"The Doctor's Art" is a weekly podcast that explores what makes medicine meaningful, featuring profiles and stories from clinicians, patients, educators, leaders, and others working in healthcare. Listen and subscribe/follow on Apple, Spotify, Amazon, Google, Stitcher, and Podchaser.
Awe is a feeling we've all experienced but often struggle to articulate. Whether it's the sheer scale of a skyscraper, the infinite expanse of a starry night sky, or the miracle of childbirth, moments of awe can strike us at unexpected times, leaving us speechless, inspired, and even profoundly transformed.
In this episode, Henry Bair and Tyler Johnson, MD, talk with Dacher Keltner, PhD, a psychologist at the University of California Berkeley, where he is the founding director of the Greater Good Science Center and the host of The Science of Happiness podcast. Keltner is a leading researcher on human emotion, with a focus on the sociobiological origins and effects of compassion, beauty, power, morality, love, and social class. His most recent book is AWE: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life.
In this episode, Keltner discusses the eight sources of wonder in life, how we can nurture an openness to experiencing awe, and how this openness can help us navigate grief, uncertainty, loneliness, and mortality, ultimately allowing us to lead more meaningful lives.
In this episode, you will hear about:
- 2:26 How growing up in a family of artists and humanists led Keltner to psychology
- 4:54 What the scientific study of emotions looks like
- 8:20 How scientists grapple with the difficulty of defining and studying emotions and feelings
- 11:57 A discussion of Jonathan Haidt's revolutionary study of morality, The Righteous Mind
- 14:39 How Keltner defines and studies awe and wonder
- 27:31 The eight wonders of life
- 36:16 Awe, beauty, and the sublime
- 38:35 Reflections on how digital technologies have negatively impacted our ability to experience awe
- 44:26 Advice for how we can practice the experience of awe
- 46:39 How awe can help with human suffering and physician burnout
The following is a partial transcript (note errors are possible):
Bair: To kick us off, can you tell us about your career path and journey to this work in psychology?
Keltner: My personal journey was I was raised by a visual artist, my dad, and then my mom taught literature at a public university, a state university, on romanticism. And so our house was full of the humanities and ideas about passion and love and rage and war and justice. And, you know, I was raised in a wild time in the late 60s in Laurel Canyon, California, which was wild. So I had all this human psychology around me, but I showed no gifts for the humanities. I wasn't a very good fiction writer. I was a terrible artist. And I love math and statistics.
And I have to say, just to be absolutely honest, like I also like the scientific method of proving things or disproving things as a way to disprove or to, you know, assess all of my parents' wild claims about the powers of pyramids and, you know, whether we can feel other people's, you know, mental states from afar. So, you know, I was raised in this incredible environment of humanity, but I wasn't very good at writing and art. And so I gravitated to psychology and psychological science then as an undergrad and grad.
And then I think the other big thing was the study of emotion. And, you know, I came of age intellectually in graduate school at Stanford, and and it was just the heyday of cognitive psychology and cognitive science. Like the mind's a computer. There are these algorithms. That's what meaning is. That's how we make judgments. That's what morality is. And there wasn't a lot that our science could say about human emotion, about anger and awe and embarrassment and shame and anxiety and the like. We just didn't know. It wasn't in what we studied.
And I remember hearing Paul Ekman give a talk in the mid 80s, you know, and he was just starting to become well known for his work on facial expression and universality of emotion. And it blew me away. It truly -- I literally had a spiritual epiphany hearing him talk about facial expression because I was like, wow, there is a measurement of the face that could capture human emotion like painters do or writers do. And here I could do it in my own way in research. So that got me to emotion.
Bair: That's all really fascinating. So, you know, as I look at your faculty profile here, you know, I'm seeing topics like human connection and emotion and happiness and of course, awe, on which you most recently wrote your book. Before we get into, you know, the subject of your book, though, I'm curious because these are such wide-ranging topics and they're not, you know, they don't feel particularly scientific. Can you tell us what some of the research questions you're most interested in answering are?
Keltner: Yeah. I mean, first I'd watch out with -- they are scientific in the sense that the human mind is probably the most complicated living organism in the universe with 85 billion neurons, you know, connected and, you know, complicated ways. And over here in the social sciences, there's a lot of sophisticated measurement and statistics and the like, but they don't feel scientific for really interesting sociological reasons.
You know, can there be a science of love or awe? Well, yeah, of course. It's a mental state. We have a lot of tools to study mental states. And I think that to your question, Henry, like the really serious questions underlying my work, and one is sort of a meta assumption that we are just a hypersocial species and the idea that we're these individuals animated by selfish genes, you know, that drives behavior has, I think, fallen by the wayside.
And the Western mind really struggles with that understanding. And just a lot of the science that I do on cooperation and altruism and awe and compassion and embarrassment and synchronization of emotion and physiology is animated by the idea that, you know, like E.O. Wilson said, our signature strength evolutionarily is our ability to be social and to connect and be part of collectives. And so a lot of the work I do illustrates that.
For the full transcript, visit The Doctor's Art.
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