Chapter no 3: Evolution of The Soul

Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life

What Our Tears, Chills, and Whoas Tell Us about the Why of Awe

And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?


I only “cried” with the furrowed brow, closed mouth, and wince a few times while watching Rolf die and in the grief that followed. But I teared up all the time, when reminded of what brought us together in

what was primary and good in our brotherhood.

In hearing music—the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours—that moved our young bodies during our formative family years, and songs—from Radiohead and Talking Heads— we sang driving up into the mountains. In seeing tennis and basketball courts and baseball diamonds in parks, fields of play during warm afternoons and dusks of our youth, and grassy golden-reddish California hills, the form and color of those dusks.

The summer after Rolf passed away, I drove into the eastern Sierras near Mammoth Lakes, California, to hike to Duck Lake, a thirteen-mile loop we had done the July before his colon cancer took hold of our lives. As I returned to that familiar place, the silhouetting line of mountain ridges surrounded me, backlit in the oranges, blues, fuchsias, and purples of sunset. Tears rose in my eyes, in thinking of the trails that held us as we wandered toward high granite passes. Chills rushed up my neck, in sensing him next to me in the car, as if we were leaning in together again, wondering about the mysteries of the Sierras. I heard the sound whoa. I felt overcome, and awestruck, by what was vanishing.

Why is awe accompanied by this constellation of tears, chills, and


To answer this question, we will tour the new science of the emotional body. Our guides will be Charles Darwin and William James, two angst-ridden Victorians who treated the emotional body like the corpse in a murder mystery: a vessel of clues that reveal the origins of our body’s present state. Both men grappled with the question of why we experience awe and related states, so close in meaning to our sense of a soul, that which is primary, good, and life-giving in human nature. And both would find answers in our bodies.

Darwin looked outward, tracing our emotional expressions back in evolutionary time to mammalian patterns of behavior, as Jane Goodall did in her observations about the chimpanzee waterfall dance. James looked inward, offering ideas about how emotions originate in our bodies. Their writings offer a radical thesis: transcendent emotions such as devotion, bliss, beauty, and awe—what you might think of as the subjective life of the soul—are grounded in bodily responses. Within the science of emotion that Darwin and James helped found, the tears, chills, and whoas offer clues to the origins of awe in our mammalian evolution, revealing its primordial meaning, its elemental qualities, before language and symbolic acts of culture.

The emotional body has long been vilified as sinful, animalistic, base, and below matters of reason, and antithetical to what is primary and good in human nature, or what I have called the soul. The science we are soon to tour will lead to a different view, one best expressed by the poet Walt Whitman. Late in his life, Whitman observed that the soul follows “the beautiful laws of physiology.” In seeking to understand the why of awe, and how it originates in mammalian tendencies that shaped its universal patterns in humans, we will go in search of those laws, encountering questions such as: Why do we tear up at others’ acts of kindness and overcoming? What does it mean when we get the chills while listening to music or standing with others near a young couple at the altar? How might we think about the evolution of our soul?


Our current scientific understanding is that tears come in at least three varieties. There are no doubt many more. A first is the near-continuous watering of the surface of the eye produced by the lacrimal gland just above and behind the cornea. This kind of tearing smooths out the rough surface of the cornea so that you can see the world more clearly.

A second kind of tear arises in response to physical events—chopping onions, thick smoke, a gnat flying into your eye, a poke to the eye when roughhousing with kids. It is produced by the same anatomy as the first kind of tear but is a response to a physical event.

And then there are tears of emotion, when the lacrimal gland is activated by a region of your nervous system that includes the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve wanders from the top of your spinal cord through your facial and vocal muscles and then through your lungs, heart, and intestinal wall, communicating with the flora and fauna of your gut. It slows your heart rate, calms the body, and through enabling eye contact and vocalization can bring about a sense of connection and belonging. In tearing up at the sight of mountains I had hiked with Rolf, I was recognizing how those mountains gave us the feeling of stride-by-stride belonging one finds in hiking.

Some 2,500 years ago, scholars offered one taxonomy of the tears of emotion: we shed tears of sorrow, gladness, contrition, and—closest to awe

—of our experience of grace, the feeling of Divine provenance of the kindness and goodness of life. Examples of this last kind of tear—sacred tears—appear throughout our history. For Saint Francis of Assisi, it was the divinity in all living beings that brought him such tears; legend has it he shed those tears so often that he went blind. For Odysseus, such tears arose frequently during his odyssey when he marshaled the courage to face overwhelming trials.

Translating these observations to contemporary science, anthropologically minded psychologist Alan Fiske has proposed that we tear up when witnessing acts of “communal sharing”—a way humans relate

to one another grounded in the sense of interdependence, caring and sharing, and a sense of common humanity. So vital is this way of relating in our collective life that when we witness acts of communal sharing—a stranger’s generosity, one person soothing another, or two athletic adversaries embracing—tears well up in our eyes. During political elections, Fiske finds, we are moved to tears by candidates who unite us: during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, campaign videos of Hillary Clinton moved her supporters to tears, and videos of Donald Trump did the same for his red-hatted supporters.

Tears, then, arise when we perceive vast things that unite us into community. The way this meaning of tears changes as we age adds texture to this thesis. Early in life, a child’s tears are a lifeline to parents. Children cry to signal hunger, fatigue, physical pain, and separation, vocalizations that within a tenth of a second activate an ancient region of the brain (the periaqueductal gray) in people nearby, which prompts compassion and caregiving. Our early experiences of tears connect us to what may be our first encounters with what is vast and uniting, our caregivers, who pull us into skin-to-skin contact and calm with soothing touch, rhythmic movement, melodious vocalizations, and bodily warmth.

As children get older, they shift to tearing up when feeling small and lacking agency vis-à-vis forms of authority. This is true, for example, in being scolded by a teacher, pressured by a coach who takes her job too seriously, reprimanded by a parent having a bad day, or teased inappropriately by a popular peer. At this stage, our tears arrive when we feel small in relation to the vast forces of local culture—peers, parents, teachers, coaches, and other adults. The embrace we seek is in the acceptance of others within our culture, in particular our peers.

In adulthood, the vast things that elicit our tears become more symbolic and metaphorical, as is true of nearly every human experience. We tear up during cultural rituals and ceremonies; while appreciating certain kinds of music, movements in dance, films, and scenes in theater; when celebrating sports championships; and even when hearing about abstract ideas like justice, equality, rights, or freedom in speeches or portrayals of historical

events. And we tear up when seeing meaningful places where we found awe with those who have departed. Tears of awe signal an awareness of vast things that unite us with others.


“My childhood was one of extreme awe.” That is how Claire Tolan responds when I ask about her early experiences of awe. Her phrase makes me wonder, as do her fierce eyes and mussed-up hair.

Claire grew up in Ohio and found awe outside. She began writing at age twelve, producing volumes of poems and prose throughout her teens. She found early poetic sublimity in the words of William Carlos Williams, which led her to study poetry as a college student and then attain a PhD in information science.

Upon graduating, Claire moved to Berlin to work on an app that she described to me, in a café in that city, as “Airbnb for refugees.” Her landing in the new city, though, was rough. She felt anxious and tense. The unsettling presence of that twenty-first-century malaise—loneliness— overtook her. Her sleep was disrupted. She often found herself wide awake before dawn, her mind whirring and worrying.

Claire found comfort in ASMR. What is ASMR? If you are younger than thirty you likely already know and may have bookmarked your own diet of its digital offerings. If you are over thirty, it sounds like another mysterious acronym of a younger generation mocking your dance moves and coming to take your job.

ASMR stands for autonomous sensory meridian response. This indecipherable mouthful of words refers to a constellation of sensations in your body, including tingles in your spine, shoulders, the back of your neck, and on the crown of your head. The poet Walt Whitman was perhaps thinking of this sensation in writing about the “body electric.”

How people like Claire find ASMR is where the story gets strange. There are millions of ASMR videos online. These videos often feature a person, filmed up close, whispering and carrying out actions as if moving closer to you, the viewer. The person may make sounds of daily living—of chopping food, tapping countertops, rustling cellophane packaging, or intimate conversation. Or the tongue clicking in a moistened mouth, gentle lip smacking, the sounds of eating, and, from South Korea, a whole ASMR genre of slurping shellfish. Videos of caregiving acts in intimate spaces— dental procedures, chiropractic adjustments, or ear cleanings—can also trigger ASMR.

For Claire, experiencing ASMR soothed her anxiety; it gave her a strange sense of comfort. Of place. Even home. At the end of our conversation, I ask her what it all means. She reflects:

It is like being surrounded by the sounds from childhood. Hearing your parents talk at dinner. The clinking of silverware on plates and the wood table. It feels like when your mom comes close to say good night as you drift off to sleep. They are the sounds of being surrounded by intimacy. The first years of life. Of being embraced.

What are we to make of this possibility, that certain kinds of chills are registers of the idea of having someone you love approach you, of being surrounded by the sounds of home? The framework for an answer is found in William James’s letters to his brother Henry, the great novelist. These letters include vivid descriptions of back pains, upset stomachs, tingly veins, and bodily fatigue. The dramas in the minds of these highly sensitive brothers played out in the sensations of their bodies, and would lead William to one of his most enduring ideas: Our mental life is embodied. Our conscious experience of emotions, and the lenses through which we perceive our lives—in the case of awe, that we are part of something larger than the self—originate in bodily sensations and their underlying

neurophysiology. For James, “our mental life is knit up with our corporeal frame.”

Today a new science of embodiment with roots in William James’s thinking reveals that many of your most significant thoughts have correlates in bodily responses. Your perception of risk, for example, tracks shifts in your systolic blood pressure, when the heart’s quarter-second contraction sends waves of blood through your arteries. How we hold our bodies shapes the reality we perceive. It is easier to recognize concepts (e.g., “vomit”) when you move your facial muscles into the configuration of the related emotion (e.g., of disgust). Simply adopting the furrowed brow and tightened mouth of anger leads people to perceive life as more unfair (try glaring with clenched jaw while listening to a loved one and see what comes to mind). Your judgments about whether someone is trustworthy or not track sensations in your gut.

Claire Tolan’s experiences with ASMR are a poetic example of embodiment: her chills were accompanied by ideas of feeling close to her parents and being surrounded by a sense of home. This theme—that some kind of chills accompany the sense of joining with others to face the unknown—appears across history in descriptions of moments of awe and the wonders of life.

Within the arts, certain qualities of music can produce the chills, such as crescendos, high-pitched solos, expansive guitar riffs, fast drumming, and dissonant chords. The chills also arise when music brings us closer to others in a sense of shared identity.

When reading a novel or a poem, a “literary frisson”—the sudden chills in recognizing the vast forces of a plot—may ripple through our bodies. Here is Vladimir Nabokov on reading Charles Dickens’s novels: “Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle.” As with music, the chills of literature unite us with others in grappling with the vast unknowns we face together.

We often experience the chills during epiphanies whose recognition joins us with others in common cause. At the coffee maker one day while reporting on the Watergate scandal that ended Richard Nixon’s presidency, Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein was overtaken by the chills. He turned to his colleague Bob Woodward and blurted out: “Oh my god, this president is going to be impeached.” Chills signal to our default mind that yet-to-be-recognized forces of social change are nearby—in this particular case, that the discoveries Bernstein and Woodward were unearthing would unite a movement to bring down a president.

Different kinds of chills occur with regularity in encounters with the Divine, as in this example from the book of Job:

In thoughts from the visions of the night, when deep sleep falleth on men, fear came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones to shake. Then a spirit passed before my face. The hair of my flesh stood up.

Within the Yogic tradition, the chills are a sign of devotional love, part of Kundalini, the feminine, ego-dissolving spiritual energy of mystical interconnectedness experienced during yoga. In the vein of Buddhist literature known as Abhidhamma, the bodily shiver is seen as a sign of ecstasy, of losing the self in relation to the Divine. If the soul is embodied, as Walt Whitman observed, the chills would seem to be one register of our recognition that we are connected to something primary, good, and larger than the self.

But what are we to make of the various meanings of “the chills”? That they accompany awe and terror? Bliss and dread? Ecstasy and horror? Union with the Divine and condemnation?

Inspired by questions like these, awe scientists have mapped the meanings of “the chills.” In one illustrative study, people wrote about an experience of the chills and then reported on the degree to which they felt four sensations—cold shivers, shudders, tingling, and goose bumps—as

well as various emotions. This study would reveal that “the chills” can refer to two distinct bodily responses with very different embodied social meanings.

The first is a cold shiver and shudder—what I will refer to as cold shivers—which accompany feelings of horror and dread. Human depravity and baseness can trigger cold shivers, for example when reading about genocide, torture, cannibalism, or pedophilia. Cold shivers are accompanied by the sense of being alienated, alone, and separate from others. In mystical experiences involving cold shivers, the individual feels condemned by an omnipotent god, fearing an afterlife of solitary torment and isolation, reminiscent of Dante’s hell. Our more everyday experience of the eerie— when we feel a strange and unexpected emptiness in a familiar place—can trigger cold shivers.

A second kind of chills is a tingling sensation in the arms, shoulders, back of the neck, and on the crown of the head—“goose bumps.” ASMR resembles this form of the chills. This was the sensation that washed over me in returning to the eastern Sierras to hike to Duck Lake, as Rolf and I had done before he passed. Studies have found that goose bumps are associated with a heightened sense that you are joined with others in community. Our experiences of awe are accompanied by goose bumps but not cold shivers. Once again, more evidence of the distinctions between awe and fear and horror.

If we follow these two kinds of chills back in our evolutionary history, where does this journey take us? Here is the latest thinking on the mammalian beginnings of awe, or, if you feel a bit expansive, the evolution of the soul.

Alongside eating and keeping oxygen at the right level, maintaining the right body temperature is fundamental to survival. Complex brain and body mechanisms kick into gear when we are too hot or too cold. Highly social mammals, such as certain rodents, wolves, primates, and humans, have an additional tool in their tool kit for handling extreme cold: they huddle. This is in keeping with a broader evolutionary principle, that social mammals

like rats, dogs, and humans lean in and coordinate with others when facing peril.

Social mammals’ first response to extreme cold is piloerection, the bodily reaction underlying goose bumps. Piloerection causes the skin to bunch, rendering it less porous to the cold. Visible piloerection signals to others to huddle, initiating proximity and tactile contact, which in humans takes the form of supportive touch and even embrace. Proximity and tactile contact activate a neurochemistry of connection. This includes the release of oxytocin, a neurochemical that travels through the brain and body promoting openness to others, and activation of the vagus nerve. When our mammalian relatives encountered vast and perilous mysteries—numbing cold, roaring water, sudden gusts of wind, thunderous deluges, and lightning—they piloerected, and found warmth and strength in drawing closer to others.

Should huddling be unavailable, mammals facing perilous cold turned to shivering and shuddering, vigorous muscle contractions that warm the body’s tissues. Today we humans shiver and shudder when facing imperiling mysteries and unknowns alone; when feeling rejected socially, ostracized, or acutely lonely; or when encountering the horrors others perpetrate. The cold shivers have a much different neurophysiological profile than goose bumps, involving activation in threat-related regions of the brain (the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex) and elevated blood pressure. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel Nausea, the protagonist Roquentin experiences a “horrible ecstasy,” trembling and becoming nauseated when he looks at a chestnut tree while sitting alone on a park bench. His trembling and shuddering embody the central idea of existentialism, and for some the individualistic twentieth century: that we are alone in making meaning out of the mysteries of life.

Awe indeed follows Whitman’s “beautiful laws of physiology.” Our tears register our awareness of vast things that unite us with others. Our goose bumps accompany notions of joining with others and facing mysteries and unknowns together. Today we may sense these laws of bodily awe when moved by a favorite musical group, or in calling out in protest

with others in the streets, or in bowing our heads together in contemplation. And in such rushes of tears and chills, Whitman’s body electric, we may glean a sense of what our souls might be.

As chills and tears wash over us, we often are left wordless and wondering, appreciating what is vast and mysterious about our place in it all. Being the hypersocial primate, we often reflexively communicate with others about the wonders of life. We do so in body movements and sounds that were our earliest language of awe.


Rainbows stirred Newton and Descartes, we have learned, to some of their best mathematics and physics. For Paul “Bear” Vasquez, such harmonious colors in the sky led to a creation for our digital age. His three-minute video from 2010 of his encountering a double rainbow outside his home in Yosemite has been seen, as I write, nearly fifty million times. In the video you watch a double rainbow’s appearance over grassy foothills near Yosemite. Over the course of the three minutes, Vasquez travels through the sounds of transcendent states. He exults with whoas and ecstatic aahs. He howls. He cries and laughs the kind of existential laugh we emit when recognizing something vast and profound, beyond the narrow view of the default self. As the video nears its end, he observes, “Too much” and “Oh my god,” and wonders several times, “What does this mean?” In awe, we utter sounds of transcendence.

For Charles Darwin, Vasquez’s whoa illustrates how we alert others to the wonders of life and align ourselves in understanding and action. In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals from 1872, Darwin detailed the evolution of our emotional expressions, like the chimpanzee waterfall dance or social mammals huddling when feeling perilous cold. Three of the emotional expressions he described are relatives of awe: admiration, astonishment, and devotion. Admiration involves a smile.

Astonishment— when we are stunned by a vast, unexpected event—lacks the smile, but involves the hand placed over the mouth. And devotion involves behaviors that signal a recognition of the sacred. The face points upward. The body kneels humbly. The eyes close, as in Bernini’s well-known sculpture The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. Hands might be open and turned up, as in Giotto’s painting of Saint Francis preaching to an audience of birds as he wondered “much at such a multitude of birds and at their beauty.”

Is there a universal expression of awe, one that has united us throughout our evolution to recognize together the wonders of life? To answer this question, my Yale collaborator Daniel Cordaro gathered data in China, Japan, South Korea, India, and the United States in search of the body of awe. In a lab in each country, most often just an empty classroom, participants first heard short stories about emotional situations from a speaker of their native language, and then they expressed the emotion portrayed in the story with their bodies in whatever fashion they liked. It was an experiment in emotional charades. Eight months of coding the millisecond-by-millisecond unfolding of bodily movements revealed the following.

People from the five countries screamed with fear, snarled in anger, licked their lips and puckered during desire, and sometimes literally danced with joy. What about awe? Across the five cultures, people expressed awe with eyebrows and upper eyelids raised, a smile, jaw drop, and head tilting up. About half of the bodily movements of awe were universal or shared across cultures. A quarter of each expression was unique to the individual, shaped by that person’s life story and genetics. And about 25 percent of the movements were specific to each culture, in the form of culturally specific “accents.” In India, for example, the expression of awe included a seductive lip pucker; perhaps it’s all those erotic sculptures and treatises on tantric sex that are embodied in the Indian expression of awe.

Vasquez’s whoa is what is known as a vocal burst, a pattern of sound that lasts a quarter of a second or so, doesn’t involve words, and is intended to convey emotion. Other examples of vocal bursts include sighs, laughs,

shrieks, growls, blechs, oohs, aahs, and mmms. Vocal bursts are millions of years old and were a primary language of Homo sapiens prior to the emergence of words some 100,000 years ago. Many social mammals, including great apes, horses, goats, dogs, elephants, and bats, have repertoires of vocal bursts by which they communicate about threat, food, sex, affiliation, comfort, pain, and play.

To understand whether awe’s whoas are universal, we had people vocalize their feelings associated with different situations, such as: “You’ve stubbed your toe on a large rock and feel pain.” Ouch! Or “You see someone who is physically attractive and want to have sex.” Mmm (very similar to the sound we make when tasting delicious food). Or “You have just seen the largest waterfall in the world.” The vocal bursts of awe sounded like whoa or aaaah or wow. When we played these sounds to people from ten countries, they correctly identified vocal bursts of awe nearly 90 percent of the time. This finding struck us: the vocal burst of awe is the most universal sound of emotion, and readily recognized by people in a remote village in the Himalayas of eastern Bhutan, whose residents had minimal contact with Western missionaries or expressive media from the West and from India. Before the emergence of language some 100,000 years ago, we were saying whoa to our kith and kin to join together in facing the vast mysteries of life.

Awe and Culture Evolving

In our tour of the why of awe, we have journeyed back in evolutionary time to imagine an early hominid profile of awe involving tears, piloerection, huddling, sounds like whoa, widened eyes, open arms and hands, and other social behaviors, such as touch. This was the awe, we can imagine, of perhaps ten thousand Homo sapiens a couple hundred thousand years ago, which brought them together to unite in food sharing, huddling when cold, scaring off predators, and hunting large mammals—tasks required for our

hypersocial survival, and in relation to patterns in weather, ecosystems, life cycles of flora and fauna, and migrations of animals. These early forms of awe were about joining together to face peril and the unknown.

Some 80,000 to 100,000 years ago, the archaeological record reveals, language, symbols, music, and visual art emerged. Homo sapiens became a cultural primate and would quickly archive awe with our ever-evolving symbolic capacities. With the emergence of language-based representation, we began to describe the wonders of life to others, using words, metaphors, stories, legends, and myths, and with visual techniques in paintings, carvings, masks, and figurines. Through symbolization, we dramatized our bodily expressions of awe in singing, chanting, dance, dramatic performance, and music. And through ritualization, we formalized the patterns of awe-related bodily tendencies, for example bowing and touching, into rituals and ceremonies.

In archiving awe in myriad cultural forms, we joined with others in cultural and aesthetic experiences of awe to understand the mysteries of our very social living. This was the thesis offered by Robert Hass, the U.S. poet laureate from 1995 to 1997, in a twelve-minute tour of the role of awe in literature and poetry at a conference in Berkeley in 2016. As he detailed this idea, he embodied literary epiphanies with whoas, our ancient sounds of recognizing the sublime.

Hass began with a riff on Aristotle’s idea of catharsis. Twenty-five hundred years ago, catharsis was a purifying ritual: a person would wash themselves with oils prior to entering the home if they had encountered dangerous spirits. Drama, poetry, and literature, which allow us in the safe realm of the imagination to wonder and gain insight into human horrors, can serve as symbolic, ritualized acts of cleansing—transforming human harm and horror into aesthetic representations that stir awe.

Hass then moved on to Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex: A king sleeps with his mother, kills his father, and then gouges out his own eyes. At the play’s end the chorus sings of being cursed with such knowledge about the horrifying conflicts that can ruin families. Turning to the audience, Hass raised his eyebrows and leaned in:


Hass then fast-forwarded two thousand years to Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Antony and Cleopatra, both ending in scenes of horrifying death. At the end of Antony and Cleopatra, “the earth cracks and shivers at its core.” Cleopatra’s death is so powerful it gives chills to the earth! Noting this, Hass lifted his gaze from his notes and looked out to the audience:


Audience members startled. Laughing and nudging friends, they wondered where Hass’s tour would take them next, and then shifted their attention back to the podium.

There Hass turned to a lifelong source of awe for him: haiku. It is customary for haiku poets to write one poem about Mount Fuji, a sacred place of awe for more than two thousand spiritual communities in Japan. He quoted the legendary poet Bashō.

In the misty rain

Mount Fuji is veiled all day— how intriguing!


And then this haiku about a neighbor the poet lives near:

Autumn deepens—

the man next door, what does he do for a living?


We can find everyday awe in wondering about other people’s minds and the patterns of their lives.

At about the eighth minute of this brief history of literary awe, Hass landed in the words of Emily Dickinson—“one of the greatest writers in the language,” he observed. Her poems come out of a state of low blood sugar, Hass joked. They reflect her efforts at grappling with the yearning to connect with infinity in the nineteenth century, as the “big daddy” God was fading. He notes her abiding interest in death and grief.

He read:

There’s a certain Slant of light, Winter Afternoons —

That oppresses, like the Heft Of Cathedral Tunes —

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us — We can find no scar,

But internal difference — Where the Meanings, are —

None may teach it — Any — ’Tis the seal Despair —

An imperial affliction Sent us of the Air —

When it comes, the Landscape listens — Shadows — hold their breath —

When it goes, ’tis like the Distance On the look of Death —

In hearing “certain slant of light” and “the Landscape listens” and “look of Death,” my heart paused and my eyes teared up slightly, accompanied by a faint rush of chills up my spine. I understood in my body the vastness of loss, leaning in with other audience members in a shared awareness of this fundamental truth. And then heard Hass again:


And then to finish, a poem by Gary Snyder. Sitting near a small fire in the Sierras, Snyder draws connections between the fire warming his body, the volcanic fires that created the mountain he was near, and Buddhist fire rituals that purify the soul. Hass ends with a saying of the Buddha:

We are all burning. WHOA.

Hass’s whoas and the poetic words he read stirred audience members to open their minds, to wonder about our moral failings, death, our connections to neighbors and the mysterious operations of their minds, the meanings of light and cathedral tunes, and how fire creates mountains and granite and, metaphorically, our souls. Literature, drama, essay, and poetry join us in the experience of awe and allow us to benefit from its transformations. In one test of this idea, students were first presented with this question: “Why are we alive?” They then wrote a poem to capture their thinking and reported upon the awe they felt while writing. The poems were then rated by PhD students of literature for how sublime they were according to these criteria that date back to ancient Greece:

Did the poem have boldness and grandeur of thoughts? Did it raise passions to a violent or enthusiastic degree? Did it show skillful use of language? Graceful expression?

Did it reveal elegant structure and composition?

Another group of participants then read the poems and reported on how much they were inspired by their words. The critical finding: the more student poets felt awe in writing their poems, the more those poems were judged as sublime by the PhD students; and the more sublime the poem, the more inspiration student readers felt. We can transform experiences of awe into shared aesthetic experiences that unite us into something larger than the self.

This archiving of awe, of translating the body of awe into a cultural form, was part of how Claire Tolan would make her way in Berlin. She transformed her sensations of ASMR into creative acts of twenty-first-century culture. She hosted a show on Berlin community radio featuring live ASMR collages. With a fellow artist, she hosted social events in Berlin nightclubs that involved ASMR karaoke, where participants whispered songs and audience members whispered for encores.


Awe and culture are always evolving. Several thousand years ago, it was a time of everyday awe. Indigenous peoples found awe in relation to nature, stories, ceremony, dance, chanting, song, visual design, and in states of consciousness beyond our ordinary ideas about space, time, and causality. Lao Tzu would orient a continent to the mysteries of a life force, Tao, in nature. Plato would declare that wonder is the source of philosophy, and the means by which we answer life’s great questions, including those that have concerned us here: What is our soul? How do we find what is sacred to us?

Twenty-five hundred years ago, accounts of mystical experiences, like those of Julian of Norwich, begin to dominate the written history of awe, from the Buddha and Christ until the Age of Enlightenment. This archiving of mystical awe in legends, myths, teachings, ceremonies, iconography, and temples would become a fabric of religions. Awe was transforming, at least

in the historical record, into a largely religious emotion, reflecting our efforts to make sense of the Divine and to build community in the face of violence, expanding trade, the breakdown of the family, and the privileging of self-interest over communal sharing.

As we emerged out of the Dark Ages, we would archive awe in an explosion of art, music, literature, rhetoric, drama, and urban and architectural design. Shakespeare’s plays, for example, would stir audiences to wonder anew, as they do today. Several centuries later, Edmund Burke would detail how awe can be found in the mundane, a first philosophical championing in the West of everyday awe. The heroes of Romanticism— Rousseau, Shelley, Blake, Wordsworth—would exhort us to search for the sublime, especially in nature. They would inspire American transcendentalists, who would celebrate our roots in everyday awe found in walking in nature (Ralph Waldo Emerson), free intellectual exchange (Margaret Fuller), ordinary people in their daily lives (Walt Whitman), and mystical experiences found in religion, visions, and drugs (William James).

These ebbs and flows of awe’s history offer another answer, alongside the evolutionary one, to the question “Why awe?” Because awe allows us to get outside of ourselves, and integrates us into larger patterns—of community, of nature, of ideas and cultural forms—that enable our very survival. Tears arise in our recognition of those larger patterns that unite. And the chills signal to us that we are seeking to make sense of such unknowns with others.

We are nearing an end to our first section, devoted to a science of awe. We have seen how awe arises in encounters with the wonders of life and leads to a vanishing of the self, to wonder, and to saintly tendencies. Our interrogation of tears, chills, and whoas locates awe deeper in our mammalian evolution, finding its roots in the tendencies to recognize vast forces that require that we unite with others.

Guided by this mapping of awe, we are ready for more focused studies of how it works within our taxonomy of the eight wonders of life. Experiences with these wonders, for example with music or mystical encounter, so often transcend the reach of language and the tendencies of

science to define, measure, and hypothesize within linear, cause-and-effect theorizing. Recognizing this, we will need to lean more heavily upon people’s stories of awe, such as those I heard inside prisons and near symphony halls, from veterans speaking of what it is like to nearly die in combat and from an Indigenous scholar who nearly died in a community hospital in Mexico. These stories begin in experiences of vast mysteries and unfold in individual lives through the transformative power of awe.

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