Many people live a life of routine and monotony. But those who seek out wonder, meaning, and intellectual complexity in their lives are found to be happier, healthier, and more motivated. At a fundamental level, we all crave to be a part of a grand mission, something larger than ourselves.
Awe is described as the powerful emotion we feel when we experience something so vast that we can’t completely wrap our minds around it. In the words of techno-philosopher, digital poet, and YouTube sensation Jason Silva, awe is “an experience of such perceptual vastness you literally have to reconfigure your mental models of the world to assimilate it.” We can feel awe in varying intensities, from full-blown immersive experiences to micro-doses of it within our everyday routine.
Anyone who has experienced awe will tell you that it is a feeling that leaves a mark. It moves, inspires, and motivates us.
There is so much awe to be felt, not just in knowledge, nature, arts, and beyond, but also in the ordinary. Take a few moments to be mindful of the world around you. Imagine you are seeing the world from the perspective of a child. Look at the technologies, people, and structures you are surrounded by. Consider how far we’ve come as a species.
There is so much of what we take for granted today that would be considered pure magic to humans a thousand years ago. Even the very fact that you as a clump of matter whose origins lie in the crucibles of an exploding star are able to contemplate the nature of humanity is cause for wonderment.
Where Is the Awe in Education?
How many of us can confidently claim that we feel awe on a regular basis throughout our formal schooling? How often do we learn something that leaves us blown away or makes us feel empowered to stimulate some kind of positive change? For most of us, the answer is not enough.
Education expert Sir Ken Robinson famously argued in his TED talk “How Schools Kill Creativity” that we are not educated into creativity, we are educated out of it. I believe the same applies to the sense of awe. One of the greatest tragedies of mainstream and traditional education is that it slowly sucks out the sense of childlike wonderment we are all born with.
We should be teaching our youth with the intrinsic rewards of awe as opposed to the extrinsic reward of grades. It is what’s needed to nurture a generation that is excited to learn, improve themselves, and contribute to human progress. Such is where awe-based education will re-define the entire learning experience.
For anyone who wants to integrate more awe in their lives, all it takes is some cognitive reframing.
We need to train our minds to be mindful of all the extraordinary beauty, knowledge, and human potential we consistently take for granted. In the Dancing Wu Li Masters, Gary Zukav writes:
“The next time you are awed by something, let the feeling flow freely though you and do not try to ‘understand’ it. You will find that you do understand, but in a way that you will not be able to put into words. You are perceiving intuitively through your right hemisphere. It has not atrophied from lack of use, but our skill in listening to it has been dulled by three centuries of neglect.”
So how do we implement awe in how we teach?
Awe-based learning is fueled by curiosity, imagination, and radical creativity. In curricula, we need to encourage questioning and start emphasizing awe-inspiring content. We need to teach young minds about the origins of our species, the vastness of the cosmos, spirituality, life, love, death, the future of humanity, the power of art, the nature of our minds, the infinite potential we have as individuals and as a species, to name a few.
Such a curricula also places an emphasis on all the existential musings that many brilliant minds throughout history have grappled with: Who are we? Where did we come from? Where will we go from here?
Ultimately, every learner is different and will be left awestruck from different things. Some feel awe when learning science, others when listening to music. Combining awe with personalized learning means every learner can seek out what it is that inspires them the most and do so in a way that aligns with their unique multiple intelligences. Inquiry-based learning techniques like the Montessori method of education allow users’ learning to be informed by their own curiosity.
There may be some students who don’t know what it is that leaves them overwhelmed with awe, and one of the roles of education should be to help them find that source (or sources). This is where effective education is less about delivering content knowledge to young minds and more about equipping them with the skills and values required to find that knowledge and inspiration on their own, through active learning.
Yet awe lies not only in what we teach young minds, but also in how we teach it. Beyond content, knowledge needs to be delivered with passion, clarity, relevance, and captivating narratives. Our educators need to be trained to inspire and motivate future generations.
A Tool for Transcendence
Awe doesn’t just improve the learning experience, it also improves our lives. Many different students have found compelling benefits of awe. One study from UC Berkeley revealed that awe can even improve both our physical and mental health—benefits similar to those enjoyed by eating right and exercising.
In another study, participants “who felt awe, relative to other emotions, felt they had more time available, were less impatient, were more willing to volunteer their time to help others, and more strongly preferred experiences over material goods.”
Perhaps one of the best demonstrators of the lifelong impact of awe comes from the overview effect. This is a remarkable shift in cognitive awareness that many astronauts experience upon leaving Earth. Viewing our fragile and seemingly insignificant “pale blue dot” from orbit or the lunar surface puts all our problems and conflicts into a much bigger perspective. We become aware of the fragility of our tiny planet and the weight of our actions in the grand scheme of the universe.
Astronauts who experience this self-transcendent overview effect return to Earth with a broader sense of perspective on their personal lives, a deeper sense of connection to humanity, and a renewed sense of purpose. It is a powerful awakening of the mind and a fundamental redefinition of what it means to be human.
The overview effect is one excellent demonstrator of how awe diminishes our ego and allows us to experience a state of interconnectedness with the rest of humanity and the universe at large. Imagine what our world would be like if this awe was mainstream.