16 October 2017

Shock and Awe

Sometimes, when we are curious about the world, we can discover something that catches us by surprise; we can be shocked by what we learn. This can have an unsettling effect on us as it may require us to look at the world, or ourselves, or others in a different way. Sometimes, things can happen to us which shock us - a terrorist act; a personal tragedy; the behaviour of someone we thought we knew well.

Humans have an in-built negativity bias. This means that we are usually on the lookout for bad things. It is a survival technique from thousands of years ago where it made sense to be constantly scanning the environment looking for danger. This is the role of the amygdala within the brain: looking for things that are not quite right. When the amygdala senses fear, it triggers the hypothalamus and this shock leads us to adopt one of three responses: fight, flight or freeze.

These shocks can force us to make changes to the way we approach life. They may snap us out of a way of thinking that might once have been appropriate but which no longer applies. Whilst some shocks can have a negative impact in the initial stages, there can be great positives that flow from them in time. Terror attacks are an example of this, where the horror and anger of the initial attack is often overwhelmed by the stories of heroism, courage, kindness and community which inevitably follow.

Whilst we are well aware of shocks and their impact on us, we do not seem to be on the lookout for awe to anywhere near the same extent. Awe involves feeling that we are in the presence of something vast that challenges our understanding of the world; this could be found in nature, art, a mind-blowing idea, or an impressive feat, including acts of great skill or virtue. When we actively seek out experiences that challenge and elevate us we gain a deeper appreciation of life around us. Whilst this may not always make life more meaningful, it can help us to feel more connected, more grateful and a part of something greater. The most interesting thing is that there is far more awe surrounding us than there are things that shock us, yet we pay scant regard to it. I think we can benefit by refocusing our attention on the things that inspire a sense of awe - the natural world, cultural achievements and the efforts of groups and individuals.

It is strange that our word 'awesome' has come to describe something that is actually full of awe, while the word 'awful' is used to describe things that are terrible, rather than full of awe.

This penchant for awe might be good for us in several ways: Research from the Greater Good Science Centre at the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that awe carries unique health benefits, sharpens your thinking, and makes you more generous.

Mr James Hindle
Director of Student and Staff Wellbeing