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Awe-Inspiring Art as a Byproduct of the Freeze Response

Imagine that you are making your way through a dense jungle. Thick vegetation makes it difficult to see more than few feet in front of you. Suddenly, you break through to a clearing and find yourself standing on the edge of a high cliff; one more step and you’re finished.

This imaginary scenario comes from the cognitive scientist David Huron, who explains that the cliff doesn’t trigger the flight or fight response, but a third reaction: the freeze response. Five distinct physiological signals mark the freeze response: gasping, breath-holding, lowered chin with mouth slightly opened, immobility or stiffness and reduced blinking. Taken together, this physiological cocktail helps steady the body, an adaptive response in a situation where the danger is fixed and the slightest movement means death.

A diverse range of environments and situations evoke the freeze response. Sometimes it’s a sudden change in the weather, like a flash of lightening or clash of thunder. Other times it’s a dangerous animal, a snake or bear that you’ve happened upon while hiking in the forest. Getting held at gunpoint does the trick as well.

If you’ve determined that the potential danger is manageable a distinct emotion sometimes ensues: awe. Think about standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon with guardrails to prevent any fatal missteps, or imagine yourself observing a threatening animal from the comfort of a zoo or a dramatic lightening storm from the comfort of your living room. The danger looms, but your safety from it elicits a sense of awe.

This is the paradox of awe: it combines fear with wonder and pleasure. The word’s oxymoronic etymology illustrates this nicely. Awe’s archaic root is áchos, which in Greek means pain or the “power to inspire fear or reverence,” as in that person or thing is awful. At the same time, something can be awfully good and awfully bad. We react to good and bad events with the exclamation “aw,” as in “aw, Dad, that’s not fair,” and “aw, look at that cute baby.” The word awesome denotes things or people that are impressive, but not necessarily good. The power of an atomic bomb is awesome, but so is the opening ceremony at the Olympics. The same paradox arises in other languages. In Spanish, for example, awe is translated as temor (fear, apprehensiveness) or admiración (admiration, wonder).*

Did awe play a role in human evolution? A Google search of this question will lead you to Jason Silva, a filmmaker who in a recent video (that draws on research by British psychologist Nicholas Humphrey) argues that it did: “How fortuitous… for a species to find that its own ability to contemplate – to marvel at its own existence – has been evolutionary advantageous… it has been biologically selected for because it informs our life with a sense of cosmic significance that makes us work harder, to persist and survive. In other words, awe has helped us survive.”

Silva’s seductive video, with a post rock soundtrack and quotations from several eminent scientists (and John Keats), is, itself, awe-inspiring. But the reasoning might be ostensible. For any evolutionary explanation to hold you need to establish the facts and not take behaviors for granted – even if they feel instinctual or natural. For example, if you postulate that music evolved because it brings communities together you must demonstrate 1) music does, in fact, bring communities together and 2) why music brings communities together. If Silva’s assertion is correct then it must likewise demonstrate that 1) awe does inform our life with a sense of cosmic significance and 2) that that sense does, in fact, make us work harder to persist and survive. 

Unfortunately, a dearth of research on awe prevents us from answering either of these. William James studied awe in the early 20th century. In Varieties of Religious Experience he shows that religious-inspired awe contributes to a feeling of peace and unity with one’s self. Years later Abraham Maslow demonstrated that awe is of characteristic of peak-experiences. In the last decade Jonathan Haidt and colleagues conducted several empirical studies examining awe. That’s about it.**

It’s also important to note that what looks like a biological adaptation is sometimes a byproduct of evolution. For example, on the surface it appears that natural selection selected our ability to create and listen to music given that music shows several hallmarks of a naturally selected behavior: it is ubiquitous, pleasurable (for the creator and listener) and effortful. But this is also true for cocaine and heroine, which no sober person would ever consider adaptive. The point is, it’s easy to fall into after-the-fact storytelling when explaining human behavior with an evolutional lens whereas it’s difficult to truly show if a behavior is biologically advantageous.

I suspect that the more plausible explanation is that the type of awe we describe as “life-reaffirming” or “aesthetically inspiring” is a byproduct of the freeze response. If this is true, the job of the artist is to trick your brain into thinking that it is in a dangerous situation, only to deliver a sense of relief and, ultimately, awe.

* 1) my Spanish is rusty. If any native/fluent speakers think this is incorrect please leave a comment below. 2) Anyone who is fluent in a language other than English or Spanish please leave a comment below if you can provide another example. 

** 12/13/12 update: Also see Shiota, Keltner, and John 2006; Shiota, Keltner, and Mossman 2007; Bonner and Friedman, 2011; Nusbaum and Silvia 2011.

Image via Shuttershock


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