Wow! Awe! And Goosebumps! - Steve Barkley

Wow! Awe! And Goosebumps!

I recently came across the work of Dacher Keltner,  the author of, “Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life.” Listening to a few of his presentations has made connections for me to work that I explored years back when I wrote the book, “Wow! Adding Pizzaz to Teaching and Learning,” I had explored the concept of WOW! after reading Tom Peter’s book, “The Pursuit of Wow,” which talked about businesses wowing customers. He emphasized the importance of creating surprising and exceptional experiences for customers.

“Wow” is associated with a sudden and positive emotional reaction that exceeds expectations. It’s about delivering something unexpected and delightful, often in a commercial or customer service context. Peters’ idea of “Wow” is often linked to innovation, creativity, and customer loyalty. It’s about differentiating a product, service, or company by providing memorable and extraordinary experiences. Peter’s writing led me to explore how teachers can WOW! students from time to  time to capture increased openness and engagement in learning. It’s the English teacher who shows up to class in costume and character of the lead in the novel the class is reading.

“Awe” is an emotion characterized by an overwhelming feeling of wonder, admiration, and reverence in response to something vast, transcendent, or extraordinary. It often involves a sense of being in the presence of something greater than oneself and can evoke feelings of humility, inspiration, and a shift in perspective.

Here are a few items from a long list of experiences that can generate awe (They are quite similar to wows):

  • Vastness and Grandeur: The perception of immense scale, whether in the form of vast landscapes, expansive night skies, or enormous architecture, can trigger feelings of awe.
  • Beauty and Aesthetics: Extraordinary beauty, whether found in nature, art, or human creations, has the potential to evoke awe. This can include stunning sunsets, intricate artwork, or mesmerizing performances.
  • Novelty and Surprise: Encountering something completely unexpected or novel can lead to awe. The element of surprise or encountering the unfamiliar can provoke a sense of wonder.
  • Perceived Complexity: The appreciation of intricate patterns, systems, or phenomena can generate awe. This could involve the contemplation of the complexity of life, the universe, or even the human mind.

I connected awe to why my wife and I have found pleasure in our opportunity to be living in Switzerland where the view from our apartment as well as short trips into the Alps (even the ride to our doctor’s office) often generate AWE.

But I quickly recall how a view from our previous apartment, which overlooked a parking lot generated awe when we saw a teacher bring a group of preschool students to play in the puddles that formed in the rain. What triggers awe can vary significantly from person to person based on individual perspectives, values, and life experiences. Awe is highly subjective and can be influenced by one’s emotional state and receptiveness to wonder and amazement.

Goosebumps can be an indicator that you are having an awe experience. When people describe experiencing goosebumps while witnessing something awe-inspiring, it’s a testament to the emotional impact that awe can have on both the mind and body. It’s a physical response that reflects the depth of the emotional experience. Interestingly, we can get goosebumps listening to a story of another’s awe experience. For example, stories about acts of heroism, selflessness, and compassion can leave the listener in awe of the storyteller’s or characters’ actions.  Similarly, listening to another’s story can remind the listener of a shared human experience, emphasizing common human emotions, struggles, and aspirations, fostering a sense of awe at the diversity and interconnectedness of people’s lives.

In this video, Keltner shares that experiencing awe can produce pro-social behavior, increased creativity and sacrifice for the group which can lead to community integration, physical health, intellectual purpose and well-being. Those outcomes certainly seem worth a conscious look at how to generate awe opportunities in and out of school.

  • Nature Exploration: Spending time in natural settings, such as forests, mountains, or by the ocean, can often evoke feelings of awe. Observing the beauty and grandeur of the natural world can be a powerful source of inspiration. (See earlier podcast on Forest Kindergarten.)
  • Art and Culture: Visiting museums, galleries, or attending cultural events like concerts or theatrical performances can provide opportunities to encounter awe-inspiring works of art and human creativity.
  • Travel: Exploring new and unfamiliar places can expose individuals to awe-inspiring landscapes, architecture, and cultures. (Some of these may be very close to your school or visited virtually)
  • Mindfulness: Practicing mindfulness can help individuals become more attuned to the present moment and be more open to experiencing awe in everyday life.
  • Engaging with Science and Philosophy: Learning about the vastness of the universe or contemplating philosophical questions about existence and meaning can also trigger feelings of awe.
  • Social Connection: Sharing, discussing, and reflecting on awe-inducing experiences with others can enhance emotional impact.

Fostering more awe experiences is possible and can contribute to overall well-being, personal growth, and a greater appreciation for the world and one’s place in it. Cultivating awe is a way to enrich life and promote positive emotions and relationships.

Sharing teachers’ awe experiences with students is certainly a bonus I find when engaging in coaching.

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One Response to “ Wow! Awe! And Goosebumps! ”

  1. Kathy Beamer Says:

    Hi Steve,

    I should email you more often to say thank you for your posts. I often speak of working with you in London 10 years ago at International Community School and your influence on my practice as a coach.

    I recently came across Dacher Keltner’s work also – through the podcast On Being. Where did you discover this book?

    I’m reaching out today to let you know you may want to edit the title of your book that you linked to above. I was very confused for a moment as to why you were writing about adding “pizza” to teaching and learning. 😉

    All the best,

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