The best decisions are often those that help others as much as ourselves; success rarely comes through solo efforts performed in a vacuum. But try as we might, altruism isn’t always our first instinct, or the one that ultimately drives our choices.
A major reason why is because our brains need a boost of inspiration in order to push past the quotidian level of thought where most of us remain, cognitively speaking, over the course of a normal workday. In short, we need to experience awe in order to make the most far-reaching, altruistic decisions. Fortunately, there are a few surprisingly simple ways to give your mind that dose of what it needs.
Imagine standing at the edge of a deep canyon, the rocks painted pink and red by the setting sun. The sky seems endless. There’s a giant sequoia tree next to you, towering into the heavens.
That feeling you have of being small, a part of something larger, is awe. And it’s not just something that’s merely nice to experience now and then; it can actually shape the way we make choices. When you have experiences like this, you’re activating the same parts of your brain that deal with moral and selfless decision making, called the anterior cingulate cortex and the insular cortex.
When a mother looks at her newborn child, researchers have found increased activity in both of those brain regions. In another recent study, involving the classic offer to split money with an unknown person, researchers found those who made more altruistic offers showed heightened connectivity between the anterior cingulate cortex and insular cortex. Those who made more selfish decisions showed decreased connectivity between the two.
In other words, feeling responsible for another person, and thus connected to the world–with its attendant feelings of wonder and awe–lights up our altruism circuits.
But it doesn’t stop there. New mothers also showed increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPRC), which has been found to play a role in people choosing the most fair decision when multiple options are on the table–particularly when those options involve making moral decisions, like distributing limited resources. What’s more, in another experiment, researchers found that participants with lesions on their DLPRCs were more likely to lie in order to gain an advantage.
Think of it this way: The brain can either be a navel-gazer–thinking mainly about ourselves–or a star-gazer, considering our connectedness to the wider world. As navel-gazers, our brains are head down, our focus narrowed to our self-doubt, our social anxiety, our self-aggrandizement, our vainglory. As navel-gazers, we inhibit the connections between brain regions that lead us to think of others first. Our minds are underwhelmed and uninspired, and so are the choices they lead us to make.
But as star-gazers, our brains sit with heads thrown back, the star-filled sky stretching overhead. That causes a whole other set of synapses in our brains to begin firing together. The anterior cingulate cortex and insular cortex connect, and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex comes online, too. Feeling inspired–overtaken by awe–we’re newly reminded of our place in the wider field of existence.
Psychologists and brain scientists who’ve studied this experience have found that people report feeling “small or insignificant” and “connected with the world around me” while in this frame of mind. In one study, participants contemplating a T-Rex skeleton said they felt like they belonged to some sort of universal group. And here’s the kicker: Awe had this effect more than commonplace positive emotions like happiness or joy. Those may be great to experience, but they don’t give your brain the same type of cognitive jolt.
So how do you cultivate this feeling more often without taking regular trips to the desert (or dropping acid)? It’s easier than you might think. In fact, visual stimuli can ply your brain with the experience of awe without ever having to leave your desk.
YouTube is your friend here: Watch videos about the universe. It may sound like a shoddy substitute for a weeklong camping excursion in a glacial tundra, but your brain may not actually need something so ambitious in order to fire up those key regions. Believe it or not, awe researcher Craig L. Anderson suggests the opening three minutes of the movie Contact.
Or if the vast wilderness of space isn’t your thing, you can look inside yourself–and watch videos about the workings of the human body. Drew Berry creates some amazing animations of what happens inside our cells and brains.
Personally, we like looking at photos taken by the Hubble Space telescope and contemplating the size of the planetary bodies it’s captured. A trip to the planetarium can also be helpful.
Want some other (comparatively) easy ways to inspire your brain to feel awe?
Get to high places. Gazing out across a vista, whether it’s from the top of a hill, a mountain, or even an office building gives us a sense of perspective about ourselves and our place in the universe.
Get to bodies of water. The ocean, lakes, running rivers–all help us relax and remember that we rely on these water sources for our survival. They also remind us that there are huge swaths of the planet where we don’t belong.
A final caveat, though: Don’t watch nature videos. Our empathy for the animals gets in the way of our experience of awe.
Judah Pollack and Olivia Fox Cabane are the coauthors of the forthcoming The Net and the Butterfly: The Art and Practice of Breakthrough Thinking.