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When did you last take a moment to really look up at the sky? Shifting your gaze upward can help us be more creative, it improves our capacity to focus - and it’s a gateway to awe.
Natalie didn’t spend much time finding shapes in the clouds as a small kid. And when she got older, looking up was even worse for her. Natalie spent time in jail, where she spent most of her days indoors under harsh lights. Today, she’s a student at a prestigious university. She tried a practice in looking up for our show. When we look up, our brain gets better at being playful, creative, and thinking critically. We also tend to see vast and beautiful things above our heads, like a canopy of leaves, branches and singing birds, or a starry night sky. Often, looking up is all we need to do to find moments of awe in our day-to-day lives. And that’s a wonderful thing, because feeling awe changes how our brains work in a way that’s really good for us.
This episode is part of a special series we’re doing on Awe. If you’d like to learn more about awe, our host, Dacher Keltner, has a new book out about it. It’s called Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life. Learn more here:
Practice: Look Up
Over the course of a week or so, make it a point to look up in several different locations and at different times of the day and night. Be sure everywhere you choose is a safe place to do so, and of course, never look into the sun.
Each time before you look up, take a moment first to notice how you feel, and then take a few deep, intentional breaths to help you get grounded into the present moment.
Look up and let your eyes wander, noticing what inspires awe. If nothing does, that’s ok! This practice might help you cultivate awe more often, but it’s best to go into it each time with no expectations. Spend at least a few minutes looking up if it’s comfortable to do so, or as long as you like.
When you’re done, take another moment to notice how you feel now.
Natalie is a student at UC Berkeley and also works with the UC Berkeley’s Underground Scholars Program, which creates pathways for formerly incarcerated people to study at universities. We’re not sharing Natalie’s last name to protect her privacy.
Michiel van Elk is a professor at Leiden University in The Netherlands.
Learn more about van Elk and his work: https://tinyurl.com/4kc5tycc
Resources from The Greater Good Science Center:
How Nature Can Make You Kinder, Happier, and More Creative: https://tinyurl.com/yepuxd27
Six Ways to Incorporate Awe Into Your Daily Life: https://tinyurl.com/3emucdez
How the Science of Awe Shaped Pixar’s “Soul:” https://tinyurl.com/37z43vrz
How a Sense of Awe Can Inspire Us to Confront Threats to Humanity: https://tinyurl.com/3k6xprau
More Resources About Awe
KQED - Dacher Keltner on Finding Awe: https://tinyurl.com/575v6rvf
The Atlantic - The Quiet Profundity of Everyday Awe: https://tinyurl.com/yz623mff
NYT - How a Bit of Awe Can Improve Your Health: https://tinyurl.com/4zdzcusk
Sierra Club - The Science of Awe: https://tinyurl.com/3pfn23t7
Tell us about your experiences of awe. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or use the hashtag #happinesspod.
Help us share The Science of Happiness!
Leave us a 5-star review on Apple Podcasts or share this link with someone who might like the show: https://tinyurl.com/2p9h5aap
Natalie: So my last incarceration, which was my longest incarceration, I was 24 years old and, you know, it was extremely bleak. You do share the, what they call a pod, with several other women. It’s, God, it’s like 15 other women. And that can be hard because some people, like a majority of the people, we’re in our darkest moment, you know, whether it’s somebody’s hundredth time there or it’s their first time there. And not knowing what’s coming next, like we’re all awaiting trial. Some of us don’t have answers. There’s a lot of frustration. Yeah. And you’re bottled up together. I did have a bunk at the very top, and it was the worst because they never turned the light off. It’s like this very yellow light, you know? And there’s nothing, like, pretty to look at. You know, your time outside is very limited. So I mean, looking up there, it was, it’s just different. I feel like while I was in there, I went so much inside looking into myself, right? But for someone like me, I can get, like, anxiety and I can be my own worst enemy, like so. Looking too much inside can be very, um, a very negative experience.
Dacher Keltner: I’m Dacher Kelner. Welcome to the Science of Happiness. Today we’re exploring what can happen to our minds when we spend a few minutes just looking up at the sky. It’s part of our three part series on the science of awe. When we take the time to look up and out, beyond the horizon, around us, it is a quick pathway to allowing us to shift time and space and perspective by engaging in one of the pathways in awe. We think about time and space and space. Not only are we taking time to be present in the moment, but we’re also allowing ourselves more space for awe and wonder. Research from neuroscientist Fred Previc shows that when we look above the horizon, it activates areas of our brains that are usually engaged during meditation, dreaming, religious experiences and creative activities.
Dacher Keltner: We asked our guest this week to spend a few minutes each day to lift up her head and look at the sky as a happiness practice for our show. Later in the show, we’ll also delve into the neuroscience of awe—how it affects our brains, and in turn, our sense of self. More after this break.
Dacher Keltner: Welcome back to the Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Keltner. And today we’re going to talk about what happens when we look up. Looking up and out only lets the brain improvise and play, but it improves our capacity to maintain a focused state of mind with less effort so we actually get sharper at our thinking. Our guest today, Natalie, spent five minutes a day simply looking up to the sky as happiness practice for our show.
Dacher Keltner: Natalie is a student here at UC Berkeley, where I teach my Science of Happiness course, and she also works with the UC Berkeley’s Underground Scholars Program, which creates pathways for formerly incarcerated people to study at universities. We’re not sharing Natalie’s last name to protect her privacy. Thanks so much for joining us on The Science of Happiness, Natalie.
Natalie: Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to be here.
Dacher Keltner: What was it like for you to look at the sky as a child?
Natalie: You know what, it’s so funny because I was thinking about it, and I don’t think I ever did that. I don’t think I ever looked. Like, I don’t remember ever looking at the sky. And you see it in things like the movies or when you think about children, they’re looking up, right? And I was like, “Gosh, I don’t remember doing this.”
Dacher Keltner: That’s part of why we do these things is just to remind us of the deep ways in which we can find happiness in activities. :Why’d you choose this practice? Why did you decide like, “Hey, I’m gonna do this Look at the Sky practice.”
Natalie: I really wanted to challenge myself to do something that I usually don’t do in hopes that, you know, it would give me something that I don’t usually have.
Dacher Keltner: Nice. So we asked you to do it in different contexts, right? Sort of urban settings, natural settings. What did you notice about these different ways of looking at the sky, nature, and city and so forth?
Natalie: One of my favorite experiences that I had during this whole looking up at the sky, it was actually right in front of my house. And it reminded me a lot of the experience I had when I first got sober, ‘cause I remember taking a walk in my neighborhood early in sobriety. And it was like, I looked at this guy’s garden and I started crying, like, his garden was beautiful to me, right? And I was like, “Gosh, it’s like my eyes are awake to something so new.” But that’s always been there. It’s just that I wasn’t looking. So I did this experiment in front of my house. I looked up and you know, there’s so many beautiful colors in the. And it’s like, wow, this is in front of me all the time and I just never noticed.
Dacher Keltner: Yeah. Such a keen insight. You know? And one of the things we’ve learned in the study of awe, which in part looking at the sky can bring you, is just that it’s all around, you know. And I kind of blazed through the day and I don’t notice things and it’s good to take a break and notice what’s around us.
Natalie: Once I realized I never did this as a child, I’m like, “Well, I’m not gonna deprive my son of not having looked up at the sky.” Like that’s what you do when you’re a kid. So I’m like, “Come on, get bundled up. We’re going outside.” My son is five. So at first he was like, why are we doing this? And I had him do it at night and I think I was trying, you know, And it was night. We laid in, uh, my driveway.
Natalie: He’s got the blanket, he’s got two beanies on. He was all bundled up. Oh. And he looked up and we’re sitting there and it’s, you know, quiet. And then he goes, “Mom, are aliens real?”
Son: Are aliens real?
Natalie: Not that I know of. But if they are, you aren’t in any danger. And it was so funny to me. And I was like, well, if they are, like they’re, they’re very far away. I was very factual. I didn’t wanna, like, shoot down the idea, but I didn’t wanna scare him, you know? Like they’re light years away.
Son: I’m telling all my friends about this.
Natalie: What are you gonna say?You think there are aliens?
Natalie: We’re laying there and it was really interesting to me. So for me I could see like, okay, it’s like increasing his curiosity. Right, right. And then he actually felt scared for a moment and I could relate to that too because I did have an experience where I was looking and it was just a clear blue sky and it actually felt a little scary to me . ‘Cause, wow. All these things I think about all the time, like, do they even matter? You know, like, I’m so small and they’re so vast, and I’m just, you know, in my mind sometimes with all my worries and things, and it was like, it was overwhelming.
Dacher Keltner: You know, that is a common benefit of looking at nature, looking up into trees, looking at the skies. You realize like, “Oh, my stresses are not that significant, I blow them outta proportion,” right?
Dacher Keltner: But you’re suggesting there’s a little bit of destabilization there in some sense. These things I really care about. Maybe they aren’t as important as I made them out to be. Was there a little worry?
Dacher Keltner: Tell us about that.
Natalie: It’s just looking up, I got, you know, and I’m definitely like an anxious person anyway, so it’s kind of my personality.
Dacher Keltner: A lot of us are.
Natalie: Yeah. And I looked up and it was just, it was so big and I realized like there’s so much that I don’t know. It did scare me a little bit just thinking like about, you know, the afterlife, like things that I kind of go through my day without contemplating like, you know, life after death, things like that, that are, you know, I’m pretty sure we all wanna know but we don’t have the answers. So sometimes when I feel like I don’t have the answers, that’s a little scary for me.
Dacher Keltner: I hear you. I hear you. But then after looking for a little while, it became, like, calming to me. So you tried this in different environments?
Dacher Keltner: Did you notice any different emotions in the different environments that depended on what you were looking up at?
Natalie: Yeah. So, I would say the majority of the places that I did the lookup experiment were very peaceful, but I wanted to challenge myself. I went to Haight and Ashbury in San Francisco. It was late at night. Um, and so, you know, you see the lights from the buildings and the restaurants that are open and the lights are kind of glimmering into the sky and the sky’s dark. It’s just really nice. You’ve got the city feel, it’s like the urban skylights being lit up, you know, by the lights of all the little restaurants and stores that were open. And it was very interesting because, you know, you have all the sounds of the city, like people honking, driving, but it’s like I’m just there. I’m hearing all that, but I’m not feeling so connected to that. Like I’m looking up so I’m elsewhere, but I’m still hearing all the noise and feeling all the energy. From that, but I was able to be kind of in a different space.
Natalie: I love that. I love how accessible this is, that at any moment, no matter where I am, as long as I feel safe, I can look up. I’m able to tap into something other than what I’m usually seeing around me or what I’m usually feeling.
Dacher Keltner: I get it. There’s really nice work showing by Fred Previc and others that, you know, when we look upwards, it’s a different kind of mental state. Like, thinking critically and the like.
Dacher Keltner: And how did looking at the sky change your thought patterns?
Natalie: It definitely helped me stay more in the present, and I’ll give in sometimes when I’m really, like, so deep in my thoughts and really stressed, like I went on a walk in my neighborhood one day and I realized like I hadn’t even been looking around me at all. I was like, “Wow, I just made it back to my house.” I have no idea how I even got here, because I was just so deep in my thoughts. Yeah, and like I’ve said, for me, that’s not always a good thing. So by stopping and looking up. Right. It gave me a break from myself, and just being like, just being too in my head. So it just really gave me a break and at one point I saw some birds and it felt calming to me. Like, look, there’s just birds and they’re living their life. Like they have this whole other world going on up there. And it made me feel safe.
Dacher Keltner: That is cool. You know, I mean, one of the problems and challenges for young people like yourself today is too much self focus. Technologies, selfies, you know, texting, “What’s my friend think about me,” et cetera. And you know, that actually registers in a part of the brain called the default mode network, which is about yourself and your goals and, self-representation and a lot of these practices kind of quiet that part of the self. It’s interesting that you say that, “It gives me a break from myself.”
Dacher Keltner: Natalie, you’ve brought a really interesting focus upon this practice of looking to the sky and, and I feel it too. Like, you know, one of the things these practices have taught me, you know, and I often am in an anxious, overworked person or worked up person, is like, “God, if I go for a walk or if I look at the tree, or I watch a cloud, you know, inspirations for these kinds of practices, I get a break from all of that.”
Dacher Keltner: What’s that feel like for you?
Natalie: It feels okay, so being a person, you know, I’m in recovery for addiction and I’m always, you know, having a lot of self-reflection, which I love that about myself, that I am a person that can self-reflect. But like I’ve said, it can be too much sometimes. Yeah. So these practices for someone like me are so important. Yeah. Because I do need it. That’s not always about looking inward. Yeah. Like we have to look outward to get, like, just energy. Like an energy that’s different.
Dacher Keltner:How would you describe that energy? When you look outward, what does it give you?
Natalie: I feel more in flow. Like, I’m walking in my neighborhood. If I’m looking outward and I’m appreciating things, it’s like saying, “Hi” to my neighbor, like letting him know how beautiful his garden is. Things like that. You know, where I feel more in flow with everything around me. It’s not just so Natalie-focused, right?
Dacher Keltner:Yep. You’ve had this amazing life. You know, you’ve gone through a lot. and you have honored us with trying some of these wellbeing practices, like look at the sky, you know, in this moment of reflection. What do you take from this exercise that you would give to a younger Natalie when she was heading into middle school and suddenly struggling? What would you say to that person?
Natalie: I would definitely share the practice of looking up, just like I did with my son. I felt so grateful that I was able to give him that experience. And it’s something that we’ve done a few times.
Dacher Keltner: Yeah?
Natalie: Yeah. And it’s something that I wanna continue to do and if like, you know, an adult or somebody that I looked up to when I was younger would’ve taken little Natalie and been like, “Just look up like all of the possibilities.” Because even when I was younger, I’d get lost in books and things. Like that was my escape, but I did not spend a lot of time outside and just someone would’ve held my hand and, like, “Look up,” my curiosity would’ve sparked just like my sons.
Dacher Keltner: Well, Natalie,thanks for being on our show.
Natalie: Thank you. Sky’s the limit!
Dacher Keltner: When we look up to the sky, it’s easy to be overcome with a sense of awe. That feeling of being connected to something vast that is bigger than the self. Up next, we’re going to explore how awe affects our brain function.
Michiel Van Elkwhen: people are having this emotion, that they’re literally less focused on the self, their self-referential system is shut down and they’re more involved in what they see at that specific moment, completely absorbed in the experience.
Dacher Keltner: The neuroscience of awe, up next. Welcome back to The Science of Happiness. I’m Dacher Keltner. There are so many pathways to feeling awe—like taking just a few minutes to stop and look up at the sky. There’s also walking in nature, listening to moving music, witnessing the birth or death of a loved one. All of these things can invoke the feeling of being in relation to something bigger, and more vast than the self. And this feeling affects our brain activity, in a really healthy way. Our podcast’s executive producer, Shuka Kalantari, spoke with a neuroscientist who put people in an awe-inspiring situation—while using an fMRI machine to capture their patterns of brain activation.
Shuka Kalantari: A lot of things can inspire the emotion of awe. But something awe consistently makes us feel is a vastness around us, and a smaller sense of self.
Michiel Van Elkwhen: People who are overwhelmed, for instance, by natural beauty, typically report that they feel small, insignificant, that they literally were less focused on the self and completely absorbed in what they are seeing in that specific moment.
Shuka Kalantari: Michiel Van Elk is an associate professor of psychology at LeidenUniversity in the Netherlands. He wanted to see what’s really going on inside our brains when we experience awe. So he recruited people to his lab and asked them to first lay inside of an fMRI machine.
Michiel Van Elkwhen: So based on the fMRI signal, you can infer which brain areas were active at a specific point in time.
Shuka Kalantari: Then they all watched 30-second clips of awe-inspiring nature videos.
Michiel Van Elkwhen: Beautiful scenery of natural scenes of BBC Planet Earth footage. Also from bird flights from skydivers jumping out of a plane. videos that consistently have been shown to induce feelings of awe.
Shuka Kalantari: Some were instructed to get really absorbed in the videos. To lose themselves in the imagery.
Michiel Van Elkwhen: We told them just to, as if you’re in a cinema, watching a nice movie. Relax and try to immerse yourself in what you see.
Shuka Kalantari: Another group also watched the awe inspiring nature videos, but they were told they would be tested on how many times there was a change in camera angles.
Michiel Van Elkwhen: We ask them now, pay close attention to the video. You will note that at certain points the camera will shift perspectives, and every time there’s a shift in the perspective of the camera, you have to count how often this occurs.
Shuka Kalantari: Van Elk found that the people who were instructed to get absorbed in the scenery were the ones who reported feeling awe. And the fMRI results help explain why.
Michiel Van Elkwhen: We found, basically, a strong deactivation of the default mode network when people were feeling in awe.
Shuka Kalantari: The default mode network is made up of the areas of the brain that create our sense of self: the stories we tell about ourselves, the mind-wandering and rumination.
Michiel Van Elkwhen: If you daydream, if you start worrying about work-related things. So whenever we find ourselves in this self-reflective thought, the default mode network is active. Being in your head, an excessive activation of the default mode network has been associated with, for instance, depression and or increased tendency for ruminating, for worrying about the future, et cetera.
Shuka Kalantari: The more awe-inducing the videos were, the less active the default mode network was.
Michiel Van Elkwhen: More involved in what they see at that specific moment, completely absorbed in the experience.
Shuka Kalantari: They’re in the here and now. And that may explain this smaller sense of self—the feeling that there’s something bigger than us—when we experience awe.
Michiel Van Elkwhen: And I think in that sense, this study is underlying the potentially beneficial effects that awe could have on mental health and wellbeing.
Dacher Keltner: Our next episode of the science of happiness is the final in our series.
Laura Inserra: Everything vibrates. So everything is music, including your body. You start to actually follow an instrument, a music piece. And that’s unknown. And that unknown is what I love to bring people. And that’s the awe.
Dacher Keltner: We explore how music can make us feel awe. And how that affects our inspiration to seek meaning in our own lives, and our motivation to do good for others. I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness. You can learn more about the neuroscience of awe by visiting our show notes wherever you’re listening today. We have links to past episodes in our series The Science of Awe, as well guided meditations on how to cultivate awe in your own life. There’s also a link to my new book, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life.
Dacher Keltner: If we’ve inspired you to spend a few minutes looking up at the sky—and I hope we did—we’d love for you to snap a picture and show us what you saw. Email us at email@example.com or use the hashtag #happinesspod and tell us how looking up at the sky affected you. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX. Thanks for joining us.