State of Awe

Is it an innate response, or something we learn through culture? Or, perhaps a bit of both?

State of Awe

Is it an innate response, or something we learn through culture? Or, perhaps a bit of both?

The first time I read about special relativity was in the first year of my undergraduate. I tried wrapping my mind around the strange ideas. Even though it took me quite some time, it was quite fascinating because here was a theory where time itself morphed to keep the speed of light the same. Ever since I read about special relativity, I was in awe of it.

It is strange and exciting to think about the universe works so differently when you compare it with everyday existence. It makes the whole world seem mundane and part of something bigger, something more mysterious.

We feel awe so powerfully it becomes both a deeply personal emotion and one we feel is completely authentic. Awe is a word I often use to describe scientific theories — so much so, that I think science can inspire awe in anyone.

So, when a recent article I read described it as a cultural construction — especially in relation to what I described above — I was intrigued. I decided to dig deeper to understand what the authors meant.

Awe is a profound emotion, often evoked in the domain of science and science communication. One could define awe as the experience of a shift in our worldview. Popular science communicators such as Neil De Grasse Tyson, Brian Cox, Carl Sagan, David Attenborough are filled with awe when they describe the natural world and they try to convey this awe to the spectator through their explanations. It is also the feeling that is harboured when we think of the significant contributions of genius individuals such as Einstein and Ramanujan.

Some things, especially beautiful sights or natural vistas, seem to evoke awe just by virtue of existing. A gorgeous sunset doesn’t really care what you think of it; neither does a mountain range. But as soon as we see it, we can’t help but stand back and take it in with awe.

Awe is also heavily implicated in tourism (to make us imagine the beauty of a place) art (to highlight the wonderful things in the world) and religion (to pinpoint the glory of human existence and relate it to a heavenly presence).

Are emotional responses innate to humans?

According to classical views of emotions, they are, and correspond to certain facial and vocal expressions, and are triggered by specific instances. After all, it makes sense that you’d feel happy when you see a cute puppy or are afraid of the dark, no matter where you’re from. That, at least, should be universal, independent of culture, right?

That seems to suggest that they are, but there are other views of emotions.

Accordingly, awe is evoked by something vast, something that is mind-bending and defies expectations. Tornadoes, cathedrals, and scientific theories such as the theory of relativity or evolution are described as awesome. They evoke humility and inevitably induce jaw-dropping or an almost involuntary exclamation.

Then, is awe inevitable? If you show someone an incredible view, or teach them some incredible concept, would they be awestruck and “wowed” by the subject matter?

Here is where we investigate the question: Does science automatically trigger the awe response? And is it fixed in something big and vast? After all, even the small, the beautiful, and the quotidian can trigger an awe response.

According to constructionist views, emotions are dependent on culture, constructed in each culture. They are learned throughout a person’s life by exposure to this category in their particular culture. They are flexible throughout a person’s life. Succinctly put, there are specific ways in which people of a certain culture perceive, express and experience emotion. The theory states that children acquire these emotional categories through “cultural” learning — emotions can be taught.

It is not surprising to think that people of different cultures express themselves differently. In fact, people of different cultures have different gestures and sometimes, slightly varied facial expressions. We have the same muscles, same joints and same bones. Yet we initiate different movements to produce different gestures and expressions.

Think of how you might remember someone learning to touch her hair in a certain way that would remind us of their parent. Indeed, the child has learnt that gesture from the parent and uses it in certain circumstances to express something in a certain way. For another example, think of how we learn the word “um” in the English language and the different situations we could use it in. It is like a linguistic gesture that is used in a wide range of circumstances to signal something.

But is the expression, experience and perception of emotion also culture-dependent? Expression of emotions might indeed be different across cultures and could be shaped on a broad level by our cultures. For instance, in some cultures, expressing anger through shouting and violent behaviour might be tolerated whereas, in others, it might be encouraged to hold back on your anger.

It does not seem very surprising to think that people would experience situations differently as well. A very simple example would be that people from more extroverted cultures would be ready to socialise at big parties whereas people from more introverted cultures would tend to stick to a group of few people in highly social situations.

What about experiencing emotions? What does it mean to experience an emotion? Is it the behaviour exhibited by the person under an emotion? Or is there also an internal element of perceiving that emotion? Shouldn’t this be the same across cultures even if the behaviours exhibited are different? Surely, there might be different situations that trigger the same emotional perceptions in differently cultured people.

There are certainly ways in which we think about emotions across cultures that can be different that could potentially shape our emotional experiences. A recent quote that I came across in the book How to study pictures by Charles H. Caffin states that “it is through the experience and the feeling of others that we deepen and refine our own.” Perhaps, an emotion like grief or love could be experienced differently based on how it is portrayed in culture.

Even awe at a scientific idea may be culture-specific. Not everyone would have the time and resources, after all, to be able to step back from daily life and appreciate a new abstract experiment or mathematical proof.

This still begs the question: what are the innate emotional categories, which are common to everyone? Surely, even a child-like Mowgli or Tarzan has emotions that may not be shaped by culture. How exactly then do language and culture shape our emotions? I believe that there are internal pre-existing categories upon which culture acts to shape them but it is certainly a long discussion and a wide field of research.

Teasing out the connections, and lack of them, across cultures is not an easy task. Many of the questions I posed above are still among the unanswered. But  if there’s one thing I can predict about them now, it’s that the answers, when we find them, will be truly awe-inspiring.