Many scientists have confessed to experiencing awe when beholding nature’s vast complexity of forms. But only recently have researchers systematically studied causes and consequence of experiencing awe. One cause of awe is vastness of scope, size or complexity, experiments revealed. The same experiments found that one consequence of awe is altruism (Piff et al 2015). Beholding a forest of cypress trees evoked a feeling of awe which, in turn, stimulated altruistic behavior. The researchers (Piff et al 2015) credit the awe to witnessing vastness. They also found that small things that were vast in complexity had the same effect as the cypress forest. A drop of colored dye spreading in milk also triggered the altruism after evoking a feeling of awe. It is a vastness of complexity, not sheer size, since the swirling droplet provoked awe-altruism, and awe-altruism didn’t result when persons looked up at a tall and relatively plain building. Neither can we just credit positive feelings, since witnessing tornadoes evoked fear and, at the same time, had the awe-to-altruism effect.
Emerging patterns may stimulate awe.
What do these awe-striking images have in common? The droplet of colored dye splashes outwards in milk, breaking into smaller droplets projecting in all directions, but ultimately merging back into the milk in a new homogeneity. In all these experiences evoking awe-altruism, it seems to me, patterns emerge. In cases such as the cypress forest, the patterns may emerge because our perspective is changing. When I’m in a forest, my eyes travel upwards and back, looking at trees close, then up to far away treetops. On the way up, I see branching out into ever more diversity. Patterns emerge. The tops of the trees, due to their distance from us, converge towards a vanishing point.