The human brain is a truly incredible and complex thing that is seemingly impossible for us to understand. It's responsible for all of our feelings and emotions and without it we would have no concept of the world around us. Despite this though, we still know that ultimately it all boils down to predictable and understandable science.
But sometimes we will get a sense of something bigger and more majestic that seems almost too 'big' to have come from our brains. That's what happens when we're overcome with awe and wonder, when we're blown away by a magnificent sunset, or when we stop to contemplate the vastness of the universe and suddenly feel tiny and insignificant.
Can this unearthly feeling of wonder and awe really be created in the brain in just the same way as all our other emotions? And if so… why? What is its purpose? Read on and let's take a look at where our sense of awe and wonder comes from, and what its evolutionary purpose might be.
What Is Wonder?
The feeling of awe and wonder is one that's somewhat abstract, which in turn can make it quite difficult to define or summarise. Generally though, most definitions describe it as a feeling of 'awakening' to the sheer magnificence and scale of the world around us. While we're normally somewhat desensitised to the sheer size of the world around us, to the incredible things we see on a daily basis and to the sheer mystery of life, occasionally something can trigger a recognition and we can find ourselves in stunned awe.
Literary scholar and critic Peter Nicholls describes the experience as essentially being a conceptual 'paradigm shift' in which we recast a 'previous narrative' in a larger context. It's the moment that you realise the sun isn't a small red circle in the sky, but in fact a gigantic ball of gas that is responsible for all life on Earth. It has a diameter of 1,392,684km and it's one of the smaller stars in the universe.
This description is fitting in some ways, but falls short in others. While we certainly do get a sense of wonder when realise our place in the universe, a 'conceptual shift' does not in fact need to take place in order for us to experience it. Seeing a sunset for instance does not make us rethink our philosophies or have an impact on our sense of scale… and yet it can still trigger that feeling of wonder and amazement. So what's going on?
Well while we might not be reacting to something logical – such as scale or mystery – it could be that in marvelling at a sunset we are marvelling at the sheer beauty of that sight and are simply moved that something could be so beautiful. Again things are suddenly put in context and we are forced to re-examine other priorities.
Other definitions describe wonder as being closer to 'surprise' and suggest that it occurs when we see something unexpected, and that it may be linked to our sense of curiosity and our 'intellectual drive'. This explains why we can feel wonder when seeing or experiencing something entirely new. Awe on the other hand is described as a 'less joyous' wonder, being somewhere between surprise and fear. Awe is what happens when the incredible sight you are seeing might not be entirely harmless.
Perhaps the best explanations though are the ones that blame awe and wonder on multiple things and that suggest they could be the result of contrasting emotions such as 'fear' and 'joy'. When you see a sunset you might feel a fearful reverence of the power of nature (and the coming of night), along with joy at the sheer beauty of the colours. That's a complex cocktail of emotions and hormones and it might just be responsible for the feeling that we feel as awe.
Psychologists Keltner and Haidt put it this way:
'Awe involves being in the presence of something powerful, along with associated feelings of submission…a difficulty in comprehension, along with associated feelings of confusion, surprise, and wonder'
These definitions attempt to simply describe what awe and wonder are and struggle to give a satisfying description. What chance is there then of actually explaining where they come from and what their place is?
Indeed it is difficult to see immediately what the evolutionary advantage of feelings like wonder and awe might be. How could they help us to survive? What function could they provide?
Well according to Adam Smith, author of 'The History of Astronomy', wonder could be what prompts us to study the unknown. The feeling of amazement compels us to better understand, and that's what drives forward scientific inquisition: something that clearly has an evolutionary advantage. Perhaps it was our awe of fire that eventually lead to our ability to control it?
You might also see how feelings of awe and wonder – which inspire a fair amount of fear and respect – could be useful for helping us to avoid potential dangers. We feel in 'awe' of lions and other animals that are powerful and alien to us, and this might be one of the feelings that helps us to avoid getting too close. We feel in awe of huge heights, and perhaps this is one of the things that prevents us from jumping.
Wonder and awe can also move us to create artistic works, but whether or not that has an evolutionary purpose is open to debate itself.
Of course there's always the possibility that awe does not have an evolutionary purpose of its own, but rather that it is almost a 'symptom' of other functions of the brain.
If indeed awe and wonder comes from a 'conceptual shift' in the way we view things, it might be that the sense of awe comes from having 'no point of reference'. Normally when we see something new, our brain fires in response to the aspects that we can understand. If we were to see a tarantula for the first time, we might recognise it as a bug and as a spider and we might remember similar situations with other nasty bugs. We feel afraid then, but no awe.
In the case of something wondrous or awe inspiring though, it may be that we simply have no basis for comparison which leads to a feeling similar to fear along with reverence and surprise. We are literally at a 'loss for words' as we have no point of reference, and wonder might simply be the fresh feeling of 'something new'. Though then again, we are capable of experiencing awe at the same thing more than once which doesn't quite seem to add up.
Or if you buy into the notion that wonder and awe are simply a complex cocktail of different emotions, then it can reasonably follow that they would result in a cocktail of different hormones and this might give us that unique feeling that find so overpowering. A mix of fear, reverence and beauty might cause us to feel at once stunned and amazed, and to be momentarily lost for words…