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Jul 23, 2019

What Awe in Nature Does for Us

Awe can change our brains. (Photo: Joshua Earle/Unsplash)
Awe can change our brains.

A large and growing body of research has found that time outdoors makes us happier and healthier, but there’s relatively limited science explaining why. According to findings published last summer in the journal Emotion, a big part of the answer may be awe. Studies conducted by psychologists at the University of California at Berkeley showed that feeling awe during a nature experience has a singular ability to lower stress and improve our overall well-being. Even more compelling, the research suggests that we don’t need to climb a mountain or run a river to get the healing power of awe—the simplest moments outside are all it takes. For this final episode in our Nature Cure series, we talk to the scientist who led the Berkeley study, as well as a man who says awe saved his life.

Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

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EPISODE BEGINS 

Outside Podcast Theme: From Outside Magazine and PRX, these are Dispatches, stories from our writers in the field. 

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Peter Frick-Wright (host): A lot of the time, here on the podcast, we’re telling stories of people who went outside and something went wrong, and they’re now desperately trying to get back inside. And, to pull back the curtain a bit, most of the time that I’m making those stories, I’m indoors, telling stories about the outdoors.  

But all that changes today, cause I’m going on a vacation: a rafting, trail running, mountain biking vacation. I don’t even think you’ll know that I’m gone.

Today, for this last episode in our four-part Nature Cure series, we’re looking into what exactly happens to us when we go outside that makes us want to stay outside and go back. Why do we feel so much better? With more energy, less stress, and a better ability to handle the challenges of our everyday lives?

More specifically, today we’re looking at the sensation of “awe.” Feeling small compared to the magic and wonder of the natural world, or feeling like we’re seeing something truly special. What is that feeling? And what does it do for us?

Outside’s Michael Roberts reported this story, which begins in a place that’s mostly indoors, but sometimes kinda outdoors: the internet. Here’s Mike. 

Michael Roberts: When I think about awe, I don’t usually think of anything involving the internet. But there are a couple of guys online who sure seem to have captured awe. At least for themselves.

The first is Jason Silva, who created a web series called Shots of Awe. Silva is best known for his National Geographic television show, Brain Games. He’s been compared to Timothy Leary and speaks with an electric energy. He seems to be in awe pretty much all the time.

(audio from Jason Silva Youtube clip) 

And then there’s my favorite viral video superstar of all time. I’m talking about Double Rainbow Guy. In 2010, he posted a YouTube video of himself being brought to tears, and way beyond, by a pretty rad double rainbow he saw near Yosemite National Park.

(audio from Double Rainbow Guy Youtube clip)

Double rainbow all the way across the sky. (crying) What does this mean?

I don’t know if he ever figured out what it meant, but I can tell you that a whole lot of people were in awe of Double Rainbow Guy’s awe: his video has more than 46 million views. Also, his real name is Paul Vasquez and he swears he wasn’t high. Which makes you wonder: What exactly was going on with him? 

Because while there’s a lot of research showing that being in nature makes us happy, the 

scientific study of awe in nature—or just awe in general—is limited. It’s also relatively new. Efforts to investigate the function and impact of awe began less than 20 years ago. Psychologist Dacher Keltner at the University of California, Berkeley was behind those early studies and he remains a leading figure in research on awe and other emotions. Early on, he and another scientist, Jonathan Haidt, laid out an operational definition of awe. Putting it in simpler terms, Keltner wrote that it’s the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world.    

Since then, Keltner has designed a number of projects around awe. He founded UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, which has attracted psychology PhD candidates who’ve developed their own studies. One of them, published last year in the journal Emotion, was the first-ever investigation of how being in nature might elicit awe in a way that reduces stress and improves our well-being.  Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the project was that its origins were on the battlefields of Iraq, in the experience of a soldier named Stacey Bare.

Stacy Bare: My experience was probably somewhere in the middle percentiles of what I saw in terms of carnage. I wasn’t infantry, I was civil affairs at the time -- I got shot at, I got blown up. 

Roberts: Stacey had grown up in a military family—his uncle, grandfather, and great aunt had served. He was in the ROTC in college at the University of Mississippi, where he studied military history. After graduating, he enlisted in the Army. He served tours in Angola and the former Soviet state of Georgia. Then in 2005, he went to Iraq, where he witnessed some horrific things. 

Bare: For years, I used to wake up thinking a dog was eating my neck out, because on one of my very first days out, I saw two really happy looking dogs and they were eating something. And as we approached, moved through the area, the wind blew and some trash uncovered that the dogs were eating out a bloated corpse of a man, who had been shot and left under, had been killed. And then the dogs are happy because they're getting a big meal. 

Roberts: After his time in Iraq, Stacey did some travelling and then began what was supposed to be a normal civilian life. 

Bare: I came home and my thought was that I'd spend a few months traveling and visiting friends and partying, and then I'd go to graduate school and I would punch my ticket to the upper middle class. And I’d be an urban designer and architect and wear cool glasses and live in an exposed brick apartment on the east coast. 

Roberts: It didn’t work out that way. He got his masters degree in urban design, but then the recession hit. There weren’t many jobs, and firms weren’t too excited about hiring a guy who had spent the last seven years in war zones. 

Bare: And so I ended up in Boulder, Colorado. Throughout that time I had developed a fairly significant cocaine habit, become an alcoholic and which really, pun intended, was at the end of my rope, and wanted to commit suicide. Yes, that's the technical term. But really I just wanted to disappear. Right? I just wanted to be gone. 

Roberts: He reached out to a friend from the Army named Chuck who had helped him get through some difficult times in Iraq. Chuck lived nearby, in Colorado Springs, and had spent a long time in charge of the Special Forces mountaineering School. 

Bare: And he more or less told me, make a decision. He's like, you gotta make a decision on what you want to do. Do something about it. Join the army, go back in, or figure out what you want to do. And, uh, I was like, well, what could I do? And he was like, you gotta do something. And he suggested that I come climb with him. 

Roberts: Stacey wasn’t new to the outdoors. He’d been a boy scout. And at one point during his time with the Army, he took a surf trip to South Africa. But he hadn’t done any climbing. Part of the reason? In case you can’t tell by his voice, Stacey is a big guy: six-foot-seven, and not at all lanky. But Chuck was also a big guy, which made things easier. So they went to the Flatirons, a classic rock climbing destination in Boulder. 

Bare: And one of the great things about climbing is that there's moments of extreme terror, especially for the new climber. And that first Flatiron is a very slabby climb, right? You look back on it now and people [are] like, it's a great beginning climb. And one of the reasons I think it's such a great beginning climate is because you have to do these slab moves, right? Where you're not holding onto anything. You're just smashing your hands into the rock and you're smearing your feet and you're figuring out how to move up.

My sense of awe at that moment was really just sucked into the rock, right? And it was just about trying to get up. I also had this experience where, looking back on it now, I realize obviously I didn't want to die that much because I kept yelling for Chuck to take the rope. I thought I was going to fall -- take, take, take! -- falling. I wasn't falling right. I was just nervous. I was scared, I was frightened. Chuck led every pitch and we went up and we went up and we went up and then you're on this ridge line and it's beautiful and you are on the front range, which is a magical place. And you can see out onto the prairie rolling up into the rocky mountains, you can see out into the rocky mountains. It’s this incredible spot and it's just this magical moment of I get to be here. 

Then we had to do the repel down. That was when, at that moment, all those moments of awe, all those moments of intense focus, cracked open, or really blew open a door, to trauma and all the trauma came flooding through at that moment. And I can now look back on that and realize that was a somatic experience. My body was trembling, I was shaking and I was crying like a small child.

Roberts: When Stacey got down, his first thought was: That was so good for me. His second thought was: How can we do this for other veterans? 

That sent him on a years-long journey that began with him working at a group called Veterans Green Jobs, then co-founding Veterans Expeditions, and eventually ending up with the Sierra Club, which was interested in collecting science that supported the idea that outdoors programs should be treated as legitimate medical interventions for people suffering from stress, depression, and PTSD. 

After holding a conference at the University of Utah, the club realized that the empirical studies they were after didn’t exist. They decided their best way forward was to fund a research project. They reached out to scientists and health practitioners working in the nature space and invited them to a gathering at a hotel in San Francisco, in the fall of 2013. 

Bare: We sit down and we start this meeting and we're laying out -- look, we want to figure out the health benefits of time outdoors. And everybody in this room knows it's a good thing. And there's acres of literature, scientific, popular literature, sacred text, that says time outdoors is a good thing, but how do we get policy to really build around the power of the outdoors? How do we use this as a vehicle to help people understand why conservation is important? And really how do we do this to help save our communities, right? I mean, our communities are fracturing and people are screaming and struggling and suicide and drug use. What are we going to do here? 

We get done with our spiel and there's a little bit of a tussle outside the room we're in, as this individual is explaining that he is there for this research meeting. And I think the security guards are like, No, you're, you're not here for this important research meeting. And Dacher Keltner comes like kind of, rumbling in. And he looks like a surfer dude who's been living down at the beach for the last couple of days. Kind of sandy dirty blonde hair. He's like the ultimate disheveled professor, he fits the stereotype. He wanders in and starts talking and at the end of it --we talked for a couple of hours and a lot of interesting stuff, tons of notes -- we're like, well, who wants to help us develop this research project? Who wants to do it? 

And everyone's looking at us like, you want to create a research project to convince insurance companies to fund time outdoors, right? Yeah. I think we want a prescription to the outdoors to mean that you can go into an outdoor store and get a co-pay for a guided experience and hiking boots. All of a sudden the air gets sucked out of the room, right? And Dacher says, I'll do it. We want to do this. 

Roberts: We’ll be right back. 

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Roberts: After the San Francisco meeting, the Sierra Club collaborated with Keltner’s Greater Good Science Center on fundraising for a research project, securing an important donation from REI. They called their endeavor the Great Outdoors Lab. One of the chief designers of the approach was a PhD candidate named Craig Anderson. As a kid, Anderson had had powerful experiences in the New Mexico wilderness, and he had come to UC Berkeley to study our feelings of awe in nature. But initially, he expected to design relatively simple studies, partly because the field was so new. 

Craig Anderson: You know, UC Berkeley's campus is, in my opinion, one of the most awe-inspiring campuses here in the U.S. There's actually been lots of studies coming out of professor Keltner's lab, where for an awe manipulation, you just take students on a walk and sit them beneath the replica t-rex skeleton, or you take them to the grove of Eucalyptus trees, which are the largest of that type of eucalyptus in North America, or you take them to the top of the famous Campanile Bell Tower and have them look out across the bay area. I think I had something along those lines in mind. Um, and it was only when we got connected with the Sierra Club outdoors that we thought a little bigger.

Roberts: Bigger turned out to be whitewater rafting. The Sierra Club already had programs that took military veterans and underserved youth rafting, which gave the scientists the building blocks of a study. They assessed 52 teenagers and 72 vets who did river trips in Northern California. To measure their experience of awe and its impact on their overall well-being, Anderson and his colleagues took the kind of multi-pronged approach that defines a lot of research on emotions. 

First, they just asked the participants what they were feeling. The rafters wrote daily diaries, recording their emotions. Also, before the trip, and then again a week after, they filled out detailed assessments measuring things like stress, how well they slept, and their sense of social connection.

Of course, because our ability—or willingness—to accurately report our health is—well, let’s just call it less than perfect—the researchers also needed other tools.  

Anderson: We got GoPro cameras and we suction-cup-mounted them to the front of the raft, looking back at the people in the raft, and basically loaded them up with the biggest memory card and the biggest battery extender that we could, and turned them on at the beginning of the trip and just let them run throughout the day. 

(audio from raft trip fades in and fades out)

Roberts: The researchers collected hundreds of hours of footage, then did what’s called behavioral coding, using our existing understanding of how people typically express emotions in their face, body language, and voice—to judge the experiences of the rafters.

Finally, they collected saliva samples to measure levels of the hormone cortisol, a key indicator of stress and fear. 

Looking at the initial results, the biggest change they saw was in PTSD symptoms, which were reduced by an average of 30 percent. This was both for the veterans and the teenagers, who had shown alarmingly high rates of PTSD in their pre-trip evaluations. 

An even more compelling finding, however, came when the researchers correlated the daily journals and video recording to see how the emotions participants experienced on the water impacted their post-trip assessments 

Anderson: And when we looked at those emotions, put them into our regression models, awe was the only emotion that we measured that significantly predicted whether or not people's wellbeing would improve at that follow-up one week later.

Roberts: Previous studies had treated emotions as an outcome of experiences in nature—we do something outside, and it makes us happy or sad or scared. But Anderson looked at our feelings during the experience and then measured their longer-term impact. What he found was that awe, above all other emotions, was by far the greatest predictor of improved well-being. 

So, let’s all go rafting, right? Not necessarily. Anderson says the rafters didn’t experience a lot of awe in the middle of rapids—that’s when they felt excitement or fear, or just laughed like crazy people. Instead, it seemed to come during the long calm stretches of water when there wasn’t much to do but relax and look at the nature that was all around them. 

The good news here is that this means it might be easier than we think to experience awe in our everyday lives in a way that makes us healthier and happier—which is exactly what Anderson concluded in another linked study. This time, the research was focused on UC Berkeley undergraduate students, who completed surveys every day over a two-week period and also took an in-depth measurement of their well-being before and after the study.

The results showed very clearly that simple nature outings like walking through a woodsy part of campus led to greater well-being. But what about nature made this happen? Was it an experience of awe, or maybe just sunshine, or ,maybe being away from other stressed-out students? To understand the role awe played, Anderson used what psychologists call a mediational model. 

Anderson:  So that's kind of an approach that we use to test how things have effects on other things. For example, we tested on days that people experience nature, does the increased awe in part explain the effect of nature on wellbeing? And so if you partial out that variance of awe, what we see is that the effect of nature on wellbeing, goes down or completely goes away. 

Roberts: Meaning, if you don’t experience any awe, then your nature experience might not have a lasting positive impact on your well-being. Once again, just like in the rafting study, awe is the lynchpin emotion. Nature without awe just doesn’t always give us the same lift. 

As Stacey Bare points out, that kind of nuanced understanding of how we benefit from being outdoors is crucial when you’re designing programs to heal people. 

Bare: I think we've got to look at this in the same way that  a biotech firm launches its own lab and startup with a very specific way of doing things in looking for a cure for some specific issue. My next step is to figure out how to create that similar approach. For a lot of people, one of the things that we got a lot of pushback on right away, and still get pushed back on, is why are you trying to eliminate the mystery of the outdoors? Why are you trying to define what we already know to be true? And what I have said to that, and will continue to say that is, we're not. We just want to understand what the mystery and beauty and that experience does to the body and does to the mind so that we can then create and support significant policy shifts that allow for more people to get out there.

Roberts: Stacey was particularly encouraged that the research suggested that we don’t actually need a mountaintop experience or a rafting trip to get the kind of awe in nature experience that’s so good for us.

Bare: I think that's the thing is that we can find those moments of awe anywhere. You don't have to be up on the first Flatirons; you can find awe in Wichita, Kansas. You can find awe in Boulder, Colorado, you can find awe in Boston, Massachusetts. And I think in the outdoor industry at times, we have conflated adventure, and, this is one of the challenges, Instagram -- has to be this like huge mountain or this Red Bull experience. And that might not actually be awe.

Roberts: He’s right. But still, if I really, really need an awe fix, I don’t think I’ll be heading to Wichita or a college campus or even the Flat Irons. No, I’m gonna head to Yosemite.

(audio from Double Rainbow Guy youtube clip) 

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OUTRO

Frick-Wright: That was Michael Roberts, speaking with Stacey Bare and Craig Anderson. This episode was produced by Michael Roberts and edited by Robbie Carver.

This episode was brought to you by Adidas, and the all new Terrex Free Hiker. More at terrex.com

The Outside podcast is a production of Outside Integrated Media and PRX. 

We’ll be back. After a quick vacation.

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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, which was developed in partnership with PRX, distributors of the idolized This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, among others. We have since expanded our show and now offer a range of story formats, including interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and politics, as well as reports from our correspondents in the field.