How Wonder Works

Andrew Sullivan —  Jul 28 2013 @ 9:49am

Canyon

Jessa Gamble explores the mechanics of awe:

Last year, Stanford consumer behaviour researcher Melanie Rudd was able to define and measure awe, the kind architecture can evoke through soaring vaulted ceilings of cathedrals. What makes cathedrals and canyons awe-inspiring is partly their physical vastness. We marvel over the sheer scale of what we are seeing, and that helps to produce awe. But the 20th time we walk into the same cathedral, it may not have the same effect. That’s because awe is not just the experience of vastness. We have to be so surprised by the vastness that we don’t feel we fully grasp it. We stand at the edge of a cavernous space and marvel at its boundless capacity. We want to understand, but it’s hard to hold the mammoth volume in our minds.

Awe has two key components: perceptual vastness and what’s called the “need for accommodation”. The latter involves a desire to interpret that vastness by learning more about the world. The builders of Oxford’s dreaming spires clued in to this effect in Medieval times, and more centres of learning could stand to take their cue.

(Photo by Flickr user Al King)