“A Flight Through the Universe,” a two-minute video based on recently-released galaxy data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and featured at NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day.
In a series of fascinating experiments, Melanie Rudd (Stanford University) and colleagues have shown that inspiring a feeling of awe in their subjects also made them feel that they had more time to do things, made them less materialistic and encouraged to think about volunteering their time to help others.
The really amazing thing was how easy it was to instill such a sense of awe: a TV commercial, a walk down memory lane, or a story about an awe-inspiring view.
To summarize Rees’s summary, the experiments showed that subjects who experienced even a little taste of awe—such as what could be elicited by a really cool commercial showing people “interacting with vast, mentally overwhelming, and seemingly realistic images,” or writing about an awe-inspiring personal experience, or reading a story about ascending the Eiffel Tower—came away with sense that they had more time on their hands, felt less impatient and as a result were more likely to volunteer, and were more likely to choose an experience over a material possession of comparable value, “but this was entirely due to their perception that they had more time on their hands.”
Now, two things struck me when I read this experiment. Firstly, it seems to me that atheists have a great appetite for awe-inspiring stories – in particular, stories about great scientific and engineering feats. Could this in part be a facet of life that in other circumstances could be filled by religion?
Secondly, we know from other research that experiences give greater satisfaction than material possessions. And yet the pursuit of material possessions seem to be a major life goal for many people. Could this be due to our feeling of time depletion – and could that in turn be remedied by stoking up a sense of awe?
Could feats like the recent landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars actually reduce materialism and encourage people to do voluntary work?
I don’t know, but I say we give it a try. The video at the top will get you started.
(Hat tip to Brad M. for sending me the link to the video, and to Pink Agendist for referring me to Epiphenom a few days ago in a comment on another post.)