Posts Tagged ‘Dacher Keltner’


July 29, 2017

This post is based on an article by Jo Marchant in the Features section of the 29 July 2017 edition of the New Scientist titled, “Awesome awe: The emotion that gives us superpowers.”

The feeling of awe is something that hopefully most, if not all, of us have experienced. It has only recently become a topic for scientific investigation. In 2003 Dacher Keltner and Jonathan  Haidt published the first scientific definition. They described awe as the feeling we get when confronted with something vast, that transcends our frame of reference, and that we struggle to understand. It’s an emotion that combines amazement with an edge of fear. Wonder, by contrast, is more intellectual—a cognitive state in which we are trying to understand the mysterious.

We might think that investigating such a mystical experience would be a challenge, but Keltner insists it’s not so hard. He says, “We can reliably produce awe. You can get people to go out to a beautiful scene in nature, or put them in a cathedral or in front of a dinosaur skeleton, and they’re going to be pretty amazed.” Then a numerical scale is used so people can report how much awe they are feeling. A physiological measure, the appearance of goosebumps, is second only to cold temperatures as a source of the goosebumps.

Keltner and other researchers have found that even mild awe can change our attitudes and behavior. People who watched a nature video that elicited awe, rather than other positive emotions such as happiness or pride—were subsequently more generous and described themselves as feeling more connected to people in general. Gazing up at tall eucalyptus trees left others more likely to help someone who stumbled in front of them. After standing in front of a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, people were more likely to describe themselves as part of a group. Although it might seem counterintuitive that an emotion we often experience alone increases our focus on others, Keltner thinks it’s because awe expands our attention to encompass a bigger picture, thus reducing our sense of self.

In a large study Keltner found that after inspiring awe in people from the US and China, they signed their names smaller and drew themselves smaller, but with no drop in their sense of status or self-esteem. Neuroscientist Michiel van Elk found that people who watched awe-inducing videos estimated their bodies to be physically smaller than those who watched funny or neutral videos.

At the annual meeting of the Organization of Human Brain Mapping in Vancouver, Canada, in June, van Elk presented functional MRI scans showing that awe quiets activity in the default mode network, which included parts of the frontal lobes and cortex, and is thought to related to the sense of self. Keltner says, “The voice in your head, self-interest, self-consciousness, disappears. Here’s an emotion that knocks out a really important part of our identity. As a result we feel more connected to bigger collectives and groups.”

Keltner’s team has found that feeling awe makes people happier and less stressed, even weeks later, and that it assists the immune system by cutting the production of cytokines, which promote inflammation. A team from Arizona State University found that awe activates the parasympathetic, which works to calm the fight or flight response. Researchers at Stanford University discovered that experiencing awe made people feel as if they had more time—and made them more willing to give up their time to help others.

Awe also seems to help us break habitual patterns of thinking. The Arizona team discovered that after experiencing awe, people were better able to remember the details of a short story. Usually, our memories are colored by our expectations and assumptions, but awe reduces this tendency, improving our focus on what’s actually happening. Increases in curiosity and creativity have also been reported. In one study, after viewing images of Earth, volunteers came up with more original examples in test, found greater interest in abstract painting and persisted longer on difficult puzzles, compared with controls.

Given all these benefits, the question is how to obtain awe experiencing materials. This topic is not discussed in this article. There seems to be business opportunities here. Are there any additional benefits from virtual reality? There is much work to be done.

HM envisions that in the future flat panels will be placed on the walls of our homes, where we have the option of displaying different subjects. Of course, paintings are a likely subject. But consider wrap around flat panels that could place us in the middle of a Redwood Forest, or in the Grand Canyon.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.



Wealth and Empathy

October 30, 2016

This post is motivated by an Opinion piece in the Outlook Section of the 23 October issue of the Washington Post by Karen Weese.  The title of the piece is “How can you tell if someone is kind?  Ask how rich they are.”

Past healthy memory blog posts have reported arguments by some who say that humans have the quality of empathy, which computers can never have.  HM has never bought these arguments.  One might argue that computers might not be able to feel empathy, computers can, and perhaps already have, shown the capacity to show empathy.  Moreover, this facility will increase over time.  If you read some of the healthymemory blog posts based on the book “Progress,” one finds scant historical evidence for empathy. Current events lead to the belief that perhaps most of the world’s problems can be attributed to a famine of empathy.

Ms. Weese begins with an anecdote about the tips she and a friend left at a Denny’s restaurant.  The bill was $11 and her friend tossed a $5 tip on the table.  Ms Weese was amazed.  Her friend worked as a caregiver and was raising two children on less than $19k a year.  Her friend explained, cocking her head at their waitress, who was visibly pregnant and speed-walking from table to table with laden platters in the busy restaurant.  “She’s been on her feet for probably six hours already and has three more to go, she has a baby on the way, you know she’s exhausted, and somehow she still took great care of us like she’s supposed to.  She needs it more than I do.”

Reese writes that “There’s little question that people find it easier to give when they see something of themselves in the recipient.”  She notes that families of cancer survivors participate eagerly in fundraising walks.  She also argues that it is also why hedge fund manager John Paulson gave $400 million last year to endowment rich Harvard University, and not to, say, Habitat for Humanity.

A study by the Chronicle of Philanthropy found that affluent people in homogeneously wealthy zip codes are less generous than equally affluent people in mixed-income communities.  People in homogeneous rich communities are less likely to see homeless people.

A study by Yale professor Michael Kraus found that when shown human faces with different expressions, lower-income participants are better than their more affluent counterparts at identifying the emotions correctly.

University of California psychology professors Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner recorded video at four way stop signs.  They found that the drivers of Toyotas and other inexpensive cars were four times less likely to cut off other drivers than the people steering BMWs and other high-end cars.  In a related experiment, drivers of more modest cars were more likely to respect the right-of-way of pedestrians in a cross-walk, while half the drivers of high-end cars motored right past them.  Other experiments have shown that lower income subjects were less likely than high income subjects to cheat, lie, and help themselves to a jar of candy meant for kids.

Other research has shown that just thinking about money can make people act more selfishly.  An experiment by University of Minnesota professor Kathleen Vohs primed some study participants with images of money or asked them to unscramble lists of words than included terms like “cash” and “bill”.  They were less likely than the unprimed participants to give money to a hypothetical charity.  And when a research assistant appeared to accidentally drop a box of pencils on the floor right beside the participants, money-primed subjects were less willing to help pick them up.

Of course, the question is why does this difference occur.  Initial evidence indicates that the difference can be found in brain activity.  When Keely Muscatell of the University of North Carolina Keely Muscatell showed high and low income subjects photos of human faces with accompanying human stories, the brains of the low-income subjects demonstrated much more activity in the areas associated with empathy than the rich subjects’ brains.

When Jennifer Stellar of the University of Toronto showed videos of children at St. Jude’s hospital undergoing medical procedures, lower-income viewers exhibited more heart-rate deceleration than their higher-income counterparts.  Scientists use heart-rate deceleration as a measure of compassion.

So, how can rich people become more empathetic?  Other research has found that rich subjects began to act more empathetically toward others when shown a vivid, emotional video about kids in poverty.

Regardless of wealth, it is well known that people respond better to the plight of a single case than that of a whole group.  This has been termed the “identifiable victim bias.”

Reese ends her piece as follows: “Perhaps all of us who do not worry about where our next meal is coming from could stand to widen our lens.”

HM believes that meditation will increase empathy.  Should it not increase empathy, then it is not being done properly.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.