Awe–How To Be Transformed/Why “Do” Nature, Music, Art, and Yes, Drugs?

Awe–A Transformative Positive Emotions
We have recently been delving more into the experience of awe—awe induced by music, nature, art, spiritual experiences, and, perhaps more controversially, psychedelic drugs.  Barbara Fredrickson included awe in her research on effects of positive emotions on perception.   We can say that her work has transformed not only our approach to how we work with people but also our own personal lives.

Staple Singers

Awe from Music
For example, many of you who know us know that Gioia is more naturally emotionally buoyant and Rebecca is more prone to negative emotions.  So when Rebecca is feeling listless and discouraged, her twin sister tells her to listen to some energizing music.  Rebecca will often turn to the epic Staple Singers’ song “If You’re Ready Come and Go With Me” whose deep rhythmic pulse is so compelling she cannot stop herself from jumping up to sway to the beat and whose unifying message is so inspiring that, corny as it sounds, her heart literally swells with hope and joy.   This is awe.  

Monsoon storm at night with lightning

Awe from Nature
Awe that comes from nature can also immediately shift us out of our “small selves” into a more expansive view of the world around us.  Those of you who have peered over the edge of the Grand Canyon or caught the splendor of the aurora borealis know this sensation.  Although just witnessing the monsoon storms in the AZ desert or stepping outside during the first days of spring after a long cold winter can be enough to evoke that feeling.

Awe from Psychedelic Drugs
Psychedelic drugs can have this effect as well–they can induce what is called a “dissolution of the self”.  This includes feeling less separated from and more connected to others and to the world in general.  Though not to be idly dabbled with and still controversial and contraindicated for many, these kinds of drugs are nevertheless proving to be transformative for people with trauma, treatment resistant depression, anxiety, substance abuse (seems like a contradiction, right?!), and life-threatening illness.

Caveat About Recommending Psychedelics
We realize that recommending psychedelics may be triggering to some folks, especially people who have struggled with drug addiction or who associate drugs with illegal activity.  But we are talking about using them in a controlled way, such as therapeutically assisted interventions.  Ketamine is now the only legal drug that can be prescribed for such purposes, but there are studies being conduct with psilocybin mushrooms and ayahuasca among others which are showing how helpful they can be.

Awe Research by Monroy and Keltner/Back to The Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotions
Part of what got us onto the topic of awe was an article recently published by Maria Monroy and Dacher Keltner in which they talk about changes that occur when we experience awe—a diminished focus on the self, increased prosocial motivations, greater social integration and a greater sense of meaning and purpose.  Again, this goes back to Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build theory of positive emotions—not only do they feel good but they actually change our minds.  They make us see ourselves, others and the world differently–for the better!!!

Awe in Art
Examples of awe being generated from the world of art are plentiful—seeing in person the Sistine Chapel, the Sphinx, the pyramids in Latin America, the vast terra cotta army in China or the bronze masks in Benin that inspired the cubist movement (mind you we have not seen all of these but we have been privileged and transformed by some of them and pine to see the others).

For Us, Music Is the Most Transcendent
As art therapists, we note with some guilt that we should be dwelling most on those examples of visual art, but we cannot help but bow to the magic of music.  Perhaps because music taps into our strengths of appreciation not just of beauty but also excellence, it is most transcendent for us.

Not Just the Music But The Musicians
We are moved by the sounds and the feel of the music, but also the musicians and their passion for their work.  For example, just today we listened to Lizzo, a rap artist trained in the gospel tradition, talk about the power of music to move people.  She perfectly captures the feeling Rebecca experiences when listening to the Staple Singers:


a visceral, physical reaction that you see in people, that’s driven by the music. The pastor talking can make you say amen all day, but there’s something about that driving music that makes you want to get out of your seat and run. And I knew that music had the power to move people physically, even – emotionally, but especially physically. So I don’t think (with gospel music) it’s just because we’re talking about Jesus, because even in those bass lines, the bass line’s not talking about Jesus, the bass line is just running. And it takes you to God, or – you know what I’m saying? It’s just a vessel. And so I want to use my music as a vessel to get you where you need to go, to a positive place.

That is also awe.  Go here to catch more of Lizzo’s inspiring interview. 

Go Experience Some Awe
On that “note”, we encourage you to experience some awe and suggest that an inspiring piece of music may be the quickest and easiest way to do so.

Positively Yours, Rebecca and Gioia

Art Directive
Listen to some awe inducing music and then make artwork in response.