The Templeton Ideas Podcast is a show about the most awe-inspiring ideas in our world and the people who investigate them.
Dr. Dacher Keltner is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and the founding director of the Greater Good Science Center. In our very first episode, Dacher joins the podcast to discuss his personal experiences with awe, how awe relates to life and death, and the many ways people can cultivate awe in their daily lives. Dr. Dacher Keltner’s new book is entitled Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life.
Transcripts of our episodes are made available as soon as possible. They are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.
THOMAS BURNETT: I feel like awe one of those concepts that we know it when we see it or we know it when we experience it, but how would you describe someone if you had to explicitly explain this is what I mean by awe.
DACHER KELTER: Yeah, we did a lot of work on that, and it’s in this complicated space where you know, historically, people have written about how it’s about the ineffable. It’s about the inexplicable. As William James said, it’s beyond words, you know, it’s the numinous, it’s whatever. So, John Haidt and I did a first pass at the definition, which is very simply, it’s about two things, vastness, conceptual vastness, physical vastness, temporal vastness, and then mystery or you know, the epistemological state in which you, your current knowledge can’t make sense of what you’re seeing.
You know, my daughter and I were backpacking in the Sierras last summer, and this spectacular storm came over us. A once in a thousand-year storm that dumped a bunch of water into Death Valley and the like and it produced this lightning storm in the Sierras that went right over us. And I literally was like, is this dangerous? Is this beautiful? Is it going to kill us? What do we do? I don’t know. And it was awesome.
So, vastness and mystery. And then the other big thing that we need to really help ground our definition of awe, is what philosophers call in this study of emotion, the intentional object. What is the emotion about consciously? When you’re feeling awe, you’re like, oh, this is about, the cigar familia, or this redwood tree, or Mahama Gandhi. And we’ve done a lot of work on that, Tom. Surveying people in 26 countries. What is awe about? And it really is about what I’ve called in this book, awe, the Eight Wonders of Life, which is moral beauty, nature, collective effervescence (or moving in unison), music, visual design, spirituality, big ideas, life and death. And so those eight wonders fill your mind in combinations in sometimes in their own form when you encounter these vast mysteries.
THOMAS BURNETT: I’ve seen the terms, awe and wonder put together with an ‘and’ in between, very often. What do they have in common and what distinguishes them?
DACHER KELTER: Yeah, you know, awe is really different from fear. And even though etymologically they’re intertwined, you can really pull them apart with other measures. Awe is really close to horror, which is like vast destruction and death, but horror is ultimately overwhelmingly imperiling, if you will. And then awe and wonder. Wonder is the consequence of awe. It is a, a mental state, where you are trying to figure out what produced awe, right? You’re testing hypotheses and formulating questions and gathering data and just making sense of what was vast and mysterious that gave you this feeling of awe.
Rainbows blew the minds of Newton and Decartes. How in the world could light come through a water molecule and produce the color spectrum? And those guys, from that feeling of awe at the mysteries of rainbows, entered into an enduring state of wonder. Figuring out, what about the color? What about the math? And they figured it out.
Darwin was awestruck by so many different things on his five-and-a-half-year voyage on the Beagle, and entered into a 30-year state of wonder and other emotions where he is like, God, how can I figure out what is evolution? So, wonder follows awe as a state of curiosity if you will.
THOMAS BURNETT: In your book you describe a lot of awe-inspiring moments when you’re growing up. I could imagine some people, I’m trying to play the devil’s advocate here, saying, you know, awe is an emotion of privilege. That there are people who are growing up in ugly places, where they’re desperate, where the relationships are poor, and for them life is about survival. And Dacher, you can tell me that awe is vital to, to your identity, but it sounds to me like this is like a bourgeois value. How might you respond to a, a critical sentiment like that?
DACHER KELTER: Yeah, thank you for asking that, Tom. I think that’s a, a vital critique of the phenomena that bring us wellbeing. You know, the United States, 11 to 15 to 20% of people are impoverished. I mean there are a lot of barriers to the good life if you will. And I worried about that, but this is where experience and science are useful. Scientifically, Paul Piff has shown with Jake Moskowitz privilege, wealth, resources negatively correlate with the regular experience of awe. The more privilege I have, the less awe I feel on a regular basis. The less privilege, the less money I have, the more I feel awe regularly. That’s remarkable.
And I think in part it ties into this idea that awe often is about hardship. It's about grappling with mystery and the end of life and struggle and trauma.
So, point 1, that’s a finding you can take to the bank.
Point two is my experience, Tom. I have volunteered with a formerly incarcerated in different ways as my 30 years as a professor, it’s one of the great privileges of my life. And I got asked to go give a talk on gratitude, compassion, and awe inside of San Quentin State Prison. And you know, when you get inside a prison, and I encourage everybody to do it, man, you encounter the absence of privilege, literally. And, you know, bad food, small cells, can’t exercise, but in very constrained ways. Often, they constrain your rights to religion or what have you, it is a hard life. And I said, I just couldn’t help it. I was like, what gives you guys awe here? And I was humbled to ask the question, I felt privileged to do so, and their answers really gave me goosebumps you know. Their answers were things like, learning how to read, getting along with my celly, reading the Bible or the Koran, getting outside, seeing the light from the San Francisco Bay, getting to eat some food, hearing my children’s laugh, being here and listening to a talk by a guy talking about awe. That humbled me. And it said, as the data suggests, you don’t need money. You don’t need to get into a, a car or a plane, you don’t need special training to find awe. It’s a very deep human instinct to find awe.
THOMAS BURNETT: Yep. Looking across our, our whole society of the United States, would you say that we have an awe deficit?
DACHER KELTER: You know, in really interesting ways, Tom, it is the best of times and worst of times for awe. When I look at what people can give to each other, sharing music that’s awe inspiring. Sharing content, Jonah Berger at Penn has found, we love sharing stories that are awe inspiring. Sharing visual art, my daughter Natalie shares visual art with me. Hey, here’s a, a new young artist who’s in Chicago, no one knows about her, check it out. So, in some sense, we are living Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James’ dream of pluralism. Americans find awe spiritually in almost everything, yoga, the different spiritual traditions, contemplation, music, nature. 41% of Americans in one survey find the divine in nature. That’s great news. 360 million people went to the national parks last year. What that tells us is, we are not constrained in finding awe. There are many opportunities I’m struck by that.
At the same time, digital platforms, thinking you can find awe on a smartphone, right? Thinking that you can find awe by yourself in front of a screen, thinking about economic inequality and how we take resources away from people like access to beautiful parks or gardens. There are a lot of reasons to worry about it, racial polarization, and the like. We are at this really important inflection moment in US history and culture. When you go to other cultures, they’re looking at us like, what is going on with you guys? The conditions of our society have made it harder, in particular for young people. You know, just being free journeying, thinking about their philosophy of life has been taken away from them in education in some ways. Rachel Carson, you know, one of the great awe pioneers, a spectacular human being, a leading environmentalist and she has this great essay teacher child to wonder. And if our culture followed the principles that she outlines, I think we’d be stronger and do a better job of facing these challenges ahead. So, it’s a complicated story right now.
THOMAS BURNETT: Yeah, I’ve read a fair amount of research related to awe, and one of the concepts that caught my attention was that idea of the small self. Could you explain a little bit about what that means and maybe give an example of one or two of the studies that have kind of evoked the small self.
DACHER KELTER: Thank you Tom. I love the small self, it’s interesting one of the things that I did in writing Awe is, and it was humbling, you know, I read a lot of what people had written about awe, people like Julian of Norwich, the great, theologian, one of the first books written by a woman in the English language, writing about her love of Jesus. And she kept returning to this phrase, “I am nothing.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson had this awe-inspiring, transcendent experience where in, writing about awe, he said, all mean egotism, vanishes. This phrase, I am small, I am nothing. I am just a little part of a universe. A little part of time, a little part of humanity, keeps occurring with regularity, in narratives of awe.
And so, the challenge for a scientist like me is like, how do I get that, right? So, first stop is Paul Piff, does this amazing study, undergrads at Berkeley. They go stand around these eucalyptus trees, these spectacular trees. They look up for a minute, you just kind of vanish into the smell and light and reflection of the trees. And then he quickly surveys them compared to a control condition. And people feel less narcissistic. They’re less self-focused, less entitled just by a minute of the grandeur of the trees. Yang Bai stops travelers in Yosemite National Park, from 42 different countries and it’s at this part of the road where you first see Yosemite Valley. It is awe-inspiring. Theodore Roosevelt, when he was there, he was like, it’s like being in a temple. You know? It’s incredible. And she just has them draw a little picture of themselves and write to me, and in the awe-inspiring context of Yosemite, those pictures of the self get really small. They’re surrounded by their efforts at drawing the Yosemite Valley and their writing of me gets really small and that the size of the self actually correlates with modesty and humility. So those are just two demonstrations of something deep and this is where neuroscience is really interesting.
Studies of awe in Japan, Holland, the United States find when I feel awe or you feel awe, or the person feeling awe listening to us, the default mode network, which is where big chunks of the cortex that represent the self, they quiet down. So ourself, even at the neurophysiological level, is dominating consciousness less. And we become open to things like other people’s virtues, the ecosystem I’m part of, a big idea that should animate my life. So, we open up to the grandeur of life.
THOMAS BURNETT: Is there a way I can do a like personal audit in my own life? Tom Burnett, where do I fall in the spectrum of the amount of awe experience? Is it enough, is it not enough? Do you have any advice for, for that kind of thing if our listeners are wondering, God, where do I fall?
DACHER KELTER: Yeah, you know, I, I love that question because what follows after that is what can you do? And you should go to Greater Good Inaction, ggia.berkeley.edu to find out all practices. But I love the audit, you know, so one thing you can do is you can fill out self-report measures. Lani Shiota created a dispositional positive emotion scale. Check that out. David Yan, one of the most important young awe scientists has a measure of awe. But I would encourage a less measurement focused personal inquiry alongside the measures.
You know, Tom, when I bumped into those eight wonders of life that bring us awe around the world, right? Moral, beauty, nature, collective, effervescence, music, art, spirituality, or contemplation, big ideas, life and death. I thought about those, and I was actually, going through a very hard time of my life, grieving the loss of my younger brother, who was my companion in awe. I was anxious, panicky, not sleeping, probably, I don’t get depressed because I’m wired up, but just in a tough state, as hard as I’d ever been. I did an audit and I said I can’t find awe in anything that used to bring awe to me. And what I did, and I love your idea, is I did an awe audit. An “awedit”.
And, and what I was like, I was like, wow, who are the people who are people of moral beauty to me? And I spent time around them because I wasn’t doing it. How do I get out in nature every day? I did it. I did it on walks. How do I find collective movement? I did things, I went to events I, you know, I chanted. How do I find music? I went to unusual music events that were not my forte. I went to museums and just watched things and look for visual design. I did some deeper meditation, contemplative spiritual work with, you know, practitioners. I thought about life and death, and I did the awe audit. I scored zero at the start, and now it is very prominent in my life. It is something you can cultivate.
THOMAS BURNETT: Yeah, you mentioned your brother, Rolf earlier. I saw that your book was dedicated to him. Could you tell me a little bit about how the two of you experience awe together, maybe both growing up and as adults?
DACHER KELTER: We had a, I can only call it an experiment in awe as a life together. You know, he was a big giant guy with red hair, I have blonde hair. We were born in Mexico. First spent first couple years in Mexico, we grew up in Laurel Canyon, which is this wild place in the late sixties. You know, Joni Mitchell was making music on the street where we went to our school and the doors were nearby, et cetera. Then we moved to the Sierras and wandered as kids, literally wandered, you know, to rivers and streams, almost Huck Finn like. And then through the course of life, we’d go see music together, we hiked in the Sierras, we went to Mexico, we started to raise kids together, you know, we talked about all the most meaningful things about our family background together, like good brothers do. And then he passed away. It was an awe experience, it was a mind-blowing experience, it was the deepest mystery I’ve encountered in life what happens when somebody, you can’t live without goes. I was very destabilized, and I did the audit as we’ve spoken about, and I went to places that he and I went to, in the mountains and museums and the like. And, I had these experiences that I write about in Awe that really opened my mind to, you know, what happens when the loved ones you care about go. And then how do we grapple with the fact that they just feel like they’re with you all the time in ourselves, in our minds, and in our, how we see the world. So, I dedicated the book to Rolf for giving me so much awe, and for our life of awe. And as he was about to pass away, I remember it’s so interesting, you know, we embraced and he knew how devastated I’d be. He just knew that he was my moral compass. And he said, you will be happy and through awe, I found it took a while, but I’m getting there.
THOMAS BURNETT: I feel like it’s definitely counterintuitive that you’d be able to experience awe in a moment of grief and pain of his suffering and you’re suffering. Can you tell me a little bit more about where awe and mortality overlap, or connect?
DACHER KELTER: It’s profound the connection between awe and mortality and dying. When we did the research Yang Bai, my collaborator, we got narratives of awe from 26 countries. They’re in the book, some of the great ones. And I’ll never forget when Yang Bai came in and we had seven wonders really mapped, and she said, there’s enough regularity around the world, there’s this last wonder that we found. And I was like, what is it? She’s like, it’s life and death. And people around the world are blown away when children are born and with life spring and the childbirth and like, and they regularly feel awe, watching people die. And most cultures, Tom, and people know this, anthropologists know this like the back of their hand, there are ways to honor the dying and the dead, just that are part of almost every fabric of culture.
Mexican day of the dead ceremonies, the Japanese have beliefs about days where ancestors visit you and you go to temples and touch things to honor the ancestors. You know, the Tibetan rituals of burying the body and the like through water ceremonies and on. It is everywhere in culture and yet they recognize that dying is mysterious. We don’t know, you know, we have theories about it. You go to the next life in Buddhism, et cetera. I was raised in a part of American culture, secular, non-religious, very 20th century, I got none of that. So, I had to discover that in grieving my brother, that around the world, when you watch someone die, it is awe-inspiring, don’t be afraid. You’re going to be grief-stricken and it’s going to be, as boldly argued, human universal in terms of how hard it is. But your mind is, is making sense it’s growing, it’s arriving at new insights about life, and that’s what happened to me. And it was buoyed and strength and inspired by the finding. Around the world when we face death when we face our own death, when we face loved one’s death, it’s filled with wonder. It’s filled with mystery. The mind feels awe and kicks into gear. Of course, it’s horrible, but it is a human truth. And what I learned is as destabilizing as it was, I learned more from it through awe than almost any experience in my life.
THOMAS BURNETT: I want to turn to a part of your book. You kind of laid out the arc of your research career. You said you started studying embarrassment and shame, moving to laughter, moving to compassion, gratitude, love. It sounds like there’s, I’m going to draw some plot line, I wonder, was that a personal journey as well as professional journey? Tell me a little bit about that arc. I feel like you can’t map that out when you’re 28 years old, but maybe with some hindsight you see, you see some dots connecting.
DACHER KELTER: Oh, my goodness. You’re just creating, the, uh, awe of personal epiphany here, Tom. Thank you. Yeah. You know, the scientific reason is, you know, I do research on emotion have done for 30 years, and, when I saw the list of “basic emotions,” anger, fear, sadness, surprise, disgusted, joy, I was like, come on, there’s a lot more to that. And now, you know, Alan Cowen, our lab, other labs, there are 20 emotions that have this basic set of properties of being sort of elemental mental states as Darwin wrote. When I came out of, you know, postdoc and I had my first job, I started to study the emotions of self-consciousness and in particular failure, if you might say like embarrassment, when we violate social conventions. Shame, when I violated an important standard that is central to my identity and guilt. And I was studying those when I was a young assistant professor. And I was getting rejection letters and bad teaching reviews and stern looks for my senior colleagues and snarky comments and bad mid-career reviews. And I was like, in a constant state of embarrassment and shame, frankly. So, I studied it. And then, you know, I moved to Berkeley and then I had this transcendent experience of children and, touch and play and love and what is, I believe as Ruth Feldman and John Bowlby and our lab and others are saying, and Tomasello, like, these are just the fundamental of so much in the development of being a human is loving children and playing.
And I started to study, play, and touch and gratitude and love and desire and so forth, just like thinking about attachment. And then, you know, we did that work and compassion and sympathy, which is a fundamental human emotion. And that really was brought about by my encounters with the Tibetan Buddhist, you know, the Dalai Lama, his French translator, Matthieu Ricard and others who just shook my mind. And I’ll never forget the Dalai Lama, in a conversation with him in Canada and he said, compassion is a basic state of the mind. And I was like, what? You know, how can that be? It’s not about greed or, you know, competition. He’s like, no compassion. And, and we did that work that I think lends credence to that view. And then, you know, getting older and the kids moving into their own lives and thinking about, you know, the middle of life, and all the richness of it. I was like, wow, there’s all this transcendence of self that David Yen’s written about, that we’re writing about, that Jennifer Stellar, that is part of who we are as a species. Isn’t it remarkable? As Jane Goodall said, we can become amazed by things outside of the self, and for me it was almost mystical, you know, in the spirit of William James and Transcendent, of how do people develop like this and why does music make me cry? And how in the world is it that when we’re backpacking in the Sierras, I just feel at one with the universe or when I’m chanting with my daughter in a monastery in the Himalayas, and I hear those sounds, and they sound like the divine. What is that? And you know, I’m lucky to be in the science of emotion where we can measure the face and the voice and physiology and goosebumps and the default mode network and what it does and, and there they were to study, awe and bliss and ecstasy and joy wide open and what a privilege.
THOMAS BURNETT: I want to put you on the spot with this question. If you had one minute to tell somebody what you learned from your life, how might you, how might you proceed?
I would say that the task of life and the task of human evolution and the task of individual wellbeing is to connect to things that are larger than the self. And I think that's what awe it does is opens your mind and there are so many large systems around you.
The language we’re using right now, Tom is a system that’s been evolving for millions of years. It’s remarkable what it gives to us. So, find the larger things in life that give you goosebumps and go after those with force and you’ll be okay.
THOMAS BURNETT: I think that pretty well articulates the message of your book as well, having read it.
DACHER KELTER: Yeah, it is. It’s where I close, you know, like that is the point of awe is we have to connect to communities, we have to connect to ecosystems, we have to connect to cultural systems. Awe is our pathway, our conduit to finding those things that, that really will bring us that kind of meaning.
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Our program was produced by Jacob Lewis with great feeling studio. Our theme song is by Dan Burns.
Our staff includes Thomas Burnett, Abby Ponticello, Benjamin Carlson, David Nassar, Gerald Nelson, Alyssa Settefrati, and Juliette Plummer.