Williams and her team analyzed brain scans and personality data from 1,000 healthy participants in the Human Connectome Project, which aims to map neural circuits, structures, and functional connections in the brain and to see how differ individuals.
The white-matter connections in the resting brains of high-open people were a little bit different in places, but where Williams saw consistently exceptional patterns was in people who answered yes to one particular aesthetics question on the NEO: Sometimes when I am reading poetry or looking at a work of art, I feel a chill or wave of excitement.
These people showed a marked increase in connections between parts of the frontal cortex associated with self-concept and parts of the brain associated with processing sensory and motor information. It’s hard to know what to really make of this, and it’s tricky to attribute emotions or insights to people based on functional brain images. But Williams’s theory is backed up by some other research. Well-connected brains in these areas, she said, tend to be pretty good at processing stressful information and narrative-making and personal sense of it. In other words, these drunk-on-beauty people know how to tell themselves a story when something confusing happens. The single emotion they share is awe.
A classic awe experience incorporates elements of fear or surprise to the point that when we are truly blown away by beauty or the power of nature, we may struggle momentarily to understand it. But, she said, “people who are very aesthetically prone are making a connection between the environment and their internal sensations and feelings.” This sensitivity, she believes, translates into the ability to integrate stressful life experiences into what she calls “narrative coherence.”
An earlier study found that viewing awe-inspiring videos of nature or childbirth (but not merely happy or comic videos) led to a “tendency to orient oneself toward a larger transcendent reality.” Awe was the emotion that moved the participants to see themselves as part of a larger, meaningful reality, which is certainly a useful perspective if you’re feeling singularly lonely.
I wanted some of that.
I was surprised, though, that not all brains respond the same way. We all like looking at beauty; we all tell ourselves stories. But apparently, some tales are more self-transcendent, or at least lean more to the thoughtful-yet-positive category after threatening events.
“Doesn’t everyone get moved to tears when they hear incredible music?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “Like when you describe aesthetic chill, they have no idea what you’re talking about.”
What she’s talking about, to be clear, is a case of the goose bumps. William Blake appeared to be correct when he wrote in a letter, “The tree that moves some to tears of joy is to others a green thing that stands in the way.” In fact, only about half of the 1,000 volunteers in the Connectome Project reported a tendency to get goose bumps when experiencing a peak emotional experience driven by beauty.
Was I prone to goose bumps? I was pretty sure I was. But I wasn’t going to wait around for beauty to find me. Williams was positing something radical: that awe was tied to the trait of openness, and that, regardless of how prone to goose bumps we are naturally, we could learn to become so more. We could potentially shift this facet of our personality. If Williams was right, we could actively entreat self-transformation through cultivating the ability to see beauty.
Could I do that? I needed to do something. Uchino, with his research on the health consequences of heartbreak and divorce, had made clear just how high the stakes were. Now Williams offered a possible, life-giving corrective, one that was transformative and yet little known. For the sake of myself and so many other love-skunked people out there, I would see if it could work.
To claw my way through heartbreak, I would try to awe my way through it.
I knew one place to find it: outside.
Adapted from an excerpt from Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey. Copyright (c) 2022 Florence Williams. Used with permission of the publisher, WW Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.