AWE, HEALTH & MINDFULNESS

by contemplativeinquiry

Good news for Druids, I think, and for all followers of life-affirming paths. A study from the University of California, Berkeley, published in the journal Emotion (1) suggests that “the feeling of awe we may experience during encounters with art, nature and spirituality has an anti-inflammatory effect, protecting the body from chronic disease”. The researchers found a correlation between feelings of awe and lower levels of cytokines, markers that put the immune system on high alert by triggering a defensive reaction known as inflammation. While inflammation is essential to fighting infection and disease when the body is presented with a specific threat, chronically high levels of cytokines have been linked to a number of health problems, including heart disease, Alzheimer’s, depression and autoimmune conditions.

Dacher Keltner, a member of the research team, defines ‘awe as’ being “in the upper reaches of pleasure, on the border of fear”. She says the finding that “awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggests that the things we do to experience these emotions -– a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art – have a direct influence upon health and life expectancy” (2).

Meanwhile other studies have shed light on the relationship between awe and mindfulness, seen as two of the core elements of many spiritual traditions. Here, awe is defined as a “feeling of fascination and amazement invoked by an encounter with something larger than ourselves that is beyond our ordinary frameworks of understanding”. In one experiment the researchers recruited 64 undergraduate participants to view and respond to a number of images. All of participants were shown two sets of images: one set of images was used to inspire awe (the Grand Canyon, majestic mountains, a view of the Earth from space) while the others were meant to inspire feelings of positivity (kittens, flowers, baby chicks), and asked to rate their awe and positivity responses on a scale of 1 to 7. Prior to viewing the images, half of the participants listened to a 10-minute mindfulness audio tape, while the other half listened to non-mindfulness control audio. The participants who took part in the brief mindfulness exercise experienced a greater awe reaction than the control group in response to the awe-provoking images.

University of Groningen psychologist Dr. Brian Ostafin , quoted in Huffpost Science (3), theorises quite generously from this limited data that  “you can’t digest [the object of awe] with your cognitive structures — it’s too big for you. So there’s a need for accommodation, to change your mental structures to understand what that is. This is the key element of the spiritual experience in a number of different religions. … And mindfulness is a little bit about that too, because you’re paying attention and exercising non-conceptual awareness, so you should be more open to the immensity that’s there. You step out of the small frame that you have and this small idea of what the world is… You’re not stuck in your own story … When we practice mindfulness (the cultivation of a focused, non-judgmental awareness on the present moment), we’re more able to open our mind to make sense of new experiences”.

This research is indicative rather than conclusive, especially it seems to me in the case of the Groningen study.  The research design there seems to me to be based on the offer of rather modest doses of mindfulness and somewhat modest opportunities for awe. Yet there was a real difference in the reported experiences of the mindfulness participants and the control group – so something at least is being suggested about states of attention and experienced quality of response. I find it heartening that this kind of research is going on and intend to keep an eye on it as part of my inquiry.

(1) Stellar, Jennifer E. (et al) Positive affect and markers of inflammation: discreet positive emotions predict lower levels of inflammatory cytokines Emotion Vol 15 (2), April 2015, 129-133

(2) Caroline Gregoire Experiences of Art, Nature, and Spirituality May Help Prevent Disease, Study Finds Huffpost Science, 5 Feb 2015, updated 2 April.

(3) Caroline Gregoire How Meditation Primes the Mind for Spiritual Experiences Huffpost Science 3 January 2015, updated 1 March 2015

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