I did a lot of traveling this summer, some for work, some for play. More than once I experienced things that nearly took my breath away—a gothic cathedral, the pounding of the ocean, a visit to one of the driest deserts on earth. Each one made me feel part of something bigger; they inspired awe. Yet as much as I enjoy my travel adventures, I had never linked that feeling of awe with creativity—at least not until I read a recent article.*
I’ve written before about the links between travel and creativity, but this is something more specific. How might the sensation of awe, with its power to make us rethink our place in the universe, impact our creative thinking? To be honest, I’d never thought about awe as something to be studied, but I was wrong. For example, other research has demonstrated that openness to experience, long associated with creativity, predicts feelings of awe in a given situation,** and that awe can influence our perception of time, our decision making, and our feelings of satisfaction.+ That makes sense to me. When I gaze at mountains or walk among tall trees, time seems to stand still and I feel inspired to be my best self. I guess I’m not alone.
In the most recent study, a group of researchers based in Milan set out to investigate whether the sensation of awe could stimulate creative thinking, using 3-D video to spur feelings of awe. They found that university students who viewed awe-inspiring nature footage (as contrasted with more neutral 3-D images of chickens in the grass) scored higher on several creativity measures.
What does that mean for schools? I’m not sure. Awe is not simple to inspire. But the studies do make me think, yet again, about how important it is to model for young people what it means to walk through the world open to experience, and the joy we find in exploring, thinking about, and experiencing new things. I worry about young people for whom disinterest (or distain) can signify a “too cool for all that” frame of mind. What a sad and limiting way to walk this planet. Let’s do our best to share more joyous—and maybe occasionally awe-inspiring—ways.
*Chirico, A., Galveanu, V. P., Cipresso, P., Riva, G., & Gaggioli, A. (2018). Awe enhances creative thinking: An experimental study. Creativity Reseach Journal, 31(2), 123-131 .https://doi.org/10.1080/10400419.2018.1446491
+Shiota, M. N., Keltner, D., & Mossman, A. (2007). The nature of awe: Elicitors, appraisals, and effects on self-concept. Cognition and Emotion, 21(5), 944–963. doi:10.1080/02699930600923668
**Silvia, P. J., Fayn, K., Nusbaum, E. C., & Beaty, R. E. (2015). Openness to experience and awe in response to nature and music: Personality and profound aesthetic experiences. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 9(4), 376-384. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/aca0000028
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I find that a weekend spent unplugged in nature seeking awe experiences among the trees, mountains, birds songs and flowing water makes me a lot more productive and creative when I return to work on Monday.