Get Over Yourself: Wilderness, Creativity and the Power of Awe




Get Over Yourself: Wilderness, Creativity and 

the Power of Awe

Calvin: Look at all the stars! The universe just goes out forever and ever!

Hobbes: It kind of makes you wonder why man considers himself such a big screaming deal.


David Strayer never gets tired of watching his college students tumble down the wilderness whirlpool into a new head space. Every April, he takes his advanced psych class, called “Cognition in the Wild,” to the desert for a few days of camping, exploration and yes, a mental boost. Phone use is vigorously discouraged, not surprisingly. Billing it as a seminar on how our mental experience is connected to the environment, he’s been teaching it at the University of Utah for eight years. The annual field trip is part of what’s driven him to pursue his “three-day effect” theory, of senses, perspective and cognition sharpening over time. This year, he invited me to see it unfold and to try out his latest experiment building off last year’s Moab confab.

Just before dark, I pulled into the Sand Island campground along the San Juan River near the tiny, dusty town of Bluff, Utah. Strayer was serving fajitas out of fire-blackened pots. It was 36 degrees out, and that afternoon the students had driven down through a foot of new snow around Salt Lake City in what the radio was calling the Tax Day Storm. Now a group of about thirty undergraduates and research assistants packed in around the campfire, scooping up their hot food with gusto. One student was pouring Sprite into the dessert pan for peach cobbler, college style. It would taste like an explosion of sugar. When the stars came out and the hot chocolate was poured, Strayer announced it was time to start the nightly round of ten-minute research presentations on topics like urban stressors on athletes and teen cell-phone use (teacher’s pet!). I pulled on my gloves and settled in. For the students, participating on this trip would encompass 30 percent of their grade. Strayer, who was, naturally, a Scoutmaster when his boys were young, said he believed the campfire setting was vastly superior to power points in classroom. “Here, they really raise their game,” he told me. “By fire they come alive.”

He’s not the first to think so. The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote in 1938 that fire “begat philosophy.” In drawing us together for meal preparation and warmth, fire drove evolution, selecting those of us who could be sociable, communal and even entertaining. We needed the warmth on this night, and I marveled how unusual it was to see a group of young people looking at one another or gazing into the lumens of the fire and not into the lumens of their phones.

The next morning, after a thoroughly disreputable breakfast of Pop-Tarts, muffins and strawberry yogurt from Costco, we drove off to an unmarked trailhead along Comb Ridge. This eighty-mile-long monocline rises from the desert floor, gouged along its east side by deep gullies and canyons that were once home to the Anasazi people. Although they vanished eight hundred years ago under mysterious circumstances (most likely drought and war), many of their artifacts, wall art panels, and rough stone dwellings survived well in the arid desolation.

Strayer led the way up a sandy trail that soon hardened into solid rock marked by cairns. The day warmed and we tied our layers around our waists. One young woman in a ponytail wore red shorts with the word UTAH written across her seat. Some students bounded ahead comparing notes on the latest Michael Keaton movie and some straggled behind, unused to exertion. Overall, the vibe of the class was less jocky, more nerdy, wearing less high-tech clothing and more nose rings and blue nail polish than I expected. For many, this was their first time in canyon country. Most of them didn’t know each other outside of class.

Before long we came to a half-crumbled dwelling nestled into a smooth concavity in the cliff. Pottery sherds lay about, and you could still make out the rounded rooms of the ceremonial kivas. Faint red handprints and human-figure drawings frescoed the cave’s back wall. The place had been hastily abandoned in desperate times. It was eerily quiet among these ancient bedrooms and prayer rooms. We continued farther on toward the crest of an exposed ridge and a breathtaking frieze known as Procession Panel. Believed to date from the “basket-maker period” around 700 A.D., it depicts a tight line of figures migrating from some sort of portal, either spiritual or literal. It presides along an ancient trail connecting two parts of the Anasazi realm.

Over the following days, we ambled around similar sites, from a vast wall painted by one artist known as “wolf man” featuring ducks, yucca plants and what might be human heads shaped like light bulbs, to ruins with names like Split Level and Long Finger. Our senses of perception were shifting. The faint scrapings of rock art that at first were hard to discern started popping out. We could spot the smooth stones used for grinding, the sharp bits that were broken pots. Strayer would point to a thousand-year-old corn cob or examine some pottery and declare it from a certain period based on the clay and firing technique. During an alfresco lunch, he described how one clan held a monopoly on a recipe for oxidizing clay to make it red, guarding the secret and prospering in trade.

“Technology is always a double-edged sword,” said Strayer, fingering a delicately corrugated sherd before passing it around. “It enabled progress but it changed who they were. The cowboys who dug up bones here suddenly starting finding small skulls with flat heads. When the people here started cultivating corn, the mothers had to tend the fields, and they swaddled the babies’ heads flat against a carryall. The evolution of technology is who we are, the stepping stone, with inventions embodying new ways of thinking and being from which we can’t go back.” He seamlessly segued to his own burdens with technology. “I’m sure when I get back I’ll have three or four hundred emails. Most of them will no longer mean anything.”

If Strayer wanted to wow them, he was succeeding. Most of the students seemed impressed, even amazed, by these remote finds and dramatic rock fissures. “I didn’t know I was going to be deeply affected by this,” said Lauren in pink sunglasses, her black hair in a messy bun, “like when I saw that handprint, I almost cried. It’s so unlike me.”

Heading out on morning three, we were met on the trail by a great horned owl that sat still as a statue on a stone ledge over our heads. Amelia, a blonde with a sorority vibe, squealed, “I’ve never seen one before!” Earlier, she had admitted to her tentmates that she was missing her phone because she was waiting for a cute boy to text her. But now, she was transported. “You guys! I feel like I haven’t lived until this trip!”

We lunched in clumps among the blooming prickly pear where Butler Wash meets the wide, gently flowing San Juan River. At our backs loomed a sheer, smooth golden wall; to the south and west lay an expansive spread of the river and its surrounding upheaval of multicolored sandstone. Strayer told us about a petroglyph panel some ways downstream, accessible only by wading and swimming and then returning against the current. It was finally warm out, and a handful of students decided to pursue the lead. They wouldn’t return to camp until early evening, flushed with adventure, giddy, triumphant and hungry for Strayer’s hearty cooking. They had made their own grateful procession through the raw, spare, sometimes voluptuous country.

Strayer was delighted the students were exercising their exploratory—and social—instincts. “The students have gelled,” he told me on the way back to camp. “It just shows you how starved they were for social interaction, for connection.” I had to wonder if he was projecting his usual technology-has-ruined-young-people bias, but the fraying of social skills is increasingly documented by researchers such as Sherry Turkle at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Our capacities for empathy and self-reflection do appear to be challenged—even atrophying—as our digital interactions replace analog ones. One happy solution Turkle acknowledges but doesn’t emphasize: spending more time in unwired places. One of the underappreciated benefits of venturing into remote landscapes is that we are often thrown into connecting with each other.

Just before the adventurers returned, it was my turn to undergo Strayer’s latest experiment. His grad student Rachel Hopman tucked my head into an EEG device more elaborate than the crown-of-thorns one I wore in Scotland and on the lake in Maine. It was more like a bathing cap with twelve sensors sprouting out. Six more sensors suckled my face, all connected via many wires to a small portable unit beside me. I felt like a tethered hedgehog. I carefully settled into a lawn chair at the tamarisk-lined edge of the campground along the San Juan. The students and I would be sitting here in pairs for about fifteen minutes, not doing anything in particular. Different groups of subjects would be doing a similar nothing while sitting at the edge of a parking lot in Salt Lake City and in a lab with a computer.

This was all an elaborate field experiment that grew out of the previous year’s Moab gathering. Strayer wanted to find a biomarker that could show a brain under the influence of nature. If, as most seemed to agree, something is happening to our brains, is there some way to see the transformation? Adam Gazzaley, our rooftop margarita maker from the University of California, San Francisco, had lured Strayer with the idea of measuring midline frontal theta waves. Because these brain waves increase in power when the frontal cortex is engaged in an executive task, Strayer and Gazzaley were hoping the opposite would be true during a wilderness mind-blow: the thetas would quiet down, potentially indicating a rousing of the dreamy default network instead.

If a river can’t transfix my brain, then nothing can. I’ve spent a lot of time in this book talking about trees, but when I crave wild places, it’s often the desert I want. In his wilderness-defense classic Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey named a chapter “ Bedrock and Paradox” after towns not far from here. It’s the perfect nomenclature for a landscape that is chaotic and static at the same time, the rock as dry as a cow skull but broken by lush shocks of green. In the aridity, the greens are greener and the blues are bluer, and, as Abbey puts it, “all things are in motion, all is in process, nothing abides, nothing will ever change in this eternal moment.” Ellen Meloy, an essayist more subtle and interior than Abbey and who lived and died near Bluff, remarked that this county was the size of Belize and contained not one traffic light. “The nights are coal-black and water-deep, the light often too bright to understand. . . . No one is ever sure if we are hostages of isolation or the freest people in four states.”

Of course, the ultimate paradox is that humans need both wilderness and civilization, and that one makes us all the more poised for the other. Although I grew up in New York City, I dreamed of wild summer landscapes unfurling before me. They lay loosely threaded together by the rivers my Dad and I ran, including this very one, launching from this very campground twenty-nine years earlier.

The main watery artery of this region, the San Juan River seeps and then gushes out of Colorado’s southwestern mountains, joining the Colorado River some 380 miles farther down. At that point it is technically no longer a river but a giant, placid lake created by Glen Canyon Dam. Like us, the river fully transforms from wild to domesticated, but it has no option for reversal. Packed into my EEG cap, I watched the river as delicate fractal patterns of flow played against the light. The milky chai-colored water rippled and coursed, shallow in sections, braiding along its main channel.

Sitting here, I felt washed over by the calm of the scene, but it was also mixed with a little anxiety about another weather system approaching from the west. We had no cell reception to check our weather apps. Anxiety may thrive in cities, but it’s also at home in the wilderness—another paradox.

LATER, WHILE HIS enchilada pies were baking in their cast-iron Dutch ovens, I asked Strayer what he thought of the fractal/visual theory of brain restoration, the idea that when our visual cortex finds a sweet spot of information, it can trigger our pleasure centers and help relax us. He wasn’t overly enthused. What he’s getting at, he explained, is a change in mind-set that occurs over hours and days. The kind he and his students have just experienced, with their mild sunburns, loosened limbs, easy laughter and fresh insights.

“If it’s just the visual cortex,” he asked, “why can’t I watch National Geographic videos and get this sensation? I don’t feel this and I couldn’t watch four days of it, and those are amazing videos.”

“But a few minutes out a window can improve your mood and drop your blood pressure,” I said, citing studies as Strayer lifted a heavy lid to check on dinner.

“What I’m interested in isn’t that. That’s not what I and Abbey and Muir and Thoreau are talking about. It’s something much deeper, more cutting close to our soul. Frankly, it’s the essence of who we are and getting away from the rat race, across the litany of literature.”

Satisfied with the progress of cheese meltage on his enchiladas, he pulled off his oven mitt. “If I was a betting man, I’d be betting on the fact that the prefrontal cortex is not in overload in nature.”

STRAYER IS A betting man, because he was out here spending a pile of the National Academy of Sciences’ money on EEG machines. It seemed to me that when the brain is “resting” from its onslaught of daily tasks, it’s making room for something else. It might be the default network—the one that spurs daydreams and reflection—but it might not be. One conundrum is that the most accomplished Buddhist meditators, the ones who’ve spent tens of thousands of hours mastering that prized calm-alert state, don’t appear to be firing up their default networks when they meditate. What they’re accessing is something not easily mapped in discreet places in the brain, but the circuits seem to be related to feelings of compassion, unity, and—dare I say it—love. If our brains are wired for religious and spiritual feelings, the monks have got it down.

But if Muir and Emerson and, before them, eighteenth-century Irish philosopher Edmund Burke had it right, feelings of spirituality don’t just spring from religion: they also spring from transcendent experiences in nature. In 1757, the twenty-eight-year-old Burke landed in the center of the Enlightenment when he published A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. A secularist, he’d been rambling around Ireland and feeling, for lack of a better word, moved. Sensitive and dramatic, he was less interested in landscapes that were picturesque than in scenes that were a little bit dark. Haunting was good, terrifying even better. “The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature,” he wrote, “when those causes operate most powerfully, is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.” He loved a torrential waterfall, a violent storm, a dark grove. He would have made a good raft guide.

According to Burke, for something to be truly awe-inspiring, it must possess “vastness of extent” as well as a degree of difficulty in our ability to make sense of it. That awe also inspires feelings of humility and a more outward perspective has been well described by philosophers, priests and poets. Until Burke, awe was considered the purview and foundational emotion of religious experience. The word “awe” derives from Old English and Norse words for the fear and dread one felt before a divine being. It isn’t for nothing that many churches play up the music, the visions, the robes and architectural heights and spans. These elements fill us with wonder, humility and a bit of trepidation.

In liberating the feeling of awe from the fabric of religion, Burke heavily influenced Kant, Diderot and Wordsworth, who all wrote of the power of the sublime to shore up the imaginations and mental perceptions of humans. In America, Emerson picked up Burke’s themes of vastness and humility, writing in his famous essay “Nature” in 1836, “Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing.” That secular transcendence still informs the modern environmental movement.

Later, Einstein would say, “The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious.” You may be rolling your eyes about now, but Emerson and Einstein were onto something. Among certain circles in psychology (those circles, admittedly, residing largely in California), awe is considered not just a powerful emotion but perhaps the sliest Power Emotion of them all. Until recently, though, there was surprisingly little scientific investigation of awe, despite the fact that it’s considered one of the core positive emotions, along with joy, contentment, compassion, pride, love and amusement.

“Basically, awe is something that blows your mind,” Paul Piff, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, told me. There are degrees of awe, he explained, from the momentary amazement of watching weird dancing-toddler videos on Facebook to seeing Northern Lights for the first time, which can reconfigure your view of the universe. A deeply powerful, awe-inspiring experience can change someone’s perspective for a long time, even permanently.

Roland Griffiths is a psychopharmacologist at Johns Hopkins who studies the sometimes profound, awe-filled experiences of terminally ill patients who ingest psychedelic substances. It’s not unusual for them to hallucinate they are leaving their bodies, flying over landscapes and encountering divine beings. Griffiths told journalist Michael Pollan he considers these mind-trips a kind of “inverse P.T.S.D.”—“a discrete event that produces persisting positive changes in attitudes, moods, and behavior, and presumably in the brain.” This is how entranced astronauts describe the “overview effect” when viewing the earth from space. Awe-triggering, life-shifting jolts are also recounted by survivors of near-death experiences and by more prosaic mountain climbers, surfers, watchers of eclipses and people who swim with dolphins, among others. When they are vast, nature scenes and events can connect us to deeper forces in the world. At the very least, these types of experiences appear to alter us temporarily.

To find out how, Piff, Dacher Keltner at UC Berkeley and two other colleagues conducted some unusual experiments. Keltner had already posited that awe is a unique emotion that turns us away from narrow self-focus and toward the interests of our collective group. To see if awe makes us more generous to each other, the researchers asked 1,500 people how much awe (and other emotions) they experienced on a regular basis. Then they gave some participants ten lottery tickets, telling them they were free to give some away to people who didn’t get any. The researchers found that people who reported experiencing the most awe gave away 40 percent more tickets than those who reported the least feelings of awe. Those who experienced other emotions didn’t behave more generously.

Next, they attempted to induce awe in real time by taking subjects to a tall grove of Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus trees, and asking them to look up for one minute. They sent other subjects to look up at a tall science building. In both settings, a lab assistant “accidentally” dropped a handful of pens. Even after just one minute of awe, the tree-gazers were more helpful, picking up more pens on average than their counterparts.

But in one of the most provocative studies of all, Keltner and colleagues asked participants how many times in the previous month and on that very day they experienced up to twenty negative and positive emotions such as fear, anger, joy, surprise, etc. They also took saliva samples from the subjects and measured their levels of cytokine IL-6, a marker for inflammation. Part of the immune system, these signal molecules help heal wounds and fight illness. In healthy people, lower levels are considered better, while chronic high levels have been linked to depression, stress and poor muscle repair. Of all the positive emotions, experiencing awe was the only one that predicted significantly lower levels of IL-6. Why would this be the case? Keltner posits it’s because awe causes us to reinforce social connections, which are in turn known to lower inflammation and stress. Awe wants to be shared.

Not all awe is positive. But even really scary awe—the kind that happens when a hurricane or a twister levels your town—has a remarkable ability to spur people to help each other and to unite a community toward common goals. It’s evolutionarily adaptive to reach out and connect when confronted with vast forces we don’t totally understand. That’s how we get by.

DARWIN CONSIDERED empathy or compassion to be our strongest instinct, one that launched the success of the human species. By taking good care of each other, we thrived through long childhoods, sicknesses and food shortages. Berkeley’s Keltner argues we possess a literal seat of empathy: the body’s vagus nerve. It starts on top of the spinal cord and tentacles out to facial muscles, the heart, lungs and digestive organs. A key switch in our parasympathetic nervous system, the vagus slows down our heart rate after a fright, bringing us back to a place of conciliation rather than aggression. It appears connected to our oxytocin receptors, which regulate the neurotransmitter that is sometimes reductively called the love hormone, since it flows during sex and breastfeeding. During the release of oxytocin, the vagus nerve may trigger an electric, humming sensation in the upper back. It’s like getting electrocuted by love.

As it responds to love, posits Keltner, the vagus nerve also responds to awe. To get a better handle on how it may work, Keltner and Craig Anderson, his graduate student at Berkeley, invited me (and a whole lot of research subjects) to sit down and watch some of the most awesome video footage they could find—the earth from outer space. This is the view that caused astronauts to fill with tenderness for their little marble in the sky and all of humanity on it. This sensation may be close to what Buddhists describe as the unity of Nirvana, a transcendent happiness characterized by outward love and the elimination of desire.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t approaching Nirvana while watching the earth-from-space footage on a smallish video monitor in a utilitarian lab at Tolman Hall. Anderson had me strap on a heart-rate monitor, and then he attached sensors to my finger for measuring skin conductance (sweating, another measure of the autonomic nervous system). He launched that video, followed by one of magnificent mountain summits, and after ten minutes or so, he returned with my results. In accordance with his overall study data, my heart rate did decline while viewing the monitor. But not much happened with my skin conductance, nor with my facial muscles that Anderson had been surreptitiously monitoring with a hidden camera.

As to why the heart rate slows while viewing the sublime, Anderson has a theory. “Things that cause people to feel awe tend to be information-rich, vast, and things that we have trouble wrapping our minds around,” he said. “So basically, the body is quieting down a bit so that it can take in information in the environment.”

My vagus nerve did not seem to get the memo. I was not even experiencing one of the telltale signs of awe that is surely one of the best words in science: piloerection, or hair standing on end. Sitting in a cubicle with electrodes sticking out of my finger, I did not feel like I was hurtling through deep space, nor, as Strayer had argued in Utah, is watching videos of nature much like the real experience of standing in some enormous viewshed taking in the sensory gifts of the biosphere. In fact, perhaps the absence of scale-induced awe is one of the reasons virtual nature will likely never match the real thing. Burke’s essential ingredient of vastness is hard to simulate on a screen, although a background soundtrack by John Williams certainly helps.

Among other things, awe promotes curiosity, explains Anderson. This is because we experience things out of our normal frame of reference, things we can’t easily categorize or understand. When we are curious, we are drawn out of ourselves. We seek information from others. With their mixture of fear, beauty and mystery, these experiences also tend to get seared into our memory. I will probably never forget seeing my son’s face for the first time, or peering into the Grand Canyon as a child, or watching Northern Lights swirl in an Alaskan sky or driving through a surreal lightning storm in Texas.

We can also experience awe before very charismatic individuals like cult leaders, celebrities, kings and fascist dictators, who embody a vastness of skill or might and are wise to cloak themselves with the trappings of status and an air of inaccessibility. Awe channels power. Melanie Rudd, who studies consumer psychology at the University of Houston, wanted to know if awe, by focusing our attention on the present moment, might expand our perception of time. Anything that could do this might be a great discovery “given that there is a huge time famine in many societies in the world,” as she put it, “and this has a huge impact on mental and physical health, life satisfaction, depression, headaches and hypertension.” Nearly half of all Americans feel they do not have enough time on a daily basis.

When Rudd induced either awe or happiness in her lab subjects, only awe led them to feel less time-pressured, to report less impatience and to volunteer extra time to help others. These happened after quick interventions, such as looking at videos of whales and waterfalls, suggesting that images can indeed induce at least some feelings of awe. The implications of her work are huge for consumer advertising. Seen an ad lately for a new car? Chances are it’s traveling through a magnificent landscape, not stuck on the Beltway. “Lots of things we buy can get framed in an experiential way,” she said. “Being in nature had the biggest effects we saw.”

Very few studies have looked at awe and behavior in the field, other than Piff’s one minute of staring at trees. But if we look at our phones (don’t tell Strayer), it’s evident that people want to share experiences of awe. That’s why we Instagram photos of sunsets and “like” videos of swarming starlings while savoring another great word: murmuration. We now experience small moments of awesomeness on a daily basis through our feeds and our screensavers. Perhaps these “microbreaks” help make up for the loss of the powerful and the vast connections to nature we used to experience when we spent more time outside, but “the jury is still out on how much social media shapes our everyday experience of well-being,” said Irvine’s Piff.

The fact that a discussion on awe finds itself circling back—like so many discussions—to our technology, made my three days unwired in the desert feel all the more radical. We’ve got awe! We’ve got it live right here in the ancient handprints and the umpteen gazillion stars and the fact that a nerdy bunch of students will head back to the city with new friends and a new way of looking at past and present.

As to whether any of this will show up in our cranial currents, initial results seem promising. Strayer sent me the results from my wired-up river interlude, and they were consistent with his hypothesis. A colorful graph showed the power of my theta waves at a range of frequencies compared to samples from the two groups that stayed in the city. My theta signals were lower, indicating a prefrontal cortex on a brief vacation. What the graph doesn’t tell us, though, is exactly where that energy is going in the rest of the brain. Although Strayer-the-Scientist wants to keep unpacking the signals like a Matrushka doll, Strayer-the-Mountain Man understands some mystery will remain, and that’s okay.

For millennia, humans alone or in small groups have at times sought out a sparer, more elemental connection to the forces of nature. They come because they are needing something, and they keep coming because they are finding it. Their pursuits may be spiritual, interpersonal or emotional, deeply human and complex and unlikely to be explained in a bar graph. “At the end of the day,” said Strayer, his eyes grazing the horizon, “we come out in nature not because the science says it does something to us, but because of how it makes us feel.”




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