The awe you experience from seeing an eclipse could take you off psychological auto-pilot

Was that really it?
Was that really it?
Image: Eunice Lituañas/Unsplash
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Much of our adult lives are spent behind mental filters: We filter new information through the lens of what we feel we know. But emotion research suggests that experiencing awe—as many eclipse-watchers in the US are likely to on August 21—can temporarily cause those filters to drop away. In other words, awe may allow a person to be truly aware of their surroundings, not just what they assume their surroundings should be.

“You experience awe when you are experiencing something really divergent from your day to day,” says Lani Shiota, a psychology professor and emotion researcher at Arizona State University.

Those moments in life are rare, as we spend most of our time on a sort of stereotype auto-pilot. Shiota uses the example of meeting someone and then finding out that they work as a surgeon. Immediately, her filters kick in, and she is no longer engaging with the individual in front of her. “From here on out,” she says, “I’m engaging with my own stereotype of what a surgeon is.”

This sorting is also going on whenever we respond emotionally to situations. “Our perception of what happens in a situation is more important for generating our emotions than the objective reality of what happened,” Shiota says. “For example, my belief that I have been insulted will generate anger in me, regardless of whether the speaker intended that or not.”

Putting our experience into bins that reflect how we think the world works does have its benefits. “If we didn’t do that, our brains would explode. It would be way too much information,” Shiota says. “Part of why we’re so successful as a species is that we form these schema. It allows us to build up routines and habits.”

But awe can temporarily switch off our auto-pilot by presenting an experience that jostles us out of our assumptions about how the world works. Shiota says that a number of studies have suggested awe “makes us a little more open to… absorbing what’s actually out there.”

In one such study, which will be published in the American Psychological Association’s journal Emotion this year, Shiota and Alexander Danvers, also of Arizona State University, exposed some participants to a video that would elicit awe. (The film, which moved “in perspective from the outer edges of the known universe to the level of the Earth, and down to the subatomic level,” sounds a lot like the famous “Powers of Ten” film by Charles and Ray Eames.)

Then, the team showed all participants a video about a couple having a romantic dinner. After that came a quiz.

“In one question, we ask them something about an element that should have been present, according to what most western people think should be at a romantic dinner, like a candle on the table,” Shiota explains. “If they say there was a candle on the table, they’ve pulled that detail from their expectation.”

The researchers also asked participants about details present in the film that had nothing to do with the stereotypical western image of a romantic dinner.

“People who were in an awe state [i.e. those that had watched the universe video] did better on both of those questions,” Shiota says. “They were less likely to make the false identification, and more likely to remember the details that had nothing to do with people’s idea of what should be there.” In other words, they were more open to reality.

Other researchers found that experiencing awe can elicit a sense of well being, and an altered experience of time: “Experiences of awe bring people into the present moment, and being in the present moment underlies awe’s capacity to adjust time perception, influence decisions, and make life feel more satisfying than it would otherwise,” a 2012 Stanford University study concluded.

Next week, millions of Americans will travel to the “band of totality”—a swath of the country that will be directly beneath the moon’s shadow—to experience a total solar eclipse on August 21. Those people may briefly experience an unusual bout of open-mindedness. As Shiota puts it, “The sun going dark in the middle of the day really does not fit with our experiential knowledge.”

But it’s just as crucial to be open to the awe itself. Apathy, or a tendency never to be impressed, might leave you with no sense of awe to speak of. “If you allow yourself to think about what the eclipse means with regards to the scope of the universe and our place in it, that is going to be an awe-eliciting experience,” Shiota says.

She uses the example of two people looking at the ocean. One person may be indifferent; they drive past the ocean every day, and it holds no wonder for them. The other may look at the ocean and think about the vast quantities of mysterious lifeforms that live in it, and the depths to which we cannot see. That person will experience awe. The first will not.

“I think you can be intentional about it,” Shiota says. “We can and do make choices to focus our attention on what is unexpected, or what is unknown or even unknowable to us.”