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How Awe Helps With Anxiety

Most people have had the experience of losing themselves while listening to a musical album, viewing art, watching an athlete’s peak performance, or hiking in nature. What all these events have in common is that they minimize your ego. Not ego in the sense of look how great I am, but ego in the simpler sense of I am. During awesome experiences, we forget about ourselves, or at least our usual modes of conceptualizing ourselves. And when there is no self to worry about, well, then there’s not much to worry about at all. Anxiety dissipates. We feel not only moved but also free. This is true subjectively and it’s also becoming true objectively, thanks to modern neuroscience. One recent study published in the journal Human Brian Mapping found that when people are experiencing awe activity decreases in the default-mode network, or the part of the brain associated with referential (i.e., I am) thinking.

The artist Marcel Duchamp said, “Art cannot be understood through the intellect but is felt through an emotion presenting some analogy with a religious faith or sexual attraction—an aesthetic echo. The ‘victim’ of an aesthetic echo is in a position comparable to that of a man in love, of a believer, who dismisses automatically his demanding ego and, helpless, submits to a pleasurable and mysterious constraint. When touched by the aesthetic revelation, the same man, an an almost ecstatic mood, becomes receptive and humble.”

I love this quote. It points to the ability of art—which here I am extending to all awesome experiences—to completely bypass the intellectual, thinking parts of our brains. While the thinking parts of our brains are hugely important and beneficial, they can also get in the way.

Consider this: what is the beginning of anxiety or doubt other than ruminative thinking?  In the midst of awe, however, we ground ourselves in something greater than ourselves and, ironically, we feel a lot better in our own skin. The more we can get in touch with the experience of a kind of self deeper than thinking (or other than our default-mode network in science speak), the more space we’ll have when we’re bombarded by negative thoughts in our daily lives.

Nowadays, most people’s time and energy is increasingly being devoted to intellectual tasks and screens. Thus, perhaps now more than ever, it makes sense to carve out time and space for awe. As Cheryl Strayed’s mom told her when she was experiencing intense anxiety, and in the line that become the keystone of the movie Wild, “Put yourself in the way of beauty.” We’d all be wise to follow her advice.

Brad

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