|Nature's beauty often inspires a feeling of awe.|
Two researchers, Craig Anderson and Linda Saunders, have combined an online platform called Project Awe, which gathers stories and records of awe-inspiring experiences, with studies in the lab and out in nature.
Their in-the-wild experiments have brought groups of Bay Area high schoolers and veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan—now all students at UC Berkeley—on white-water rafting trips along the South Fork of the American River. Their goal: to understand how the experience might affect their well-being—and perhaps even alleviate symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Saunders is a Marine veteran who served in Iraq in 2009-2010, and then in Afghanistan three years later. In between tours, she became the mother of twins, who are now five years old. She went straight from Afghanistan to UC Berkeley in 2014 to start studying environmental science.
"What is awe?"
Craig Anderson: Awe happens when you encounter something so vast that you don’t feel like you wrap your mind around it completely, right at that moment. So, awe could involve experiences of profound beauty, or feeling super-connected to other people or to nature or to humanity as a whole.
Awe is a response to things that are perceptually vast, that we don’t fully understand at the moment. This makes it a very unique emotion. We find behaviors associated with awe that are adaptive in situations that are super novel, like trying to connect with other people or just being curious. When faced with something that blows your mind, you want to find out more information.
...We are finding that across the board participants (veterans in the Awe Project, river rafting) report that they’re getting along better with their family and friends, they are feeling more connected to their community— all those things we would call social well-being.
We are also seeing a decrease in self-reported PTSD symptoms, which we measure in both adolescents we’ve studied and in the military veterans. The adolescents we take out on these rafting trips are from underserved communities in the Bay Area. Many of them actually exhibit PTSD symptoms as well. For both groups, we see a decrease in self-reported PTSD and also stress levels, and people are saying that they are sleeping better as well.