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← How we experience awe -- and why it matters

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Showing Revision 7 created 10/25/2019 by Oliver Friedman.

  1. Before I get started:
  2. I'm really excited to be here
  3. to just actually watch
    what's going to happen, from here.
  4. So with that said,
    we're going to start with:
  5. What is one of our greatest needs,
  6. one of our greatest needs for our brain?
  7. And instead of telling you,
    I want to show you.
  8. In fact, I want you to feel it.
  9. There's a lot I want you to feel
    in the next 14 minutes.
  10. So, if we could all stand up.

  11. We're all going to conduct
    a piece of Strauss together.
  12. Alright? And you all know it.
  13. Alright. Are you ready?
  14. Audience: Yeah!
  15. Beau Lotto: Alright.
    Ready, one, two, three!
  16. It's just the end.
  17. (Music: Richard Strauss
    "Also Sprach Zarathustra")

  18. Right?

  19. You know where it's going.
  20. (Music)

  21. Oh, it's coming!

  22. (Music stops abruptly)

  23. Oh!

  24. (Laughter)

  25. Right?

  26. Collective coitus interruptus.
  27. OK, you can all sit down.
  28. (Laughter)

  29. We have a fundamental need for closure.

  30. (Laughter)

  31. We love closure.

  32. (Applause)

  33. I was told the story that Mozart,
    just before he'd go to bed,

  34. he'd go to the piano and go,
  35. "da-da-da-da-da."
  36. His father, who was already in bed,
    would think, "Argh."
  37. He'd have to get up
    and hit the final note to the chord
  38. before he could go back to sleep.
  39. (Laughter)

  40. So the need for closure
    leads us to thinking about:

  41. What is our greatest fear?
  42. Think -- what is our greatest fear
    growing up, even now?
  43. And it's the fear of the dark.

  44. We hate uncertainty.
  45. We hate to not know.
  46. We hate it.
  47. Think about horror films.
  48. Horror films are always shot in the dark,
  49. in the forest,
  50. at night,
  51. in the depths of the sea,
  52. the blackness of space.
  53. And the reason is because
    dying was easy during evolution.
  54. If you weren't sure that was a predator,
  55. it was too late.
  56. Your brain evolved to predict.
  57. And if you couldn't predict, you died.
  58. And the way your brain predicts
    is by encoding the bias and assumptions
  59. that were useful in the past.
  60. But those assumptions
    just don't stay inside your brain.

  61. You project them out into the world.
  62. There is no bird there.
  63. You're projecting the meaning
    onto the screen.
  64. Everything I'm saying to you right now
    is literally meaningless.
  65. (Laughter)

  66. You're creating the meaning
    and projecting it onto me.

  67. And what's true for objects
    is true for other people.
  68. While you can measure
    their "what" and their "when,"
  69. you can never measure their "why."
  70. So we color other people.
  71. We project a meaning onto them
    based on our biases and our experience.
  72. Which is why the best of design is almost
    always about decreasing uncertainty.
  73. So when we step into uncertainty,

  74. our bodies respond
    physiologically and mentally.
  75. Your immune system
    will start deteriorating.
  76. Your brain cells wither and even die.
  77. Your creativity and intelligence decrease.
  78. We often go from fear to anger,
    almost too often.
  79. Why? Because fear is a state of certainty.
  80. You become morally judgmental.
  81. You become an extreme version of yourself.
  82. If you're a conservative,
    you become more conservative.
  83. If you're a liberal,
    you become more liberal.
  84. Because you go to a place of familiarity.
  85. The problem is that the world changes.

  86. And we have to adapt or die.
  87. And if you want to shift from A to B,
  88. the first step is not B.
  89. The first step is to go from A to not A --
  90. to let go of your bias and assumptions;
  91. to step into the very place
    that our brain evolved to avoid;
  92. to step into the place of the unknown.
  93. But it's so essential
    that we go to this place
  94. that our brain gave us a solution.
  95. Evolution gave us a solution.
  96. And it's possibly one of the most profound
    perceptual experiences.
  97. And it's the experience of awe.
  98. (Music)

  99. (Applause)

  100. (Music)

  101. (Applause)

  102. (Music)

  103. (Applause)

  104. (Music)

  105. (Applause)

  106. (Cheers)

  107. (Applause)

  108. Beau Lotto: Ah, how wonderful, right?

  109. So right now, you're probably all feeling,
    at some level or another, awe.
  110. Right?
  111. So what's happening
    inside your brain right now?
  112. And for thousands of years,
  113. we've been thinking and writing
    and experiencing awe,
  114. and we know so little about it.
  115. And so to try to understand
    what is it and what does it do,
  116. my Lab of Misfits had just
    the wonderful opportunity and the pleasure
  117. to work with who are some of the greatest
    creators of awe that we know:
  118. the writers, the creators,
    the directors, the accountants,
  119. the people who are Cirque Du Soleil.
  120. And so we went to Las Vegas,

  121. and we recorded
    the brain activity of people
  122. while they're watching the performance,
  123. over 10 performances of "O,"
  124. which is iconic Cirque performance.
  125. And we also measured
    the behavior before the performance,
  126. as well as a different group
    after the performance.
  127. And so we had over 200 people involved.
  128. So what is awe?

  129. What is happening
    inside your brain right now?
  130. It's a brain state. OK?
  131. The front part of your brain,
    the prefrontal cortex,
  132. which is responsible
    for your executive function,
  133. your attentional control,
  134. is now being downregulated.
  135. The part of your brain called
    the DMN, default mode network,
  136. which is the interaction
    between multiple areas in your brain,
  137. which is active during, sort of, ideation,
  138. creative thinking in terms
    of divergent thinking and daydreaming,
  139. is now being upregulated.
  140. And right about now,
  141. the activity in your
    prefrontal cortex is changing.
  142. It's becoming asymmetrical
    in its activity,
  143. biased towards the right,
  144. which is highly correlated
    when people step forward into the world,
  145. as opposed to step back.
  146. In fact, the activity across the brains
    of all these people was so correlated
  147. that we're able to train
    an artificial neural network
  148. to predict whether or not
    people are experiencing awe
  149. to an accuracy of 75 percent on average,
  150. with a maximum of 83 percent.
  151. So what does this brain state do?

  152. Well, others have demonstrated,
  153. for instance, Professors
    Haidt and Keltner,
  154. have told us that people feel small
    but connected to the world.
  155. And their prosocial behavior increases,
  156. because they feel an increased
    affinity towards others.
  157. And we've also shown in this study
  158. that people have less need
    for cognitive control.
  159. They're more comfortable with uncertainty
    without having closure.
  160. And their appetite
    for risk also increases.
  161. They actually seek risk,
    and they are better able at taking it.
  162. And something that
    was really quite profound
  163. is that when we asked people,
  164. "Are you someone who has a propensity
    to experience awe?"
  165. They were more likely
    to give a positive response
  166. after the performance
    than they were [before].
  167. They literally redefined themselves
    and their history.
  168. So, awe is possibly the perception
    that is bigger than us.

  169. And in the words of Joseph Campbell,
  170. "Awe is what enables us to move forward."
  171. Or in the words of a dear friend,
  172. probably one of our
    greatest photographers,
  173. still living photographers,
    Duane Michaels,
  174. he said to me just the other day
  175. that maybe it gives us the curiosity
    to overcome our cowardice.
  176. So who cares? Why should we care?

  177. Well, consider conflict,
  178. which seems to be so omnipresent
    in our society at the moment.
  179. If you and I are in conflict,
  180. it's as if we're at the opposite
    ends of the same line.
  181. And my aim is to prove that you're wrong
    and to shift you towards me.
  182. The problem is, you are doing
    exactly the same.
  183. You're trying to prove that I'm wrong
    and shift me towards you.
  184. Notice that conflict is the setup
    to win but not learn.
  185. Your brain only learns if we move.
  186. Life is movement.
  187. So, what if we could use awe,
    not to get rid of conflict --

  188. conflict is essential,
    conflict is how your brain expands,
  189. it's how your brain learns --
  190. but rather, to enter conflict
    in a different way?
  191. And what if awe could
    enable us to enter it
  192. in at least two different ways?
  193. One, to give us the humility
    and courage to not know.
  194. Right? To enter conflict
    with a question instead of an answer.
  195. What would happen then?
  196. To enter the conflict
    with uncertainty instead of certainty.
  197. And the second is,
    in entering conflict that way,
  198. to seek to understand,
    rather than convince.
  199. Because everyone makes sense
    to themselves, right?
  200. And to understand another person,
  201. is to understand the biases
    and assumptions
  202. that give rise to their behavior.
  203. And we've actually initiated a pilot study

  204. to look to see whether
    we could use art-induced awe
  205. to facilitate toleration.
  206. And the results are actually
    incredibly positive.
  207. We can mitigate against anger and hate
  208. through the experience of awe
    generated by art.
  209. So where can we find awe,

  210. given how important it is?
  211. So, what if ...
  212. A suggestion:
  213. that awe is not just
    to be found in the grandeur.
  214. Awe is essential.
  215. Often, it's scale --
    the mountains, the sunscape.
  216. But what if we could actually
    rescale ourselves
  217. and find the impossible in the simple?
  218. And if this is true,
  219. and our data are right,
  220. then endeavors like science,
  221. adventure, art, ideas, love,
  222. a TED conference, performance,
  223. are not only inspired by awe,
  224. but could actually be our ladders
    into uncertainty
  225. to help us expand.
  226. Thank you very much.

  227. (Applause)

  228. Please, come up.

  229. (Applause)

  230. (Cheers)

  231. (Applause)