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A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 317

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

Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life  (book cover)

Awe is mysterious. How do we begin to quantify the goose bumps we feel when we see the Grand Canyon, or the utter amazement when we watch a child walk for the first time? How do you put into words the collective effervescence of standing in a crowd and singing in unison, or the wonder you feel while gazing at centuries-old works of art? Up until 15 years ago, there was no science of awe, the feeling we experience when we encounter vast mysteries that transcend our understanding of the world. Scientists were studying emotions like fear and disgust, emotions that seemed essential to human survival. Revolutionary thinking, though, has brought into focus how, through the span of evolution, we’ve met our most basic needs socially. We’ve survived thanks to our capacities to cooperate, form communities, and create culture that strengthens our sense of shared identity — actions that are sparked and spurred by awe.

In this conversation based on his new book Awe, Dacher Keltner presents a radical investigation and deeply personal inquiry into this elusive emotion. Revealing new research into how awe transforms our brains and bodies, alongside an examination of awe across history, culture, and within his own life during a period of grief, Keltner shows us how cultivating awe in our everyday life leads us to appreciate what is most humane in our human nature. And during a moment in which our world feels more divided than ever before, and more imperiled by crises of different kinds, we are greatly in need of awe. If we open our minds, it is awe that sharpens our reasoning and orients us toward big ideas and new insights, that cools our immune system’s inflammation response and strengthens our bodies. It is awe that activates our inclination to share and create strong networks, to take actions that are good for the natural and social world around us. It is awe that transforms who we are, that inspires the creation of art, music, and religion. Awe is also a field guide for how to place awe as a vital force within our lives.

Dacher Keltner is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the faculty director of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. A renowned expert in the science of human emotion, Dr. Keltner studies compassion and awe, how we express emotion, and how emotions guide our moral identities and search for meaning. His research interests also span issues of power, status, inequality, and social class. He is the author of The Power Paradox and the bestselling book Born to Be Good, and the coeditor of The Compassionate Instinct. His new book is Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How it Can Transform Your Life.

Shermer and Keltner discuss:

  • the death of his brother and how this led to his study of awe
  • an operational definition of awe
  • the reliability (or unreliability) of self-report data in social science
  • how to quantify and measure the experience of awe
  • What are emotions and how can they be measured?
  • love, hate, anger, fear, disgust, pleasure/pain
  • hunger, thirst, lust, attraction, desires, passions
  • emotions in the EEA — Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness — what are they “for”?
  • Are there universal human emotions?
  • the nature and nurture of emotions
  • How do emotions differ from feelings, moods, drives, & passions?
  • thought vs. feeling, System 1 vs. System 2 cognition
  • How has the scientific understanding of emotions changed?
  • the neuroscience of emotions: how the brain constructs emotions
  • wanting vs. liking
  • the nature-nurture of emotions: which dominates when and where?
  • Paul Ekman and the universal nature of emotions
  • Lisa Feldman Barrett challenge to Paul Ekman’s theory of universal emotions
  • Schachter-Singer theory of emotion and its competitors
  • the neuro-physiology of awe (goosebumps)
  • the effects of social context on awe
  • predictors of awe: nature, music, art, dance, movement/exercise, love & friendships
  • awe in moral beauty
  • how to train yourself to experience awe
  • how awe helps heal traumas, grief, and loneliness
  • mystical experiences, spirituality, and awe
  • restorative justice and awe.

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This episode is sponsored by Wondrium:

Wondrium (sponsor)

This episode was released on January 21, 2023.

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