The celebrated imaginators at Cirque du Soleil—whose own work has been described by critics as “awe-inspiring”—partnered with Lab of Misfits, renowned creative neuroscience group led by human perceptions expert Dr. Beau Lotto, to conduct an ambitious study on the emotion of awe.
The findings uncovered powerful and potentially far-reaching dimensions, suggesting that awe may ultimately be what drives our desire to step forward into a world of uncertainty in search for answers. Moreover, the study suggests that experiencing awe enables an apparent ability to raise our risk tolerance, increase our social behavior and can even reframe who we believe we were in the past.
The word “awe” has been around for nearly a millennium, its description ranging from dread and fear to admiration and veneration. Despite permeating our lexicon with phrases such as awe inspiring, awesome and awe-struck, the illusive and mysterious emotion continues to spark wonder, curiosity and debate. Awe also seems to be at the very heart of a constant human quest that sometimes manifests itself through the countless bucket lists that appear in our social media feeds.
Guided by the desire to recognize what drives people to pursue meaningful, pulse-pumping life experiences and understand how people feel when they see a Cirque du Soleil live performance, the collaboration between Cirque du Soleil and the Lab of Misfits set out to answer how and why we experience awe, and its impact on those who feel it. In the broader context of the future of live entertainment, Cirque du Soleil was also interested in the role emotions play in driving people to disproportionately seek communal experiences.
Key Findings of the “Science of Awe” Study
Going beyond the traditional survey-based studies, the experiment combined advanced brain-monitoring technology during live Cirque du Soleil performances with specifically developed artificial intelligence software to capture and measure awe in action.
The study found that experiencing awe:
- Leads to fully living the moment. This finding suggests that in a state of awe, we draw our focus away from our never-ending thoughts and distractions and into the sights and sounds around us. Somehow awe packs enough disruptive punch to immerse ourselves into an experience.
- Enhances our willingness to step into the unknown, including an openness and a disposition to ask questions, lean into new experiences, and be more empathetic toward others.
- Increases our tolerance to risk, creating a lower need for cognitive control and a decreased need to “be right” and the ability to accept information in a less biased manner. This ultimately contributes to an increased curiosity and overall desire to step into the unknown.
- Recalibrates our feelings about the future and reshapes our perceptions about the past. Perhaps the most striking study discovery, this re-framing of one’s positive sense of self may magnify the behavioral effects of an awe experience and suggests a mechanism for more persistent behavioral change. This reinforces the hypothesis that awe may one day be used to foster psychological wellness.
- Puts the brain in a state of bliss, counteracting the effect of stress and reflecting neural characteristics associated with those induced by psychedelics.
- Can lead to increased creativity. Explained by a greater activity in the default mode network, a brain function most commonly associated with self-related thinking, such as meditation, which plays a large role when reflecting on the self or others
“This study helped us understand the intricacies of the emotional response we trigger in our audience during our shows,” expresses Kristina Heney, Chief Marketing and Experience Officer at Cirque du Soleil. “These findings confirm that art, through the emotions it triggers, is powerful and can be transformative. In a way, it’s bigger than us. Understanding the true impacts of awe is something that we wanted to share with all artists and creators of entertainment to help spread awe into this world.”
The “Science of Awe” Methodology
During 10 different Cirque du Soleil performances of “O” in Las Vegas, a total of 280 audience members participated in the experiment, some of which wore state-of-the-art EEG “brain caps,” enabling study administrators to record the neural responses of 23 different “awe moments” during the show. All participants were asked to respond to a series of perception and psychological experiments before and after the show or were prompted via an iPad to report any feelings of awe, providing scientists with deeper, psychological and behavioral insights related to awe.
“For the first time, we are able to begin to see what awe ‘looks like’ inside the brain giving us the ability to create an artificial intelligence system that can predict when awe is being experienced,” explains Dr. Beau Lotto, lead neuroscientist at Lab of Misfits. “The findings are even more important than anticipated. This is a significant development in our understanding of awe and allows us to answer some critical questions related to one of the most essential human perceptions. Awe creates the possibility to expand our space of possibility. It has the power to transform not only our own lives but can also help us to change the lives of others” continued Lotto.