March 20, 2019

The Neuroscience of Awe

“Have you ever started crying at a live show? Not because it’s sad or even all that emotional, but because the spectacle is so overwhelming that it feels like all your synapses are firing at full capacity and the feeling has to leak out of your body as tears, or yelling, or dancing?

For me, it happens regardless of whether or not I like what I’m watching. I cried at Hamilton during “Satisfied” when time rewound and the stage started turning backward, and that was partially because it was a perfect theatrical moment. But I have also cried at the circus when acrobats did something so impressive that I was pretty sure they might be about to die, which is not something that I think should be that emotional; at superhero movies when the music crescendoes during the final battle, which is really just manipulative on the movie’s part; and during A Star Is Born when Lady Gaga takes the stage and does that “HA-ah-ah-ah-ah-ahhhhhhh,” which I will allow she is very good at but which is a disconcerting thing to cry at because I truly did not care for A Star Is Born.

My reactions have almost nothing to do with the aesthetics of what I’m watching or my own critical judgment; it’s a physiological reaction that seems to override my brain.

You might call that feeling awe, the awe created by spectacle. It’s been studied by scientists across disciplines, but now Cirque du Soleil — the circus company whose entire brand revolves around creating spectacle and being awe-inspiring — is studying it in the wild. And in a scientific report that will be submitted for peer review and publication, they’ve come to the conclusion that understanding awe can help us understand how to become less anxious and more open.”

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