On shared humanity.
A conversation with anthropologist Agustín Fuentes
We recorded this episode of our new podcast, The Awe Effect before the recent horrific events began in and around Gaza. Our conversation covers much ground, including hope and belief, as well as our need to fall back in love with humanity. We acknowledge that awe and hope are not solutions, but ingredients to consider as we strive to keep our hearts open.
What happens when you look at the world through the eyes of a monkey? Anthropologist Agustín Fuentes did just that alongside National Geographic to gain a monkey’s-eye-view of the world. His fascinating research reveals insights about the distinct way humans experience awe.
Fuentes describes both monkeys and humans can feel awe when witnessing something vast and wondrous. But for humans, awe prompts creativity, imagination, and possibility in a way unseen in other species. We feel compelled to build on those sparks of inspiration, to turn awe into action.
So. How can we cultivate more awe, unlocking its power to catalyze imagination and change?
Here are a few highlights from our conversation.
First, fostering opportunities for awe in young people by encouraging creativity over conformity. How quickly do we grow away and repress our natural ability and tendency to find wonder in the first snowfall of the season, or the brightness of lightening in the sky?
Fuentes explains that humans have a unique capacity for “offline thinking.” We can envision things not directly before us, from something as nonsensical as a glowing winged octopus - or as hopeful as liberation and world peace. When awe expands our perspective, we can envision new potentials and feel called to pursue them.
Fuentes explains that offline thinking - imagining something totally new and then attempting to make it real, can happen much more when we make space for awe to exist in our lives.
Transcendence and Imagined Communities
Second takeaway: How might we talk more openly about our sense of transcendence? Transcendence means "going beyond". Going beyond our egos and our sense of self, to experience something greater than ourselves. These experiences are often correlated with religious ones, but there are many ways we can ‘go beyond’ - feeling a deeper connection to others (other people, but also the living planet we inhabit). Sharing a meal can be a transcendent experience. Sharing in music. Sharing in dance.
Fuentes mentions the idea of ‘Imagined Communities’, a term coined by Benedict Anderson. Not to mean communities that do not exist, but rather communities of people that we have never met but we somehow feel connected to. Originally, the term was coined to describe nations as an imagined community because most of its members will never know most of the other members. Yet, they consider themselves to be a part of the same commonality. Despite their physical separation, members of a nation often regard themselves as sharing in a fraternity with which they identify.
I like thinking of Imagined Communities as much wider networks, beyond the nations or states in which we inhabit. The communities of sentient, living things - the vines growing on the side of my building or the spider delicately resting in the corner of my ceiling. Or even the Imagined Community of people reading this article. People I feel connected to without having ever met.
The link became clear throughout our conversation with Fuentes: Experiences of awe can strengthen our sense of Imagined Community.
Presence and lingering
Finally, a reminder to be present. Our monkey cousins experience awe in the moment and then move on. Humans alone linger with it, integrating it into our self-concepts and worldviews. Don’t just notice when you feel awe - let it move you.
Our ability to transform fleeting moments into movements makes us beautifully and utterly human.
Agustín Fuentes is a Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University. He is an active public scientist, a well-known blogger, lecturer, tweeter, and an explorer for National Geographic. Fuentes received the Inaugural Communication & Outreach Award from the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, the President’s Award from the American Anthropological Association, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
He authored the acclaimed books "Why We Believe; Evolution and the Human Way of Being" and “The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional”.
We hope you enjoy listening to our first episode.
With kindness and curiosity,
PS. A memorable question that emerged from our conversation: All humans have the capacity for awe, but why should only certain humans have the luxury to sit with it?