NEW ALBUM FROM YOUR BOY MRNES
For blind people to regain the power of sight usually requires a miracle – either of the old-fashioned, Biblical variety or of the modern, medical sort.
Yet an extraordinary case reported this week shows us that there may be another form of miracle that can help the blind to ‘see’ – and it’s one that may force us to rethink our whole understanding of the way in which the human senses operate.
In the journal Current Biology it is reported that a man left totally blind by brain damage has astounded scientists by flawlessly navigating an obstacle course without any help or practice whatsoever.
This is perhaps the most persuasive example to date of what is termed ‘blindsight’ – the extraordinary ability of some who have lost their vision to be able to ‘see’ without, apparently, any ability actually to receive images in the eye and brain at all.
Because blindsight is a nebulous concept, often linked to paranormal manifestations, it has often been dismissed by researchers as myth. Yet here was a case that defied any straightforward explanation.
Scientists at the University of Tilburg in The Netherlands found that the unnamed man, known only as ‘TN’, was able to negotiate his way past a series of boxes and chairs, despite the fact that a series of strokes had damaged the visual cortex of his brain to such an extent that tests have shown he is completely blind.
So how on earth does he do it? What does it tell us about the way we ‘see’ the world?
And is it conclusive proof, as many have claimed, that humans have a hidden ‘sixth sense’ that can detect aspects of the world around us in a way that defies any logical explanation?
The first thing to realise is that science loves to categorise things. We have ‘five senses’ in part because ‘five-and-a-bit senses’ is messy and ‘ unscientific’.
And yet it may be a far more accurate description of what is going on in the complex interface between the outside world and our brains.
It seems that in the case of TN, for example, although he has no conscious awareness of the visual world, his brain is, somehow, keeping tabs on his surroundings, by processing the electrical messages that are travelling through his eyes and optic nerves (which remain undamaged by his stroke) even though the normal ‘visual’ part of his brain is damaged beyond repair.
To use a scientific term, his mind is not creating any visual ‘qualia’ – the name given to conscious experience of sensations, such as sight or sound.
Although he is not actually aware of the cause, scans have even revealed that certain parts of his brain, not normally associated with sight, ‘light up’ when he is shown pictures of other people pulling a variety of different facial expressions – such as fear, anger or joy.
This weirdness should perhaps not surprise us. Our senses form part of the most mysterious system in the known universe – the human brain.
Indeed, compared to the kilogram of grey jelly in your skull, even the mightiest stars and galaxies hold few mysteries.
Anyone who claims they know how the brain works, or exactly what is going on when our eyes view a splash of red, or our noses scent a whiff of coffee, or our tastebuds pick up on a tang of brine, is simply deluded or lying. Despite centuries of probing, such mysteries remain totally unsolved.
We do know, however, that there are a number of peculiar anomalies.
For example, we know that humans, compared to other animals, have extremely good vision – on a par with the birds and far better than most mammals. Sight is our primary sense.
Yet, rather mysteriously, it is another sense – smell – which in many of us has the ability to evoke the strongest emotional responses.
Shown a photograph of our old primary school, say, most of us will respond with a vague sense of recognition.
In contrast, even the merest hint of the smell of the school’s polished parquet floors, or of the heady tang of boiled cabbage from the school dinner kitchens, will be enough to bring all the childhood memories flooding back.
Equally mysteriously, our senses seem to operate on several levels. If you are sitting down when you read this article, think for a moment of the sensation coming from your bottom and lower back.
The moment you do, you will become suddenly aware of the pressure of the seat cushion below you, the contours of its shape and how comfortable (or uncomfortable) it is.
In psychological terms, you are now ‘attending’ to these sensory inputs.
Yet before you chose to swivel your ‘mind’s eye’ to the chair, you were probably completely unconscious of all these sensations, even though the relevant one of the your five senses – touch – was working all the while.
Then there is a well-known psychological phenomenon called the ‘cocktail party effect’.
This is the ability of the human brain to detect, immediately, pertinent and important information from an otherwise meaningless sensory melange.
If you are at a busy party, for instance, you will probably be aware only of the random babble and hum of voices. Yet should someone mention your name, even quietly and from across the room, the chances are that you will immediately pick up on it.
It is as though you have an unconscious monitor sitting inside your head – a ‘little man’, if you will – checking what is coming in from your eyes and ears and so forth, before deciding which is important-and letting your conscious mind know.
Of course, the idea of a little man inside your head is an absurd (but remarkably persistent) analogy – but it does serve to illustrate the fact that our brains operate on all sorts of levels of conscious awareness, and not always in ways that we recognise.
Think of the last time you drove to work, for instance, or did the school run. How conscious were you, actually, of the journey? How many of the twists and turns can you remember?
The chances are that the answer is ‘none at all’; you probably were able to operate, quite safely, a complex piece of machinery (a car) almost like you were an unthinking robot while you were thinking about something more interesting. Extraordinary.
The interaction between the ‘mind’ and the senses really is one of the most amazing aspects of the natural world.
And since we cannot be sure how it works, it does seem foolish to dismiss, out of hand, ‘sixth sense’ phenomena such as blindsight.
It is probably even the case that we should not rush to dismiss, completely out of hand, even stranger ‘paranormal’ mental powers, such as telepathy, even though hard scientific evidence is lacking for such things.
The only certainty is that the more we learn about the workings of the mind, the more fantastical its abilities are proving to be.
A wonder device can see the soul of a dead man pass away… or at least that’s what the inventor claims.
A publication of the popular Russian tabloid Life.ru gives a dramatic account of the experiments of an inventor from St Petersburg, who has created a device able to see human aura.
Accompanied by pictures suspiciously reminiscent of a series of thermal images of a woman at different temperatures, the report claims they are made with a special “gas discharge camera” built by Konstantin Korotkov, a professor at the Research Institute of Physical Culture and State University of Information Technologies, Mechanics and Optics.The paper goes on to say that the device can register the circumstances of death, differentiating between a victim of a violent crime and a person who died quietly in bed. It also registers the changes in aura presumably made by a strong psychic working on somebody.Disregarding the glib comparison of the religious term “soul” with the new age “aura”, the claims – they can hardly even be expected to get support in peer-reviewed scientific papers in our opinion – prompted RT to take a little investigation into the wonder device.
The instrument, which was presented to us as something involved in the study of death, turned out to have been designed as a medical diagnosis tool. With about 15 years of development behind it, its inventor claims that it’s an affordable early-diagnosis tool, capable of identifying any disease, from an ulcer to a brain tumor, by scanning irregularities in an aura. Sort of a spiritual healer in metal and plastic, available to everyone for a small fee. No mystical stuff here – a patient can see his own aura on the computer screen, all thanks to the “gas discharge visualization” or GDV.
The spiffy name is actually modern application of a well-known phenomenon called Kirlian effect, named after Semyon and Valentina Kirlians, a Russian couple who greatly contributed to popularizing it back in 1960s. Kirlian experimented with photographing objects with high voltage applied to them.
The strong electric field causes faint corona discharges around the edges, which can even be seen with the naked eye. The visual appeal of the effect won the hearts of mystic-oriented people.
Starting with Kirlians themselves, many people claimed that the electrical phenomena was actually a way to visualize otherwise invisible auras of objects. Korotkov is one of these claimants. According to him, corona discharges around fingertips, which his GDV cameras cause, have information about one’s physical condition and this information can be used for diagnosis. The claim was never confirmed by clinical tests, but it didn’t prevent the device from becoming the cornerstone of a widespread business. With different models costing from $4,500 to $13,000, and official dealers all across Russia and abroad, the invention seems to generate enough cash for Korotkov to travel the world and promote his product.
Not for diagnosis
Meanwhile, critics openly call the GDV “quackery”. Back in 2002, when the device drew the attention of the Russian media, RTR TV channel (now called Rossiya) did an investigation of their own, producing a 20-minute-long report. They revealed that, in the testing of a GDV scanner done in the Military Medical Academy, one of the strong-points trumpeted by the producer was actually its ability to kill bacteria on hands, which it successfully did. It was never used for diagnosis of any kind.
Another selling point – the testing of the device on Russian sportsmen – showed that readings of the device may vary slightly with the state of mind of the subjects. As it does with variations in the environment, like a change of air temperature or humidity.
In an interview given to a newspaper two years ago Korotkov said his invention was like a knife: it could be used for good or for bad purposes. Indeed, the beautiful Kirlian effect can be used for dubious intentions, or for inspiring works of art like those of photographer Robert Buelteman here.
By: Stephen Hawking / Source: Mail Online
All you need is a wormhole, the Large Hadron Collider or a rocket that goes really, really fast
Hello. My name is Stephen Hawking. Physicist, cosmologist and something of a dreamer. Although I cannot move and I have to speak through a computer, in my mind I am free. Free to explore the universe and ask the big questions, such as: is time travel possible? Can we open a portal to the past or find a shortcut to the future? Can we ultimately use the laws of nature to become masters of time itself?
Time travel was once considered scientific heresy. I used to avoid talking about it for fear of being labelled a crank. But these days I’m not so cautious. In fact, I’m more like the people who built Stonehenge. I’m obsessed by time. If I had a time machine I’d visit Marilyn Monroe in her prime or drop in on Galileo as he turned his telescope to the heavens. Perhaps I’d even travel to the end of the universe to find out how our whole cosmic story ends.
To see how this might be possible, we need to look at time as physicists do – at the fourth dimension. It’s not as hard as it sounds. Every attentive schoolchild knows that all physical objects, even me in my chair, exist in three dimensions. Everything has a width and a height and a length.
But there is another kind of length, a length in time. While a human may survive for 80 years, the stones at Stonehenge, for instance, have stood around for thousands of years. And the solar system will last for billions of years. Everything has a length in time as well as space. Travelling in time means travelling through this fourth dimension.
To see what that means, let’s imagine we’re doing a bit of normal, everyday car travel. Drive in a straight line and you’re travelling in one dimension. Turn right or left and you add the second dimension. Drive up or down a twisty mountain road and that adds height, so that’s travelling in all three dimensions. But how on Earth do we travel in time? How do we find a path through the fourth dimension?
Let’s indulge in a little science fiction for a moment. Time travel movies often feature a vast, energy-hungry machine. The machine creates a path through the fourth dimension, a tunnel through time. A time traveller, a brave, perhaps foolhardy individual, prepared for who knows what, steps into the time tunnel and emerges who knows when. The concept may be far-fetched, and the reality may be very different from this, but the idea itself is not so crazy.
Physicists have been thinking about tunnels in time too, but we come at it from a different angle. We wonder if portals to the past or the future could ever be possible within the laws of nature. As it turns out, we think they are. What’s more, we’ve even given them a name: wormholes. The truth is that wormholes are all around us, only they’re too small to see. Wormholes are very tiny. They occur in nooks and crannies in space and time. You might find it a tough concept, but stay with me.
Nothing is flat or solid. If you look closely enough at anything you’ll find holes and wrinkles in it. It’s a basic physical principle, and it even applies to time. Even something as smooth as a pool ball has tiny crevices, wrinkles and voids. Now it’s easy to show that this is true in the first three dimensions. But trust me, it’s also true of the fourth dimension. There are tiny crevices, wrinkles and voids in time. Down at the smallest of scales, smaller even than molecules, smaller than atoms, we get to a place called the quantum foam. This is where wormholes exist. Tiny tunnels or shortcuts through space and time constantly form, disappear, and reform within this quantum world. And they actually link two separate places and two different times.
Unfortunately, these real-life time tunnels are just a billion-trillion-trillionths of a centimetre across. Way too small for a human to pass through – but here’s where the notion of wormhole time machines is leading. Some scientists think it may be possible to capture a wormhole and enlarge it many trillions of times to make it big enough for a human or even a spaceship to enter.
Given enough power and advanced technology, perhaps a giant wormhole could even be constructed in space. I’m not saying it can be done, but if it could be, it would be a truly remarkable device. One end could be here near Earth, and the other far, far away, near some distant planet.
Theoretically, a time tunnel or wormhole could do even more than take us to other planets. If both ends were in the same place, and separated by time instead of distance, a ship could fly in and come out still near Earth, but in the distant past. Maybe dinosaurs would witness the ship coming in for a landing.
The fastest manned vehicle in history was Apollo 10. It reached 25,000mph. But to travel in time we’ll have to go more than 2,000 times faster
Now, I realise that thinking in four dimensions is not easy, and that wormholes are a tricky concept to wrap your head around, but hang in there. I’ve thought up a simple experiment that could reveal if human time travel through a wormhole is possible now, or even in the future. I like simple experiments, and champagne.
So I’ve combined two of my favourite things to see if time travel from the future to the past is possible.
Let’s imagine I’m throwing a party, a welcome reception for future time travellers. But there’s a twist. I’m not letting anyone know about it until after the party has happened. I’ve drawn up an invitation giving the exact coordinates in time and space. I am hoping copies of it, in one form or another, will be around for many thousands of years. Maybe one day someone living in the future will find the information on the invitation and use a wormhole time machine to come back to my party, proving that time travel will, one day, be possible.
In the meantime, my time traveller guests should be arriving any moment now. Five, four, three, two, one. But as I say this, no one has arrived. What a shame. I was hoping at least a future Miss Universe was going to step through the door. So why didn’t the experiment work? One of the reasons might be because of a well-known problem with time travel to the past, the problem of what we call paradoxes.
Paradoxes are fun to think about. The most famous one is usually called the Grandfather paradox. I have a new, simpler version I call the Mad Scientist paradox.
I don’t like the way scientists in movies are often described as mad, but in this case, it’s true. This chap is determined to create a paradox, even if it costs him his life. Imagine, somehow, he’s built a wormhole, a time tunnel that stretches just one minute into the past.
Through the wormhole, the scientist can see himself as he was one minute ago. But what if our scientist uses the wormhole to shoot his earlier self? He’s now dead. So who fired the shot? It’s a paradox. It just doesn’t make sense. It’s the sort of situation that gives cosmologists nightmares.
This kind of time machine would violate a fundamental rule that governs the entire universe – that causes happen before effects, and never the other way around. I believe things can’t make themselves impossible. If they could then there’d be nothing to stop the whole universe from descending into chaos. So I think something will always happen that prevents the paradox. Somehow there must be a reason why our scientist will never find himself in a situation where he could shoot himself. And in this case, I’m sorry to say, the wormhole itself is the problem.
In the end, I think a wormhole like this one can’t exist. And the reason for that is feedback. If you’ve ever been to a rock gig, you’ll probably recognise this screeching noise. It’s feedback. What causes it is simple. Sound enters the microphone. It’s transmitted along the wires, made louder by the amplifier, and comes out at the speakers. But if too much of the sound from the speakers goes back into the mic it goes around and around in a loop getting louder each time. If no one stops it, feedback can destroy the sound system.
The same thing will happen with a wormhole, only with radiation instead of sound. As soon as the wormhole expands, natural radiation will enter it, and end up in a loop. The feedback will become so strong it destroys the wormhole. So although tiny wormholes do exist, and it may be possible to inflate one some day, it won’t last long enough to be of use as a time machine. That’s the real reason no one could come back in time to my party.
Any kind of time travel to the past through wormholes or any other method is probably impossible, otherwise paradoxes would occur. So sadly, it looks like time travel to the past is never going to happen. A disappointment for dinosaur hunters and a relief for historians.
But the story’s not over yet. This doesn’t make all time travel impossible. I do believe in time travel. Time travel to the future. Time flows like a river and it seems as if each of us is carried relentlessly along by time’s current. But time is like a river in another way. It flows at diff‑erent speeds in diff‑erent places and that is the key to travelling into the future. This idea was first proposed by Albert Einstein over 100 years ago. He realised that there should be places where time slows down, and others where time speeds up. He was absolutely right. And the proof is right above our heads. Up in space.
This is the Global Positioning System, or GPS. A network of satellites is in orbit around Earth. The satellites make satellite navigation possible. But they also reveal that time runs faster in space than it does down on Earth. Inside each spacecraft is a very precise clock. But despite being so accurate, they all gain around a third of a billionth of a second every day. The system has to correct for the drift, otherwise that tiny di‑fference would upset the whole system, causing every GPS device on Earth to go out by about six miles a day. You can just imagine the mayhem that that would cause.
The problem doesn’t lie with the clocks. They run fast because time itself runs faster in space than it does down below. And the reason for this extraordinary e‑ffect is the mass of the Earth. Einstein realised that matter drags on time and slows it down like the slow part of a river. The heavier the object, the more it drags on time. And this startling reality is what opens the door to the possibility of time travel to the future.
Right in the centre of the Milky Way, 26,000 light years from us, lies the heaviest object in the galaxy. It is a supermassive black hole containing the mass of four million suns crushed down into a single point by its own gravity. The closer you get to the black hole, the stronger the gravity. Get really close and not even light can escape. A black hole like this one has a dramatic e‑ffect on time, slowing it down far more than anything else in the galaxy. That makes it a natural time machine.
I like to imagine how a spaceship might be able to take advantage of this phenomenon, by orbiting it. If a space agency were controlling the mission from Earth they’d observe that each full orbit took 16 minutes. But for the brave people on board, close to this massive object, time would be slowed down. And here the e‑ffect would be far more extreme than the gravitational pull of Earth. The crew’s time would be slowed down by half. For every 16-minute orbit, they’d only experience eight minutes of time.
Around and around they’d go, experiencing just half the time of everyone far away from the black hole. The ship and its crew would be travelling through time. Imagine they circled the black hole for five of their years. Ten years would pass elsewhere. When they got home, everyone on Earth would have aged five years more than they had.
So a supermassive black hole is a time machine. But of course, it’s not exactly practical. It has advantages over wormholes in that it doesn’t provoke paradoxes. Plus it won’t destroy itself in a flash of feedback. But it’s pretty dangerous. It’s a long way away and it doesn’t even take us very far into the future. Fortunately there is another way to travel in time. And this represents our last and best hope of building a real time machine.
You just have to travel very, very fast. Much faster even than the speed required to avoid being sucked into a black hole. This is due to another strange fact about the universe. There’s a cosmic speed limit, 186,000 miles per second, also known as the speed of light. Nothing can exceed that speed. It’s one of the best established principles in science. Believe it or not, travelling at near the speed of light transports you to the future.
To explain why, let’s dream up a science-fiction transportation system. Imagine a track that goes right around Earth, a track for a superfast train. We’re going to use this imaginary train to get as close as possible to the speed of light and see how it becomes a time machine. On board are passengers with a one-way ticket to the future. The train begins to accelerate, faster and faster. Soon it’s circling the Earth over and over again.
To approach the speed of light means circling the Earth pretty fast. Seven times a second. But no matter how much power the train has, it can never quite reach the speed of light, since the laws of physics forbid it. Instead, let’s say it gets close, just shy of that ultimate speed. Now something extraordinary happens. Time starts flowing slowly on board relative to the rest of the world, just like near the black hole, only more so. Everything on the train is in slow motion.
This happens to protect the speed limit, and it’s not hard to see why. Imagine a child running forwards up the train. Her forward speed is added to the speed of the train, so couldn’t she break the speed limit simply by accident? The answer is no. The laws of nature prevent the possibility by slowing down time onboard.
Now she can’t run fast enough to break the limit. Time will always slow down just enough to protect the speed limit. And from that fact comes the possibility of travelling many years into the future.
Imagine that the train left the station on January 1, 2050. It circles Earth over and over again for 100 years before finally coming to a halt on New Year’s Day, 2150. The passengers will have only lived one week because time is slowed down that much inside the train. When they got out they’d find a very diff‑erent world from the one they’d left. In one week they’d have travelled 100 years into the future. Of course, building a train that could reach such a speed is quite impossible. But we have built something very like the train at the world’s largest particle accelerator at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland.
Deep underground, in a circular tunnel 16 miles long, is a stream of trillions of tiny particles. When the power is turned on they accelerate from zero to 60,000mph in a fraction of a second. Increase the power and the particles go faster and faster, until they’re whizzing around the tunnel 11,000 times a second, which is almost the speed of light. But just like the train, they never quite reach that ultimate speed. They can only get to 99.99 per cent of the limit. When that happens, they too start to travel in time. We know this because of some extremely short-lived particles, called pi-mesons. Ordinarily, they disintegrate after just 25 billionths of a second. But when they are accelerated to near-light speed they last 30 times longer.
It really is that simple. If we want to travel into the future, we just need to go fast. Really fast. And I think the only way we’re ever likely to do that is by going into space. The fastest manned vehicle in history was Apollo 10. It reached 25,000mph. But to travel in time we’ll have to go more than 2,000 times faster. And to do that we’d need a much bigger ship, a truly enormous machine. The ship would have to be big enough to carry a huge amount of fuel, enough to accelerate it to nearly the speed of light. Getting to just beneath the cosmic speed limit would require six whole years at full power.
The initial acceleration would be gentle because the ship would be so big and heavy. But gradually it would pick up speed and soon would be covering massive distances. In one week it would have reached the outer planets. After two years it would reach half-light speed and be far outside our solar system. Two years later it would be travelling at 90 per cent of the speed of light. Around 30 trillion miles away from Earth, and four years after launch, the ship would begin to travel in time. For every hour of time on the ship, two would pass on Earth. A similar situation to the spaceship that orbited the massive black hole.
After another two years of full thrust the ship would reach its top speed, 99 per cent of the speed of light. At this speed, a single day on board is a whole year of Earth time. Our ship would be truly flying into the future.
The slowing of time has another benefit. It means we could, in theory, travel extraordinary distances within one lifetime. A trip to the edge of the galaxy would take just 80 years. But the real wonder of our journey is that it reveals just how strange the universe is. It’s a universe where time runs at different rates in different places. Where tiny wormholes exist all around us. And where, ultimately, we might use our understanding of physics to become true voyagers through the fourth dimension.
Source: The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace Wattles
“Since belief is all important, it behooves you to guard your thoughts; and as your beliefs will be shaped to a very great extent by the things you observe and think about, it is important that you should command your attention.
And here the will comes into use; for it is by your will that you determine upon what things your attention shall be fixed.
If you want to become rich, you must not make a study of poverty.
Things are not brought into being by thinking about their opposites. Health is never to be attained by studying disease and thinking about disease; righteousness is not to be promoted by studying sin and thinking about sin; and no one ever got rich by studying poverty and thinking about poverty.
Medicine as a science of disease has increased disease; religion as a science of sin has promoted sin, and economics as a study of poverty will fill the world Do not talk about poverty; do not investigate it, or concern yourself with it.
Never mind what its causes are; you have nothing to do with them. What concerns you is the cure.”
“Do not spend your time in charitable work, or charity movements; all charity only tends to perpetuate the wretchedness it aims to eradicate.
I do not say that you should be hard hearted or unkind, and refuse to hear the cry of need; but you must not try to eradicate poverty in any of the conventional ways. Put poverty behind you, and put all that pertains to it behind you, and “make good.”
And you cannot hold the mental image which is to make you rich if you fill your mind with pictures of poverty.
Do not read books or papers which give circumstantial accounts of the wretchedness of the tenement dwellers, of the horrors of child labor, and so on. Do not read anything which fills your mind with gloomy images of want and suffering.
You cannot help the poor in the least by knowing about these things; and the wide-spread knowledge of them does not tend at all to do away with poverty.”
“What tends to do away with poverty is not the getting of pictures of poverty into your mind, but getting pictures of wealth into the minds of the poor.
You are not deserting the poor in their misery when you refuse to allow your mind to be filled with pictures of that misery.
Poverty can be done away with, not by increasing the number of well to do people who think about poverty, but by increasing the number of poor people who purpose with faith to get rich.”
The poor do not need charity; they need inspiration.
Charity only sends them a loaf of bread to keep them alive in their wretchedness, or gives them an entertainment to make them forget for an hour or two; but inspiration will cause them to rise out of their misery.
If you want to help the poor, demonstrate to them that they can become rich; prove it by getting rich yourself.
People must be taught to become rich by creation, not by competition. Every man who becomes rich by competition throws down behind him the ladder by which he rises, and keeps others down; but every man who gets rich by creation opens a way for thousands to follow him, and inspires them to do so.
You are not showing hardness of heart or an unfeeling disposition when you refuse to pity poverty, see poverty, read about poverty, or think or talk about it, or to listen to those who do talk about it.
Use your will power to keep your mind OFF the subject of poverty, and to keep it fixed with faith and purpose ON the vision of what you want.”
I’ve been inspired by recent news stories of children who are working to make a difference in the world, committed to projects much bigger than themselves. There’s Malala Yousufzai, the young advocate for girls’ education in Pakistan; Craig Kielburger, who advocates for the abolishment of child labor; and Ryan Hreljac, who raises money to build wells in developing countries. The list goes on and on.
But there’s a flip side to these stories. Research suggests that some young people in the United States are actually becoming more self-absorbed and less connected to others.
A recent study that examined the empathy levels of almost 14,000 university students between 1979 and 2009 found that students have become dramatically less empathic over the years, particularly since 2000.
In addition, narcissism, which correlates negatively with empathy, is on the rise amongst university-aged students. Narcissists, by definition, are extremely self-focused and tend to see other people in terms of their usefulness rather than true friendship—not exactly a recipe for empathy.
What’s more, a 2006 survey showed that 81 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds think getting rich is an important goal, and 64 percent think it’s the most important goal. Sadly, only 30 percent believe that helping others in need is important.
While these studies focused on university students and young adults, the findings suggest that somewhere in their earlier development, they weren’t cultivating the skills needed to connect with others.
So how can teachers help students avoid the joyless path of self-absorption and instead cultivate a life in which they feel part of something larger than themselves—one of the keys to a meaningful life?
There are, of course, many strong programs that have been designed to help students develop empathy and positive relationships.
But new research suggests another way: awe.
Very little is known about the experience of awe; however, several new studies, many conducted by the GGSC’s Dacher Keltner, have shown awe to be a potentially powerful positive emotion that might just help our students develop empathy.
Here’s how it works:
When we see a grand vista in nature such as Victoria Falls, or experience an inspiring work of art such as Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” or Michelangelo’s Pieta, or ponder the phenomenal inner strength of a great soul like Gandhi who non-violently led India to independence, we often feel two things: 1) a sense of vastness that gives us 2) a new perspective on the world and our place in it. This is awe.
Dacher’s lab has found that awe makes us feel very small and like we’re in the presence of something greater than ourselves. We also may lose awareness of our “self” and feel more connected to the world around us.
Imagine the potential of this life-changing emotion for students—and, in particular, for our hyper-self-focused teens! Since adolescence is a crucial period for identity-formation, some researchers have suggested that adolescence is a particularly important time to experience awe—it could help them see themselves as deeply connected to the world around them, not the center of it. Inducing the uplifting experience of awe could also be a positive way to keep narcissism in check.
While scientists haven’t yet examined if this temporary loss of self-focus directly impacts empathy levels, they do know that awe makes people feel less impatient and more inclined to volunteer their time to help others—strong evidence that it makes them feel more connected and committed to something bigger than themselves.
So can teachers actually create awe-inducing experiences for their students?
Absolutely! In an experiment to see if awe could be elicited, Dacher and his team had one group of university students look at a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton and another group look down a long hallway. On a follow-up survey, the only difference between the groups was that members of the T-Rex group felt like they were part of a larger whole—a defining feature of awe.
It’s probably not too difficult to imagine something that might induce awe in teens, or kids of any age; I’ve named a few examples above. Stories of exceptional modern-day figures such as Nelson Mandela (consider his ability to forgive) or pictures of the universe such as the birth of a star may be engaging and effective—especially if you find the subject matter to be awe-inspiring. Many teachers already bring content like this into the classroom, and this research on awe validates that approach and suggests it should be tried with more frequency and focus.
Here are two important points to remember if you want to expose your students to awe-filled experiences:
1) Not all students will get it. Dacher has found that some people are more prone to awe than others—usually the ones who are comfortable changing how they see the world. So, if you’ve got some students who seem immovable, don’t fret. If nothing else, they’re still learning about “awesome” art, music, nature, and people.
2) Help students process what they’ve experienced. Awe requires what psychologist Jean Piaget called “accommodation”—the process of changing our mental models to incorporate something to which we’ve recently been exposed. Discussing and writing about experiences of awe will help students understand and process at a deeper level what they’ve just felt.
Awe is not a term heard very often in schools, but its potential is vast. Think of the enthusiasm and wonder and joy that awe-filled experiences could bring to our students—experiences that could not only help them out of the narcissistic funk of adolescence, but also put them on a path to a life lived in compassionate connection with others. Awesome!
This article is printed here with permission. It originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC). Based at UC Berkeley, the GGSC studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being, and teaches skills that foster a thriving, resilient, and compassionate society.