_ Synopsis: _ How awe — both beautiful and terrible — causes us to freeze in our tracks.
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.
If you’ve determined that the potential danger is manageable a distinct emotion sometimes ensues: awe. […] 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 _aw_ful. At the same time, something can be _aw_fully good and _aw_fully 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 _awe_some 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).*
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.
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.