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Feeling insignificant can be good for you. To kick off a new BBC Future series called Immensities, Richard Fisher explores the benefits of embracing vastness.
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A week or so after my father died, I stood at the foot of Yr Wyddfa – formerly known as Snowdon – in north Wales. My wife and I were visiting for a few hours to take a breath: a moment away from the shock, aftermath and grim bureaucracy of a sudden family death.

It was a wet, overcast day – too harsh to climb any mountains – so we stopped at the viewpoint just off the A498. Looking towards the peaks, I remember tracing the path of a water pipe that clung to a vertiginous slope. It began on the valley floor at a hydroelectric power station built in the early 20th Century, before rising up into the mist. With so much low cloud, I couldn't see the summits of the mountains, nor the top of the pipe, so was left with my imagination. I pictured the slope continuing upwards indefinitely, never reaching a finite peak but carrying on and on.

That day, with mortality in my thoughts, I could feel nothing but overwhelmed. But at that moment, it felt cathartic – almost fulfilling – to let my mind run up into the clouds, and to be reminded of how small I was.

The view on a misty day from the A498, looking towards the highest mountain peak in Wales (Credit: Alamy)

The view on a misty day from the A498, looking towards the highest mountain peak in Wales (Credit: Alamy)

I've since had a similar feeling staring out at the ocean, my imagination wandering to its unknowable depths, or looking at the stars, speculating how far the light had travelled across the Universe to reach my retina. Encountering things far bigger than yourself can provoke a mixture of emotions: astonishment, wonder, awe, but also humility.

Back in the 18th Century, writers and intellectuals sought to define this composition of feelings as sublime – moments where "the imagination meets no check". To describe it, they used words like "terrible joy", "delightful horror" or "rude kind of magnificence". Through the sublime, they found a deeper sense of meaning about their place within the world, as well as an awareness of the powers – and limits – of their own intellects. As the essayist Joseph Addison wrote in 1712: "Our imagination loves to be filled with an object, or to grasp at any thing that is too big for its capacity. We are flung into a pleasing astonishment at such unbounded views, and feel a delightful stillness and amazement in the soul at the apprehension of them."

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Sometimes, it's easy to forget that there is a vast and obscure world still out there, waiting to be explored. Perhaps it's because so much of life is now mediated via a smartphone screen no bigger than our palms. Perhaps it's overfamiliarity: what was wild and remote in the 18th Century is now full of tourists, or as close as a Google search away. Or maybe it's that we've simply stopped looking. After all, the present moment is already overwhelming enough, through information overload, accelerating technologies, injustice, climate change, and more.

However, there are many benefits to be discovered by connecting with things far bigger than the individual self. That's why over the coming months, BBC Future will be exploring sublime experience in all its forms, in a new series called Immensities. Through stories from the worlds of science, philosophy, psychology and history, our goal is to reinvigorate the meaning of the sublime and reveal how to see the world with fresh eyes: nature at its grandest, and the human world at its most awe-inspiring. But first let's start with a straightforward question: how can it be a good thing to feel overwhelmed by something immense?

Sublime world

When the poet William Wordsworth was a boy, he stole a boat in England's Lake District. As he rowed out into the water, proud of his mischief and skill, a "huge peak…upreared its head". Frightened, it felt as if the mountain was chasing him. "Growing still in stature the grim shape towered up between me and the stars…with a purpose of its own." He rushed back to shore, and felt troubled for days.

A decade or so later, in his early 20s, Wordsworth was overwhelmed in the mountains again, but this time, it was more complex than boyhood fear. As he describes in his autobiographical poem The Prelude, it was in the early hours of the morning, when the moon's light revealed an awe-inspiring view on the slopes of Snowdon. He and a friend had decided to climb to the summit in the hope of seeing the sunrise. Instead, they saw an uncommon meteorological phenomenon called a temperature inversion, during which a hiker can walk above the clouds. As he'd later recall: "…at my feet / Rested a silent sea of hoary mist. / A hundred hills their dusky backs upheaved / All over this still ocean."

The hint of threat and mystery had not fully dissipated, however. In the dark gaps between the cloud he observed "a fixed, abysmal, gloomy, breathing-place", through which he could hear the distant power of nature: "…the roar of water, torrents, streams / Innumerable, roaring with one voice!"

Seeing and hearing this, he reflected on the human intellect's ability to approach something far bigger than the self: "There I beheld the emblem of a mind / That feeds upon infinity… a mind sustained / By recognitions of transcendent power."

An uncommon cloud inversion on the Welsh mountain Yr Wyddfa (formerly known as Snowdon) (Credit: Alamy)

An uncommon cloud inversion on the Welsh mountain Yr Wyddfa (formerly known as Snowdon) (Credit: Alamy)

Wordsworth was far from the only writer in this period to be compelled by a sense of the infinite. He and many others in 18th Century Europe were fascinated with the sublime, finding new appreciation for the dynamic power and enormity they found in nature. In their writing, you can find lists of settings where such experience could be found: for one, the sublime meant "prospects of open champaign country, a vast uncultivated desert, of huge heaps of mountains, high rocks and precipices, or a wide expanse of waters"; for another, "bold, overhanging.. threatening cliffs, thunder clouds towering up into the heavens… volcanoes with their all-destroying violence, hurricanes with the devastation they leave behind, the boundless ocean set into a rage, a lofty waterfall on a mighty river."

While there was some disagreement on the edge cases – animals, art, even "intolerable stenches" – generally vastness, obscurity, and a hint of benign threat were central to the sublime's definition. Also important was a distinction from the beautiful – that which was "light and delicate", "smooth and polished". A tended garden or bucolic woodland had beauty, they believed, but the sublime provided something more complex: an enriching connection between the intellect and objects of vast scale or dynamic power. Crucially, it brought a touch of discomfort, humility or even pain. When a mountain, storm cloud or waterfall diminished the self, it was a reminder of one's own vulnerability and finite existence, but felt safely at a distance. A "sweet shudder", as one German philosopher put it.

One thing that made the sublime so appealing to Wordsworth and others was how it stretched the imagination. As the philosopher Emily Brady writes in her 2013 book on the sublime: "A view running through several theories is that as the imagination (or more generally, the mind) is expanded, we also experience a sense of our ability to take in vastness or great power, thereby evoking a sense of our own powers." Or as one 18th Century writer put it, the mind derives "a noble pride" from encountering a "sense of immensity" and "entertains a lofty conception of its own capacity."

The light from the stars, often emitted in the deep past, has travelled billions of miles (Credit: Getty Images)

The light from the stars, often emitted in the deep past, has travelled billions of miles (Credit: Getty Images)

To illustrate this, Brady cites the emotional experience of staring at the night sky: "In casting our eyes across it we cannot take it all in," she writes. "We can look to the left and the right, and all around, but it seems to go on forever, filling space and extending outwards in all directions in such a way that we cannot put any boundaries around it through perception. Through this kind of aesthetic experience we have a kind of sensuous feeling for the infinite, one which is quite different from any kind of intellectual, mathematical idea of it."

Feeling awe

Over the past two decades, psychologists have converged on these 200-year-old ideas of the sublime, but from a different angle – and by doing so, they have illuminated other more specific benefits of feeling small in the face of enormity.

Two decades ago, the cognitive scientists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt were seeking to understand what they saw as the more neglected emotions, and became particularly intrigued by the experience of awe. After immersing themselves in accounts from history, art, anthropology and religion, they settled on a definition: "Awe," they concluded, "is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world." While there's some disagreement about whether this makes awe a category of the sublime – or vice versa – the two are clearly entwined.

Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world

Through a combination of laboratory experiments and surveys spanning 26 countries, Keltner and colleagues have since found that awe comes in many guises: as well as being prompted by nature, the people in their studies described awe in encounters with life and death, great music, visual design, or in moments of spirituality, epiphany or moral beauty. Not everyone experienced awe in the same way, and there were cultural differences in how awe was mediated – what Keltner calls "flavourings" – but the feeling of being overwhelmed by something grander than the self was a common thread.

This body of work, which Keltner tours in his upcoming book Awe (Penguin, January 2023), has helped to clarify that awe comes with myriad mental benefits. Various studies have shown that experiencing awe can reduce stress, discourage rumination, and enhance well-being. It also fosters greater attention to detail,  boosts memory and encourages critical thinking. (Read more: "Awe: The 'little earthquake' that could free your mind.")

Then there are the pro-social benefits: people in awe are more likely to show generosity, become less individualist, and emphasise a greater sense of connection to others and the world. For example, when Keltner and Michelle Shiota of Arizona State University primed people to feel awe in one experiment  – by looking at a T. rex skeleton in a museum – they were subsequently more likely to describe themselves as part of a community. As Keltner writes: "People in the control condition defined themselves in terms of distinct traits and preferences, in the spirit of individualism and its privileging of distinctness over common humanity. People feeling awe named qualities they shared with others – being a college student, belonging to a dance society, being human, being part of the category of all sentient beings."

People confronted with the awesome sight of a T. Rex skeleton were more likely to emphasise connections with their fellow humans (Credit: Alamy)

People confronted with the awesome sight of a T. Rex skeleton were more likely to emphasise connections with their fellow humans (Credit: Alamy)

In another study, Keltner and Jennifer Stellar of the University of Toronto took people up to the observation deck of a tall tower at the University of California, Berkeley. Compared with a control group, these participants were more likely to report a "greater sense of humility, and that the direction of their lives depended on many interacting forces beyond their own agency," writes Keltner. "Awe shifts us from a competitive, dog-eat-dog mindset to perceive that we are part of networks of more interdependent, collaborating individuals."

This just scratches the surface of the social and psychological upsides, so we'll return to them later in BBC Future's Immensities series, but Keltner summarises it like this: "Awe brings us joy, meaning, and community along with healthier bodies and more creative minds… [It] quietens the nagging, self-critical, overbearing, status-conscious voice of our self, or ego, and empowering us to collaborate, to open our minds to wonders, and to see the deep patterns of life."

Wonderful world

The Victorian geologist Charles Lyell once wrote that there is an inevitable discomfort that comes when approaching the vast unknowns of the Universe, describing a "painful sense of our incapacity to conceive a plan of such infinite extent". To illustrate how he felt, Lyell described a circle of light expanding into the dark – it illuminates as it goes, but as its circumference grows, so does the boundary between light and dark. In other words, he was suggesting that the more we learn, the more we become aware of our true insignificance and how little we know. "While the scheme of the Universe may be infinite, both in time and space, it is presumptuous to suppose that all sources of doubt and perplexity would ever be removed," Lyell wrote.

This is true, but that does not mean that we shouldn't try ever harder to understand our place within the immense world out there. When approaching the unknown, the psychologist Frank Keil talks about the power of wonder, which he describes as a more active, engaged sense of awe. "Wonder is the engine that drives innovation and inquiry," he tells me; the "accidental impetus" behind humanity's greatest achievements. It implores us to ask: how, what, where, when, what if? "It is one of the most powerful motivations we have as humans, and no one can take it away from us," he says.

In the age of the Anthropocene, we may need this attitude more than ever. If we are to navigate the enormous challenges of the coming decades without falling into the twin traps of dismissive hubris or paralysing dread, then the lenses of sublimity, awe or wonder may be necessary. With these perspectives, we can approach the daunting unknowns of our time with attentive, mindful reverence, bolstered by the collective power of human thought and imagination.

When I look back at that overwhelming day in Wales more than a decade ago, staring up at cloud-capped Snowdon, I knew little about the philosophy of the sublime or the psychological benefits of awe and wonder. What mattered was how it felt in that moment: perhaps it's part of the human condition to seek solace in immensity. But now I know all that I do, I actively seek out such encounters wherever I can find them, aware of all the enriching benefits that can follow. Sometimes, it's good to feel small.

*Richard Fisher is a senior journalist for BBC Future. Twitter: @rifish

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