The Science of Awe: How to Use It in Writing, Creative Work, and Everyday Life

Being great at anything is hard, but by studying and applying the science of awe, you can create or do amazing stuff consistently.

Let’s start with the last time you experience something unique and profound.

Try to remember how you felt after you saw or noticed something extraordinary.

Something that makes you pause and take another look. 

Mine was three days ago.

I read an article in Washingtonpost: why is it awesome that your brain can feel awe?

It says there is a lot of benefit to feeling awe which you can study later or continue reading here.

After taking a couple of hours reading about the topic (plus my little experience writing), I believe creators can have happier and more outstanding creations if they’re willing to put in an effort. 

I will use specific examples such as writing, painting, and general life.

So, let’s begin.

When you experience awe, you feel a little better. Other benefits include seeing problems as smaller, experiencing less stress, and increasing overall well-being.

When some of us have these feelings, we try to share them. For instance, we tell loved ones things like, “hey, you need to see this video; you can’t believe it.” And if your friends are those who don’t appreciate that a lot, you get to learn to keep your new-found awesome content to yourself.

This is just an example out of many. It might not apply to everyone.

Writing this post is a perfect sample of someone sharing his newly found awe.

(And it’s something I plan on doing weekly. You can read the previous post.)

How Can You Use the Science of Awe as a Writer or Creative?

Let’s see the definition of awe, according to experts: 

“Awe has two fundamental components, say researchers who study the emotion. It is a response to encountering something more vast, complex, or mind-blowing than we had conceived of either physically or conceptually. The experience also induces a change in how we see the world, producing ‘little earthquakes in the mind.'”

Source

As adults, we’re used to many things: airplanes flying, birds sitting on the fence, and even grander things like earthquakes, rainbows, and skyscrapers.

Compare that to an infant seeing these things for the first time. Or compare it to an adult who just had a successful operation to cure blindness.

They will look at these things differently, take a longer time, or even try to touch them. 

Awe can be attached to seeing new things in the middle of the ordinary. It is what most of us feel when we see something new in a place we don’t expect. It feels like chills. 

So how can this be helpful for writers?

For Writers

Be prepared to bring forth the ordinary, and then use awe in the middle of it. 

Give the ordinary for some time and then introduce something shocking that promises to deliver awe to the reader.

For this article, I took an excerpt from a story I wrote:

We were meant to ambush one man, and my brother would fight and kill him. We’d waited for hours under a car, hoping the man would show up. But when he arrived, there were two other men, and they had guns

It was all the signal we needed to run for our dear lives. 

I was only twelve years old, and my brother was nineteen. There was no way we would fight against three men carrying guns and win. But my brother stood firm as the two other men walked toward the man we wanted to fight, our main enemy. 

My brother looked mean and determined when I stared at his face. He tightened his fist as if he could stop bullets with those fingers. I stepped closer to him and touched his fist with my fingers. He didn’t acknowledge my touch or my presence. His eyes were on the enemy. He wanted this fight so bad; he wanted the man’s blood on his hand. 

“Oba,” I said, “They brought guns.”

If you look carefully at this excerpt, you will realize everything is ordinary if you remove “they had guns.” That’s the first promise that something great or awesome will happen soon.

I think this is a very basic example. We might encounter many of these signs or promises of awe in one passage from famous and established authors like Chimamanda Adichie:

How softly the rain fell that Monday morning when my water broke. Because I was used to the raging downpours of Lagos, this quiet patter calmed me, filled me with peace. My husband Omoregie was at work and so our neighbor took me to the hospital, my dress slightly damp, my heart full of expectation. My firstborn child.

Here, “when my water broke” and “my firstborn child” are phrases that give us an idea that a lot is going on here. 

They promise more awe. 

Let’s see another example, shall we? 

Margaret Atwood:

This is the heart of Gilead, where the war cannot intrude except on television. Where the edges are we aren’t sure, they vary, according to the attacks and counterattacks; but this is the centre, where nothing moves. The Republic of Gilead, said Aunt Lydia, knows no bounds. Gilead is within you.

Doctors lived here once, lawyers, university professors. There are no lawyers any more, and the university is closed.

Without awe or a promise that the reader would come across something profound or enlightening, your readers won’t feel anything. Your work is ordinary. 

But if you give a moment of magnificence, you could earn a five-star rating or a fan. 

Let the readers say wow, and let it be something that tickles the brain.

So it’s imperative for you as a writer to work on awe-inducing prose. It’s important to think of your project as a tourist attraction. Imagine visiting a place that looks exactly like what you see every day. You will be highly disappointed. So this is the same with your work. It is your job to finish writing and think hard about the amount of awe you want in the piece. Make it breathtaking, or slow it down. You are the master, the chef, the driver, and leading on this journey. Give us what you’ve got. Don’t give us an overdose, though, which is the same as not overdoing things. If every line is filled with surprises and every sentence is a brain-racking exercise, you are pushing us to stop… There is a limit to the number of orgasms a person can have per second.

For Other Creatives 

I don’t know much about other creative work, but I can use painting as an example.

Every admirer of painting is usually looking for something extraordinary out of the ordinary. 

Beauty is a little different than awe. 

The building of a hotel in town is beautiful, but it doesn’t mean people will stop by every day and admire it. But if there is something on the walls worth paying attention to, people will stand and watch again and again no matter how many times they have seen it. 

For our example, I searched for a great example of artwork that would always sparkle conversation. The Monalisa is a big deal in the art world, and its fame is hinged on many things. But let’s see if we can pick a less popular artwork. 

The Veiled Virgin is an example:

You can check out the work of Jade Fadojutimi, Heliophobia. You’ll see details that make you pause and appreciate the creativity behind the work.

As it turns out, we can’t talk about the science of awe without talking about the creators of awe. Nature has played its role by creating unique places around the world where you can see and experience awe. The rest is up to the living and the creatives. 

For Every One

The article I linked on the science of awe suggested the other benefits of seeking awe. You should check it out. 

For everyone, seeking awe brings forth the thoughts and creation of other awe.

I wrote this post because I read something that moved me.

That’s how science works: You eat well; you become healthy.

So, it doesn’t matter if you are a programmer or a baker. Seeking awe will reflect in what you create, what you talk about in random conversations, and what ideas you have. 

Here’s my question for you. 

What do you do when you are seeking awe? 

Consciously.

I wrote an article about loneliness, the longest post on this blog at almost 8,000 words. I didn’t finish it for over two years. It’s the happiest thing I wrote for a blog post, though it’s not well-read yet. 

When you seek awe, it doesn’t have to have any other benefit from how it makes you feel for the time being (but, of course, it has other internal and less obvious benefits in the long run).

So, I ask again, what will you do to seek awe because what you consume might just be the source of the next big thing you create? 

Before I conclude the post, I can’t talk about every occupation or creative work out there, but it applies to all. Ask yourself, what does awe mean in this place or work? Your answer will determine what to create or look for.

But remember, it’s rare to create awe without experiencing such before. It’s hard to explain if you don’t know how it feels.

So, How Do You Seek Awe?

I read, watch documentaries, listen to interviews, write stories, and visit places. 

How you seek awe is up to you.

Start with things that interest you. Explore it a little further than the average person would do.

And if you come across something that moves you, take a look again. Ask questions. Find answers.

So, Should You Seek Awe in Everything You Do?

No, I don’t think so. 

I am not a chef. So it will be hard to seek awe every time I cook. 

I just want to eat most of the time, but a chef will think differently.

As a writer, I try thinking about the science of awe when writing, but sometimes, it just doesn’t happen.

Nevertheless, we should try to seek it. It has to be a conscious thing most of the time. You can’t let this experience fall on your lap all the time by accident. You should put some effort into it or dedicate time every day or every week to the process. It doesn’t have to be something greater than admiring the sky or watching how an insect reproduces. 

Sometimes, you experience awe where you least expect it. Of course, it could happen at any time and in places you least expect, but don’t let it come to you only by accident.

And when you experience it, explore it.

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Further reading

The Science of Awe, by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley in September 2018 (PDF)

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