#6: TV adverts are awesome

That is not a title I ever thought I’d publish. But it’s true – TV adverts are awesome, or they can be. And when they’re awesome, they can help heal our time-harried sense of modernity – the problem of fast-walking Irishmen having heart attacks.

Awe is described by psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt as being “in the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear”. We feel awe when we encounter something so strikingly vast or complex that it forces us to change our understanding of the world – and sometimes the course of our entire lives.

In this context, the fact that awe also expands our perception of time, allowing us to savour these transcendental experiences, is almost a side-show – but it should not be overlooked. According to psychologists Rudd and Aaker, when you feel under time-pressure you are:

  • less likely to help someone in distress or volunteer to help out in your community;
  • more likely to be impatient, eat unhealthy fast food, suffer from headaches and have low life satisfaction.

Boo to time-pressure, basically.

But psychologists speculate that time-expanding experiences of awe could therefore alleviate such symptoms of time-pressed modernity. In one experiment, by psychologists at Stanford University and the University of Minnesota found that something as simple as an awe-inspiring TV advert could expand our perception of time, making us feel less impatient, less materialistic and more satisfied with life. Awe could be the cure for urgency that we’ve been looking for.

I’ve had encounters with such awe in the past, of course (and not just on TV): watching the sand-seas of the Sahara, meeting my new-born niece for the first time, reaching the summit of Ben Nevis, saying goodbye at my grandmother’s funeral. I just wasn’t expecting it to strike in the middle of a walk through a deciduous copse in Hampshire.

By this point, I’d been walking for two days straight, mostly in the dark, because midwinter happens mostly in the dark. I was mid-way through a 75-mile No Aeroplanes pilgrimage from London to Winchester and I couldn’t see where I was stumbling. There were no signs to follow, only the dimly marked path, trodden clear by hundreds of years of rambling footsteps. Then I felt, apropos of nothing at all, a complete absence and a complete presence.

There was, for a moment, no separation between me and the path beneath my feet, the trees brushing past and the stars looking down. In that split second, I could not distinguish myself from the rest of the universe and suddenly understood that I was a part of something much greater than myself and that something much greater than myself was a part of me.

I had walked myself into a trance and, in the night, I glimpsed something of the truth: You become the path you walk.

Awe forces us to change our understanding of the world and these flashes of insight can inspire what psychologists Janet C’de Baca and Paula Wilbourne call quantum change: a single event that causes “sudden extensive cognitive and behaviour changes”.

While I wouldn’t say that I experienced sudden and permanent quantum change in the woods of Hampshire, that moment of awe was a significant psychological milestone on my long journey from being a frantic frequent flyer to becoming a traveller more at one with his environment. No Aeroplanes has helped me travel like never before.

Further Reading

Keltner, D., & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition & Emotion, 17, 297–314.

Rudd, M., K. D. Vohs, and J. Aaker. ‘Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being’. Psychological Science 23, no. 10 (1 October 2012): 1130–36. doi:10.1177/0956797612438731.

C’de Baca, Janet, and Paula Wilbourne. ‘Quantum Change: Ten Years Later’. Journal of Clinical Psychology 60, no. 5 (May 2004): 531–41. doi:10.1002/jclp.20006.

This post is an extract from the book You Are What You Don’t by David Charles. Please share, please credit!

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at davidcharles.info.

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