Last week I mentioned a video about the role of microglia in maintaining brain health and I said that I was in awe of the symbiotic relationship between microglia and neurons.
That got me thinking about what it means to be in awe of something. One morning this past week, I found myself dawdling in bed, conjuring up images of things that inspire awe in me.
The time I looked up at the sky on a crystal clear winter’s night and saw five planets came to mind. For the first time ever, I could visualize the fact that they were all in the same plane as they circled the sun.
As I stood there, I tried to think about the context in which this was happening. I tried to imagine my standing on the dark side of the earth, looking out at the planets, spinning around a star that is hurtling through a galaxy that is but one of billions in a universe that is ever expanding.
You want awe? That’s awe!
But then I took it in the other direction and imagined billion-year old light from faint stars reaching my eye, triggering an electric impulse down my optic nerve into my brain where it made a multitude of connections that triggered chemical reactions in countless synapses as electrons were traded among atoms that were composed of even tinier bits of matter and charges that floated in an indeterminate quantum soup whose forces control the universe.
Yup. That’s awe, too.
And then there’s the awe inspired by the the colors of fresh-cut flowers on the coffee table rejoicing in the morning sun.
I stand in awe of musicians whose hand-ear coordination moves their fingers at lightning speed to produce a sequence of a mind-boggling number of notes that seem to defy the standard laws of memory.
Forget about our modern world of digital wizardry, I’m still awed by the magic of radio. Think about it: we can emit an electromagnetic impulse from a single point that expands to occupy every cubic inch of space for miles around in a way that allows anyone anywhere within that range who has a few transistors to detect those oscillations and translate them back into the sounds from which they were made.
I’m in awe of Amazon.com.
Being at the racetrack and watching Secretariat win the 1973 Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths in world record time was the epitome of awe-in-motion. Watching the video still gives me goose bumps.
I’m in awe of the fact that last year, there were 19,603,733 people living normal lives in Chile. No, there’s nothing special about Chile in this context. I could have chosen Namibia (2,658,414) and experienced the same awe. It’s just that I don’t often take time to think about all the things that are going on at any moment, but when I do, it’s often awe-inspiring.
Closer to home, I am in awe of Sally’s resilience, compassion, energy, and uncanny ability to expose the questions lurking within every passing moment.
Finally rousing myself from exploring the wide world of awe, I sat down at the computer to check overnight emails, my Facebook and Twitter feeds, and the headlines from the New York Times. As I scrolled down, there were the usual articles about politics and Ukraine and COVID, but then there was this: “How A Bit Of Awe Can Improve Your Health.”
Talk about serendipity!
Or was it? Just a few days earlier, I had typed the first draft of last week’s episode and wrote that sentence about being in awe of microglia. Is it possible that one of the cookies The Times has placed in my computer monitors my typing and uses that information to select articles for my feed? If so, I am DEFINITELY in awe of that technology!
I’ll never know whether it was serendipity or cyber stalking, but in any event, the article was most interesting. First of all, it provided a definition of what awe is which validated my morning’s mental meanderings:
“Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world.”
Nice. Simple. Clear.
The article went on to explore the emerging research suggesting that a daily dose of awe can be healthy for you. Needless to say, non of these studies had yet been done when I was in graduate school from 1996-2001, and we spent no time discussing the emotion of awe in class. Awe was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind on the acute inpatient psych wards where I worked for 10 years where most patients were battling for survival and not self-actualization.
But awe does seem to have value in contributing to a sense of well-being, lowering stress and enhancing happiness. Although the proper ‘dosage’ of awe (both in frequency and intensity) hasn’t yet been determined, there is evidence that a couple of moments each week may be beneficial.
How do you get those moments? The key seems to be in mindfulness, or just taking time to think about what is happening, where you are, and what you are doing in a context greater than yourself. For example, you could put your internal dialog on pause while brushing your teeth tomorrow morning and ask yourself: “How did this water get here?” I’ll give you a hint: start with water evaporating from the earth’s surface and rising into the air to form a wisp of vapor in search of a cloud.
As you can see, it doesn’t take much…awe is all around us just waiting to be unleashed.
I wasn’t able to find any research directly linking dosing yourself with awe and brain health, but, clearly, it can’t hurt you, and it sure does feel good when it happens, so you might as well go for it!