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Awestruck

JasonSilvaA few months ago, the filmmaker-come-philosopher Jason Silva started a series of YouTube videos entitled "Shots of Awe". The general concept behind these was to "build on [his short videos] of philosophical expression" and produce "a series of reflections on the human condition - the ways in which we use technology to transcend all previous links to nature". He speaks at about a 1000 words a minute so it's quite difficult to listen, remain attentive and digest the information he's providing, but what he's saying is always interesting (if not a little over-enthusiastic at times). The first video of the series is below and starts with his own definition of awe, one that I can get behind entirely:

an experience of such perceptual vastness you literally have to reconfigure your mental models of the world to assimilate it

It makes me realise just how little awe people from years gone by will have experienced, or rather how much less 'awe-full' it would have been. Jason, in a longer talk given at the Sydney Opera house in 2012 discussed a very many different changes that have happened in the last few decades, predominantly due to technological advances. One set of advancements that puts the 'scale' of others to shame is our exploration of space. Jason uses an example of the Hubble Telescope's Deep Field image reinforced by some evocative statements made by Ross Andersen. With this new understanding and belief of near-infinite spatial and temporal scales, visualised through a single image and contextualised through the near-infinite complexity of your brain, it is hard not to feel awestruck! And, being awestruck is a good thing; Rudd et al. (2012) show that people who experience awe are less impatient, more willing to volunteer time to help others, prefer experiences over material goods and experience greater life satisfaction. And that can't be bad! Jason uses this study to argue that humans have been biologically advantageous because of our ability to be awestruck. I'm not sure it's true, but I like to think it is because then we have the capacity to do something about giving ourselves, and our species, an advantage. And the cost? Taking time out of our dull everyday lives to be awestruck. I'd call that a win.

I find that video of the "Biological Advantage of being Awestruck" truly awe-inspiring; I think that is Jason's intention with his series "Shots of Awe". Even if there aren't practical or health advantages to regularly experiencing awe, surely it goes some way to put our lives in perspective?! And surely putting things in perspective are what allows us to "stop and smell the roses" every now and then?!

By far the most watched video from the Shots of Awe series is that entitled "Existential Bummer". It begins with a quote from the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker

Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever

I won't spoil the video and how well Jason tells the story of our inevitable demise (a cheery topic indeed), just watch it below. I'm not sure I agree with his final message but I do think that conscious thought is required to maximise our enjoyment of life. It is all too easy to subconsciously focus on tangible and achievable goals. In the privileged western world that I live in I can work hard and push myself to earn a targeted wage and I can give myself the opportunities to live and travel wherever I want. I cannot, however, push myself to live a happy life.

At the end of the day, I want to be able to look back when I'm retired and not think that I should have stopped to look around me a bit more. I want to be vocationally successful but not so successful that it costs me my appreciation of awe. Whatever I do in this world I work hard at making it succeed; I think it's about time I applied the same work ethic to my mission of personal satisfaction.

 

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