by Wonyoung Lee, '22
In the span of only several decades, neuroscience has revealed that numerous mental processes are keenly related to the biochemistry systems in the brain. It was revealed that certain chemicals and hormones, such as serotonin, can induce sleep. There are many researches regarding the cause of certain brain diseases like Alzheimer’s Disease, a disease that is potentially caused by lack of a chemical called dopamine and is known to cause loss cognitive function. But, what about daily functions like emotions? Dr. Yaden and Dr. Kaufman conducted a study on the emotion awe, specifically with the purpose of narrowing the compositions of awe in order to make an emotional state measure of it called the Awe Experience Scale (AWE-S).
The research was composed of mainly two big studies: Study 1 where about 500 participants were asked to write descriptively about a moment of intense awe that they have experienced and complete a survey about it; and Study 2 where approximately 600 participants were asked to do the same and had additional survey questions whose data would help confirm the results from Study 1. The analysis concluded that there were six factors that comprehensively describe the experience of awe. These were altered time perception, self-diminishment, connectedness, perceived vastness, physical sensations, and need for accommodation. In addition, the researchers were able to see a pattern in themes, triggers, and intensity of awe. The most common triggers included natural scenery, childbirth, great skill, encounter with god.
Regarding the context that current neuroscience researches focus on the cause and effect correlation between a phenomenon and brain biochemistry, it seems valid to expect an observation connecting triggers of awe with brain biochemistry. However, because this research was more focused on the psychological level of interpretation, it tended to focus more on the thematic compositions of awe (beauty, threat, ability, virtue, supernatural) and conscious testimony of the patients.
This discrepancy between a neuroscientific expectation and psychological expectation of how a experiment will be conducted can spur questions such as “How do we set up an experiment that examines patterns in certain brain regions, brain waves, brain cell activity frequency, neurotransmitters (these are the chemicals that allow brain cells to activate or deactivate), or even general patterns in brain behavior in response to or is the cause of feeling awe?” The following paragraph will discuss some potential experiment ideas.
Experiments can be conducted by using a similar processes to the above research of asking participants to think about a time when they felt awe and try to describe it as detailed as possible. However, there should be additional technology to record brain activity such as an EEG, which detects abnormalities in brain waves or electrical activity of the brain, MRI, which uses magnetic fields to form pictures of the anatomy and the physiological processes of the body, or fMRI, which detects changes in blood flow and thus brain activity. The flaw of this kind of method, however, is that moments of recalling the experience may not elicit the same reaction in the brain as the first experience of awe because people are inclined to magnify or exaggerate a detail that they personally attach as they recall a memory.
To account for the flaw of the above experiment idea, it could be effective to use awe triggering simulation. Defining or setting this up could be a tricky task because, even though there are common triggers such as the grand nature or amazement of birth, all individuals feel different strengths of emotions to different events. The researcher could possibly set up different types of most commonly awe triggering scenes and then test the participants. For those who haven’t experienced awe in those particular scenes, experimenters could build additional scenes accordingly to their surveys. Scenes can include visual experience guided through a screen or audible experience guided through speakers. In a lab setting, VR technology or movie-like experiences can be the closest simulation to an organic and natural happening.
It is hard to conduct an experiment on emotion. The intention and curiosity on how to connect brain activity with certain emotions are important but extremely difficult to tackle because of the intangibility, individuality, and undefined nature of emotions. Despite this, there is hope that ideas like the above would lead to potential experiments that explore the connection between the biology of brain and emotion. The world will not have to wait for too long to figure out the biggest mystery in the world: Why do we even have emotions?
1. David B. Yaden, Scott Barry Kaufman, Elizabeth Hyde, Alice Chirico, Andrea Gaggioli, Jia Wei Zhang & Dacher Keltner. The development of the Awe Experience Scale (AWE-S): A multifactorial measure for a complex emotion. The Journal of Positive Psychology[Internet], 2018 [cited 2018 Nov 18] DOI: 10.1080
2. John Hembree. Gripped In Awe [Internet] [cited 2018 Nov 18]. Available from: https://www.johnhembree.com/2014/09/21/gripped-in-awe/