase participants’ sense of time-availability, which might in turn lead people to act more generously with their time, and enhance overall well-being.

From a research standpoint, the challenges of studying awe lie in its proximity to other positive emotions, and its unique standing as an emotion rooted in joy, but tinged with that Kierkegaardian fear and trembling. Scale is another obvious experimental stumbling block. You can't exactly reconstruct the Grand Canyon in the lab (although some have tried, using virtual reality interfaces). There’s also the perennial issue of correlation and causality; given that awe is often experienced when time pressures are minimal (it’s more likely to happen while hiking in the Rockies than stuck in an office-bound traffic jam), gauging whether increased time perception occurs because of the awe prompt, or whether awe was effectively produced because of greater time availability, required researchers to first prime subjects to feel pressed for time.

Students were told they’d be participating in several unrelated studies  so the various primes and manipulations could be induced without drawing suspicion. First the students were given sentences to unscramble, half of which involved phrases about time constrictions and half of which were neutral. The students then moved on to watch videos designed to evoke either happiness or awe. To induce awe, researchers used a commercial showing people encountering vast, mentally overwhelming scenes like whales, waterfalls and the like. The happiness group watched a more down-to-earth commercial featuring people marching happily through rainbow confetti while wearing brightly colored clothes. Still under somewhat of a ruse, the students finished off this task with questionnaires about various television brands.

Finally, they took a survey rating their agreement on various personal questions; embedded carefully in the quiz were four items designed to gauge the perceived presence of time. As expected, students in the awe condition did in fact find time more plentiful than those in the happiness condition. After controlling for the potential confounding variable of awe’s positive valence with the happiness condition, and priming the students for time-constraint to keep the old ‘chicken and the egg’ phenomenon from muddying up the data, the researchers found that awe did indeed increase the perception of time availability.

Further studies induced awe and happiness in different ways (such as having students write about a time when they felt the emotion), and took things a bit further to see if participants giddy with an awe-induced perception of time would be less irritable, and more willing to volunteer their time. The researchers found once again that awe (vs. happiness) gave participants a greater sense of time-availability and rendered them less irritable and more willing to give of their time.  (But fundraisers take note: people in the awe condition were no more likely to donate money.)

One interesting downside noted by the researchers: being stuck in the present has been linked to failures at self-regulation in prior studies. So it’s possible that an experience of awe may prolong the present to such an extent that individuals feel depleted and are therefore less likely or able to self-regulate after the experience. In other words, while awe increases time perception, it might also be exhausting.

Pitfalls aside, most of us would be interested in a well-being tonic offering less irritability, greater sense of time and increased (temporal) generosity. Short of scaling the nearest cliff, what can one do to cultivate awe in daily life? The researchers found that awe could be induced by reliving a memory, reading a story, or even watching a certain kind of commercial. Doubtless, artists and clergy would rather you pick up their latest work or get yourself to a pew – but if you’re too pressed for time, the latest commercial might have to do.

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.

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