Beauty and Awe in the Brain
And how did we evolve the ability to experience either sensation?
Evolution says everything about us, from our physical attributes to our mental processes, came about for a reason — to keep us alive as a species. In most cases, this makes sense and seems obvious enough. For instance, our capacity for violence and ability to coordinate teamwork likely played a huge role in our hunting skills. But some of our attributes and their function in our brains are less obvious.
Like, outside of mating, why do we find some things beautiful and others ugly? And on that note, how come some things leave us in awe or wonderment while other things bore us or go unnoticed? Further, why are both sensations subjective experiences? Wouldn’t an objective assessment of things serve us better? Amazingly, even though philosophers and curious minds have wondered these questions for centuries, scientists have only just begun searching for the answers.
A Bit of History
I’m sure you’re very familiar with the experience of finding something beautiful. You’ve undoubtedly explored styles and mediums that resonate with you throughout your life. In fact, you’ve probably spent more time thinking and learning about beauty than you have about feeling awe.
This makes sense considering the very experience of awe often occurs somewhat spontaneously or during rare and intense events. We feel it when we face something in the objectively shared natural world that challenges our subjective understanding of it. Such as seeing the ocean, snow, or a starry night sky away from light pollution for the first time.
While our species has extensively explored the concept of beauty. We’ve created and dedicated countless stories, art, and products and explored every angle of beauty for millennia. But awe has a different history and is a far less analyzed sensation.
Though we’ve invented plenty of words for the experience. Awe is also referred to as amazement, sublime, surprise, transcendence, or wonder. Though for a long time, awe had a darker meaning. The verb “to awe” dates back to the Old Norse word word “agi” from the 13th century, which means to “inspire with fear or dread,” and was used almost exclusively in biblical contexts.
Then in 1757, Irish philosopher Edmund Burke published a book titled A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, which transformed the world’s understanding of awe. He believed that awe is not constrained to religion alone but is felt in everyday experiences. Burke knew that vastness isn’t required to feel in awe of something. We can just as easily be in awe of a song, art, or an act of kindness as we can a natural phenomenon like lightning.
Still, while Burke added lightness to the term, some negative connotations remain. After all, some pretty terrible things also inspire awe. This is why Merriam - Webster dictionary defines awe as,
“an emotion variously combining dread, veneration [a feeling of great respect], and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime.”
It took a while, but eventually, we created a distinction between the positive and negative experiences of awe — awesome and awful. Once reserved for rare or intense experiences, these days, we use them all the time as adjectives to describe literally anything. But awe is so much more than slang.
And Burke was right, we experience awe daily, or at least we can if we allow ourselves. You can feel it while observing nature, even if it’s a houseplant. You can feel it while appreciating architecture or your or someone else’s accomplishments.
Finally, we comprehend the feeling of awe well enough that now scientists want to know how it works in our brain— and really, why we feel it at all. What’s especially interesting is they’re findings suggest links between how we experience awe and how we interpret beauty.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Curious Adventure to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.