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Awe-Inspiring Art as a Byproduct of the Freeze Response
Imagine that you are making your way through a dense jungle. Thick vegetation makes it difficult to see more than few feet in front of you. Suddenly, you break through to a clearing and find yourself standing on the edge of a high cliff; one more step and you’re finished.
This imaginary scenario comes from the cognitive scientist David Huron, who explains that the cliff doesn’t trigger the flight or fight response, but a third reaction: the freeze response. Five distinct physiological signals mark the freeze response: gasping, breath-holding, lowered chin with mouth slightly opened, immobility or stiffness and reduced blinking. Taken together, this physiological cocktail helps steady the body, an adaptive response in a situation where the danger is fixed and the slightest movement means death.
A diverse range of environments and situations evoke the freeze response. Sometimes it’s a sudden change in the weather, like a flash of lightening or clash of thunder. Other times it’s a dangerous animal, a snake or bear that you’ve happened upon while hiking in the forest. Getting held at gunpoint does the trick as well.
If you’ve determined that the potential danger is manageable a distinct emotion sometimes ensues: awe. Think about standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon with guardrails to prevent any fatal missteps, or imagine yourself observing a threatening animal from the comfort of a zoo or a dramatic lightening storm from the comfort of your living room. The danger looms, but your safety from it elicits a sense of awe.
This is the paradox of awe: it combines fear with wonder and pleasure. The word’s oxymoronic etymology illustrates this nicely. Awe’s archaic root is áchos, which in Greek means pain or the “power to inspire fear or reverence,” as in that person or thing is awful. At the same time, something can be awfully good and awfully bad. We react to good and bad events with the exclamation “aw,” as in “aw, Dad, that’s not fair,” and “aw, look at that cute baby.” The word awesome denotes things or people that are impressive, but not necessarily good. The power of an atomic bomb is awesome, but so is the opening ceremony at the Olympics. The same paradox arises in other languages. In Spanish, for example, awe is translated as temor (fear, apprehensiveness) or admiración (admiration, wonder).*
Did awe play a role in human evolution? A Google search of this question will lead you to Jason Silva, a filmmaker who in a recent video (that draws on research by British psychologist Nicholas Humphrey) argues that it did: “How fortuitous… for a species to find that its own ability to contemplate - to marvel at its own existence - has been evolutionary advantageous… it has been biologically selected for because it informs our life with a sense of cosmic significance that makes us work harder, to persist and survive. In other words, awe has helped us survive.”
Silva’s seductive video, with a post rock soundtrack and quotations from several eminent scientists (and John Keats), is, itself, awe-inspiring. But the reasoning might be ostensible. For any evolutionary explanation to hold you need to establish the facts and not take behaviors for granted - even if they feel instinctual or natural. For example, if you postulate that music evolved because it brings communities together you must demonstrate 1) music does, in fact, bring communities together and 2) why music brings communities together. If Silva’s assertion is correct then it must likewise demonstrate that 1) awe does inform our life with a sense of cosmic significance and 2) that that sense does, in fact, make us work harder to persist and survive.
Unfortunately, a dearth of research on awe prevents us from answering either of these. William James studied awe in the early 20th century. In Varieties of Religious Experience he shows that religious-inspired awe contributes to a feeling of peace and unity with one’s self. Years later Abraham Maslow demonstrated that awe is of characteristic of peak-experiences. In the last decade Jonathan Haidt and colleagues conducted several empirical studies examining awe. That’s about it.**
It’s also important to note that what looks like a biological adaptation is sometimes a byproduct of evolution. For example, on the surface it appears that natural selection selected our ability to create and listen to music given that music shows several hallmarks of a naturally selected behavior: it is ubiquitous, pleasurable (for the creator and listener) and effortful. But this is also true for cocaine and heroine, which no sober person would ever consider adaptive. The point is, it’s easy to fall into after-the-fact storytelling when explaining human behavior with an evolutional lens whereas it’s difficult to truly show if a behavior is biologically advantageous.
I suspect that the more plausible explanation is that the type of awe we describe as “life-reaffirming” or “aesthetically inspiring” is a byproduct of the freeze response. If this is true, the job of the artist is to trick your brain into thinking that it is in a dangerous situation, only to deliver a sense of relief and, ultimately, awe.
* 1) my Spanish is rusty. If any native/fluent speakers think this is incorrect please leave a comment below. 2) Anyone who is fluent in a language other than English or Spanish please leave a comment below if you can provide another example.
** 12/13/12 update: Also see Shiota, Keltner, and John 2006; Shiota, Keltner, and Mossman 2007; Bonner and Friedman, 2011; Nusbaum and Silvia 2011.
Image via Shuttershock
The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.
- In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
- The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
- The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
Humans are particularly prone to shiver when a group does or thinks the same thing at the same time.
A few years ago, I proposed that the feeling of cold in one's spine, while for example watching a film or listening to music, corresponds to an event when our vital need for cognition is satisfied.
Certain colors are globally linked to certain feelings, the study reveals.
- Color psychology is often used in marketing to alter your perception of products and services.
- Various studies and experiments across multiple years have given us more insight into the link between personality and color.
- The results of a new study spanning 6 continents (30 nations) shows universal correlations between colors and emotions around the globe.
The root of color psychology<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9e40cf62fa8922fcca6c57e2fcb215b6"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/OM4fXB23pCQ?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>There is a very likely chance you've even been "fooled" by color marketing in the past, or you've chosen one product over another subconsciously due to colors that were designed to influence your emotions.<br></p><p>Companies that want to be known for being dependable often use blue in their logos, for example (Dell, HP, IBM). Companies that want to be perceived as fun and exciting go for a splash of orange (Fanta, Nickelodeon, even Amazon). Green is associated with natural, peaceful emotions and is often used by companies like Whole Foods and Tropicana. </p><p><strong>Your favorite color says a lot about your personality. </strong></p><p>Various studies and experiments across multiple years (<a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/49595886_Personality_Traits_and_Colour_Preferences" target="_blank">2010</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jopy.12087" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2014</a>, <a href="http://oaji.net/articles/2015/1170-1448038739.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2015</a>, and more recently in <a href="https://www.verywellmind.com/color-psychology-2795824#modern-research-on-color-psychology" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019</a>) have given us more insight into the link between your personality and your favorite color.</p><p>Red, for example, is considered a bold color and is associated with feelings such as excitement, passion, anger, danger, energy, and love. The personality traits of this color might be someone who is bold, a little impulsive, and who loves adventure. </p><p>Orange, on the other hand, is considered representative of creativity, happiness, and freedom. The personality traits of this color can be fun, playful, cheerful, nurturing, and productive. Read more about color psychology and personalities <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/color-personality-psychology?rebelltitem=2#rebelltitem2" target="_self">here</a>.</p>
Study reveals which colors best suit which emotions around the globe<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDYzMTk5OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyODc4OTg5OH0.bY-pu-MFNivdJLDJuBp9TBKrhwuy7hngUa1aIWxQMVw/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C93%2C0%2C94&height=700" id="33fff" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1a5d7bb00dac94bd6201616789fb4882" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="concept of color psychology how colors make us feel color emotions" />
Certain colors are globally ties to certain emotions, the study reveals.
Image by agsandrew on Shutterstock<p>In this particular survey, participants were asked to fill out an online questionnaire which involved assigning 20 emotions to 12 different color terms. They were also asked to specify the intensity with which they associated the color term with the emotion.</p><p><strong>Certain colors are globally linked to certain emotions, the study reveals.</strong></p><p>The results of this study showed a few definite correlations between colors and emotions throughout the globe. Red, for example, is the only color that is strongly associated with both negative (anger) and positive (love) feelings. Brown, on the other end of the spectrum, is the color that triggers the fewest emotions globally.<br></p><p>The color white is closely associated with sadness in China, while purple is what is closely associated with sadness in Greece. This can be traced back to the roots of each culture, with white being worn at funerals in China and dark purple being the Greek Orthodox Church's color of mourning. </p><p>Yellow is more associated with joy, specifically in countries that see less sunshine. Meanwhile, its association with joy is weaker in areas that have greater exposure to sunshine. </p><p><a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/09/200910150247.htm" target="_blank">According to Dr. Oberfeld-Twistel</a>, it is difficult to say exactly what the causes for global similarities and differences are. "There is a range of possible influencing factors: language, culture, religion, climate, the history of human development, the human perceptual system."</p>