Experts in Awe
Expanding the notion of expert.
Are you an expert at anything?
I’m hoping the first thing that pops into your mind is neither yes nor no, but ‘What makes someone an expert?’
This question has germinated in my brain for the past few weeks as I build a database of people with incredible insight and experience in fields that connect to my quest to answer: how might the human emotions of ‘awe’ and ‘wonder’ actively support our climate transition? And how might we develop tools to shift from a fear-based climate movement to an awe-based one?
In the process of slowly creating a web of transdisciplinary knowledge to help answer those questions, I’ve started to reconsider my definition of ‘expert.’ This by no means discounts the deep knowledge that scholars, psychologists, artists and activists bring to the table, but the notion of expertise has expanded to include what I had not yet considered.
Awe is not just for humans
Awe is not exclusive to humans; animals may also be 'awe experts.' According to anthropologist Agustín Fuentes, observations of animals like macaque monkeys and chimpanzees indicate that they exhibit signs of awe when confronted with visually striking or extraordinary stimuli. Just like humans, animals can experience the powerful physiological and emotional sensations associated with awe. Whether it's a monkey taking a break to gaze at a breathtaking sunset or a chimpanzee captivated by the beauty of a waterfall, animals seem capable of being transfixed by awe-inspiring moments.
When Fuentes sat with a macaque monkey (named Sylvia) to soak in ‘golden hour’ atop a mountain, the experience fundamentally changed his entire science. And I don’t blame him.
While the outcomes of awe might differ for humans and animals (we can’t know for sure that the experience of awe shifted Sylvia’s notion of her world), their ability to experience awe suggests that it is not limited to our species.
It feels incomplete to mention monkeys without mentioning Dr.Jane Goodall. Over 40 years ago, she wrote about her observations of chimps ‘rain dancing’ near waterfalls. She had an inkling that our distant cousins could also experience these almost spiritual emotions.
“I can’t help feeling that this waterfall display, or dance, is perhaps triggered by (the same) feelings of awe and wonder that we feel.” Dr. Jane Goodall
Awe-experts under the age of 10
Children, too, can be considered 'awe experts.' Fuentes also highlights that human children, with their extensive childhood and neurobiological development that takes place outside the womb, begin showing signs of awe as early as four years old. As their sense of self develops and they encounter powerful events and stimuli, children's capacity for awe grows. If a baby can (possibly) experience awe by exploring a piece of bubble wrap, they may be the true experts!
Their experience of awe intertwines with their imagination, creativity, and sense of self, shaping their perspectives and understanding of the world. Moreover, language and cultural experiences enhance the transformative nature of awe for children. They feel awe and integrate it into their social reality through communication, art, and attempts to express and share their experiences.
Around the research table sat scholars, scientists, Indigenous leaders, artists, religious leaders, a child, a monkey and…
Over the coming months, I’ll be rolling out my conversations with awe experts of all kinds. Though, before you get your hopes up, I have yet to find a monkey willing to take part.
Did an ‘awe expert’ come to mind as you read this article? Maybe someone who frequently architects moments of awe for themselves or their community?
With kindness and curiosity,
PS. Listen to Jane Goodall’s hunch about chimpanzees’ spirituality while watching them dance under a waterfall.