Awe requires feeling small — I don’t buy it

My research involves (among many other things, of course) reading literature on spiritual emotions such as awe. One of the first studies of awe came out a dozen years ago, conducted by psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt (Keltner & Haidt, 2003). These researchers concluded that awe involves two main components: the perception of vastness and the need for accommodation of that vastness into the person’s existing mental model of the world — or of the universe, as the case may be. (They didn’t frame it in terms of mental models, but as a good HCI person I use that highly appropriate term from my field.) I find this a valuable model for my research.

What concerns me about the treatment of awe in most of the literature — at least, in the literature on awe in spiritual experience — is that it tends to associate feelings of awe with feelings of being small and insignificant. Now, Keltner & Haidt themselves didn’t say that feeling awe necessarily involves our feeling ourselves to be small, just that we perceive vastness in whatever evokes awe in us. (NB: They also emphasize that “vastness” isn’t limited to size alone but could also refer to beauty, goodness, or any of several other characteristics.) Other researchers, however, have taken this to mean that a feeling of awe must necessarily involve a feeling of oneself being small.

I disagree!

And so does Neil Tyson, it would seem.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, PhD, directs the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Tyson, a strong promoter of science and an outspoken atheist, describes with passion and eloquence the spiritual feeling that his knowledge of his physical connection with the vast Universe evokes in him. In what has been called his “Greatest Sermon“, Tyson explains his view. “It’s quite literally true”, Tyson says, “that we are star dust, in the highest exalted way one can use that phrase. …I bask in the majesty of the cosmos. I use words, compose sentences that sound like the sentences I hear out of people that had revelation of Jesus, who go on their pilgrimages to Mecca.” He goes on to stress: “Not only are we in the universe, the universe is in us. I don’t know of any deeper spiritual feeling than what that brings upon me.”

Tyson also says in the “sermon” that he had received a communication from a psychologist studying “things that make people feel small”, and he commented what a bummer of a job that must be. (Tyson doesn’t name the psychologist, only the university, but I can’t help wondering if it was someone studying awe and taking the approach that it necessarily involved feelings of being small or inadequate.) Donna Burdzy, in her master’s thesis completed just last year (Burdzy, 2014), created the “Sacred Emotions Scale” to tease out the components of the emotions that people feel when they perceive themselves to be in the presence of the sacred. Basing her scale mainly on Rudolf Otto’s framework of mysterium tremendum and mysterium fascinans (Otto, 1923), Burdzy divides her emotions into those of awe and those of fascination (with which I have no quarrel), and from my first reading of her thesis I’d say her method and statistical analysis seem sound. But here’s the rub: Burdzy defines awe as almost exclusively negative. The factor of “Sacred Awe” in the original SES includes sixteen “I felt” statements, and almost every one of them is unequivocally a statement of negative feeling. Examples include

  • “I felt like I could cease to exist”
  • “I felt worried”
  • “I felt unworthy of being in the presence of something so great”
  • “I felt insignificant”
  • “I felt concerned that I would be found wanting or at fault”
    (Burdzy, 2014, p. 85)

I see in the list of sixteen statements only two that might allow for neutral or perhaps even positive interpretation — “I was filled with awe” and “I felt humble” — but the Awe factor in this instrument is overwhelmingly negative and focused on feelings of smallness.

This aspect of research on awe and other emotions evoked by the sacred distresses me, and I refuse to accept it. I take comfort in Tyson’s comments to Bill Moyers Tyson’s comments to Bill Moyers, who asked him about some people’s concerns that astronomy makes them feel small. “It depends on what your ego is, going into the conversation,” Tyson replied, explaining that the atoms that constitute our bodies came from out there in the Universe. “I look up at the night sky;” he observed; “I don’t feel small, I feel large. I feel connected to the universe.” Contemplating the Universe, urges Tyson, “should not make you feel small; that should make you feel large.”

So. If I were a psychologist, I would consider doing more in-depth study of the emotions involved in spiritual experiences. To be fair, my interviews do support the claim that feeling small or humble can be associated with awe. But I don’t like the declaration of “always” in this context, and my data do not support that extreme position. Nor does my individual experience (or Tyson’s, as best I can tell). For now, all I can say to the claim that awe always involves feeling small and insignificant is this:

Not necessarily!

What about those of us who feel connected to the vastness that evokes our awe? What if we feel inspired by it?

It is not a requirement, I maintain, that to recognize and appreciate the vastness in something else, we ourselves must feel small or inadequate.

Do we really want to take a win-lose approach to spirituality?

Burdzy, D. C. (2014). Sacred emotions scale. Bowling Green State University.

Keltner, D., & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition & Emotion, 17 (2), 297–314.

Otto, R. (1923). The Idea of the Holy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

In fairness, I must make this update to point out that during her analysis Burdzy ended up recognizing the positive position of awe in the experience. Not only did she rename her subscales — i.e., “Sacred Awe” and “Sacred Fascination” (initially named à la Rudolf Otto) became “Sacred Dread” and “Sacred Exuberance” because of how the items fell together — but she moved “I was filled with awe” from the negative group where she had initially placed it to the positive group that she ended up calling “Sacred Exuberance”. Kudos to Donna Burdzy for recognizing and honoring the need for this change.

Hi ho, hi ho — it’s back to work I go!

Dearest friends and colleagues,

It is my great pleasure to inform you that you are reading the blog of the new Principal User Experience Consultant at Natural Interaction Ltd.

I will start on 16 October, initially working one to two days a week under my student visa whilst finishing my PhD. Then, some time after the company get themselves registered to sponsor Tier 2 visas we will switch to that and I’ll be a permanent employee. I could not be more delighted about this. Chuffed, even. :-) We are all very excited about the great work we can do together.

Here’s how it came about: A year and a half ago I gave a talk at World Information Architecture Day 2014 in Bristol, about a technique I had learned during my PhD research that I saw as useful for IA practice. One of the attendees came up to me afterwards to ask me questions, saying he thought the technique would be useful on one of his projects. Adam Babajee-Pycroft and I have kept in touch, and prompted by the success he had with it on that project we have developed a workshop to teach the technique. We will give a short version of this workshop at UCD-UK 2015 next month and are preparing a longer version for other venues. Last week we had a Skype call to discuss the first workshop. I had already decided to ask Adam about the possibility of working for his company, and before I could get a chance to mention it he brought it up. He said he knew I was coming to the end of my three years and asked if I had any availability to work. I explained that my student visa does not allow me to work for myself and asked if he would consider sponsoring me for a Tier 2 General visa — and he said yes! We have been working out the particulars in the intervening time (during which time I was trying desperately not to count my chickens); and now, in less than a week, I have a firm offer letter and expect to have a signed employment contract tomorrow. There will, of course, be a probationary period (UK standard of six months), but every time Adam and I talk we discover something else on which we are very much in tune, and I am confident that this collaboration will work out well for all of us.

After I switch to a Tier 2 General visa I will of course be allowed to work more than 20 hours a week. What we plan is two days a week as a base, with more as needed for client projects. I envision continuing to do some research on techno-spirituality, probably on my own time because I doubt my visa would allow me to do sideline work that different from UX consulting. Client work will be done mostly at client sites and internal company work can be done mostly anywhere, so I will have the flexibility to live anywhere in the UK that has adequate access to air and rail transport. I’m open to staying in Newcastle — especially if I end up doing a fair amount of work for clients here and points north — but as much as I love the area during the day I have to confess that it doesn’t have enough Renaissance music to satisfy me and the Toon nightlife is a bit rowdy. Plus, I’ve always fancied living in London. I’ve got lots of decisions to make in the next few months!

When I came to the UK, almost three years ago, I was going to do my PhD and return to Maryland at the end of the three years. After about a year here, I decided I wanted to stay. And now it looks as though I just may be able to do that. And unless I end up in central London, one of the first things I’m going to do when this goes permanent is buy a car.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may have seen my musings about staying in academia or returning to industry, and in particular my decision that I would return to industry. I am still slightly sad that the academic route didn’t turn out to match my dreams, but industry really is where I belong — where I feel most at home and where I can make the biggest contribution. And now that I have an even better grasp of research, I am excited about making even more of a connection between the two than I managed to do before.

So if you have any UX consulting needs or just want to explore and discuss the possibilities, please contact me. I’ll have to start out slowly, but if you have a substantial need we can always consider having Adam take the lead with me supporting him in the time I have available.

Stay tuned!

Not so “leisurely” now!

I named this blog “Leisurely Seeking Doctorate” mainly because I started looking at doing this PhD some two years before I took the plunge and moved across the Pond. (I also wanted to make an allusion to the film “Desperately Seeking Susan”.) But leisure is looking the other way. I don’t have time right now to explain why (except that my one-year extension means I have to do another annual review and I’m preparing for that), but just let me say that I worked for most of the long weekend just past and that I’ll certainly be working as much as free time will allow during my upcoming week-long course.

Back to work!

Guerrilla IA – a workshop at UCD-UK 2015

I’ve just learned that Adam Babajee-Pycroft and I will be giving a workshop at the User-Centred Design UK 2015 conference (London, 24-25 October). Called “Guerrilla IA: Drafting an Information Structure When You Can’t Do a Card Sort”, the workshop builds on a talk I gave at World Information Archicture Day 2014, in Bristol. (Here’s my blog post about that talk.) While analyzing comments for a paper on YouTube meditation videos, I realized that the technique I was using (“inductive content analysis”) was building me an information architecture, and that it was a technique that could be useful to IA practice. So I presented this idea to a group of information architects (duh! :-) and Adam approached me afterwards to ask a few questions. He told me he was about to begin a project that would be a good candidate for trying it out, and I was excited to learn that my goal of bringing research into practice might bear fruit so quickly (if goals can be said to bear fruit). Well, the technique turned out to work very well on his project, and the two of us have teamed up to create a workshop/tutorial to introduce and teach people how to use it. We will be giving this workshop for the first time at UCD-UK, so come join us! And stay tuned for further developments. :-)

An amazing story of loss and recovery

I’ve been in Aberdeen for a couple of days. It had come time for me to use or lose some East Coast (Trains) Rewards points (due to their takeover by Virgin and Stagecoach and their rebranding as Virgin Trains East Coast), so I decided to pay a visit to this city. I had never been here before, and it was the farthest I could go from Newcastle in a northerly direction. I won’t go into detail about what I’ve seen and done — that’s not the point of this blog post, and besides, this isn’t a travel blog. But something happened today that I think is worth recounting because it was so amazing.

East Aquhorthies Stone Circle, near AberdeenI had booked a rental car for yesterday and today, as I knew I’d need one to explore what I wanted to see in the surrounding area. Today I visited the East Aquhorthies Stone Circle first, just outside Inverurie, not far northwest of Aberdeen. (And nicely cared for by Historic Scotland, I might add.) As I was returning to the parking lot, I noticed that a car was having trouble parking, so I told them that my car was just next to the space they were trying to squeeze into and that I’d leave to make more room for them. But when I plopped into the driver’s seat, I realized that it was not, in fact, my rental car (although it was eerily similar). So I jumped out and got into the correct vehicle, and we waved as I left and they parked.

About an hour later, what with meandering and all, I arrived at my next destination, Huntly Castle. As I was gathering my stuff to get out of the car, I was dismayed to discover that I couldn’t find my camera. Oh no! I thought, and realized immediately that I must have left it in the car-that-wasn’t-my-rental-car. So I had a quick run-through of the castle, but I couldn’t enjoy myself because I was worried about how I was going to see about finding my camera. So I spoke with the very nice man who was staffing the shop, and he advised me to call 101, the non-emergency number for the police. I did that, and they took my details and said they’d keep an eye out in case someone turned it in. I decided to stop by the site again just in case — perhaps someone had gone hiking and the car was still there, I thought; or perhaps they had left the camera — and besides, it was only a five-minute detour from the route back to Aberdeen. My head was full of ways in which I was going to try to let the finder know how to contact me. I was, for example, going to tweet some of the photos I had already copied to my laptop but had not yet deleted from the camera. I was going to write a blog post here, describing the incident and begging the finder to contact me. As I arrived back at the stone circle, my head spun with possibilities, both positive and negative. (Did I ever mention how good I am at catastrophizing?)

The car was gone. I looked around for the camera, but nothing was to be seen. (I didn’t really think someone would have taken that approach anyhow.) A couple was walking down the path to the car park, so I stood at the gate, ready to ask them if they had seen anything. All of a sudden I noticed that the rock that was sitting on top of the information board had something white sticking out from beneath it. I went to take a closer look, and lo! it said: “Lost camera found! Call me <mobile number>”. So I rang, and got voicemail. I left a message of effusive thanks — accompanied by my own mobile number, of course — and headed off to a nearby cafe for a well-earned break. I hadn’t gone 50 feet when my phone rang. I pulled over, grabbed it, and answered it eagerly. “I can’t believe you found my note!” the young American woman exclaimed. We arranged to meet in half an hour.

It turned out that Stephanie, the woman who had left me the note — the one who had my camera — was the driver of the car I was trying to help park. The other car was rented by an Australian couple, and since Stephanie and her husband are living in the Aberdeen area for a couple of years, she offered to take care of finding the owner. The Australian woman, she said, was miffed at her husband for not locking the car, but laughed that usually you expect to find something missing from what you had left in it. You don’t expect to find a nice camera added to your things. Stephanie went on to say that she had looked through the pictures, hoping to find one of me that she could use to search Facebook, but she found none; and she commented that I take gorgeous photos and not selfies. (I admitted that I do take the very occasional selfie, but I use my phone to do that because when I do, it’s just something I want to post to Facebook and the photographic quality is not very important.) So she decided she would use Google’s reverse image search — an excellent idea once I had uploaded to Flickr the previous days’ contents of the memory card (which I would have done this evening if we hadn’t found each other this afternoon). We had a good chuckle over all of the high-tech ideas that we had both had for putting ourselves together, when it was good old low-tech pencil and paper that really did the trick.

After I got back to my hotel I phoned 101 again and let the Scottish Police know that I’ve got my camera back. During this process I spoke to three different people at the help center, and all of them were extremely nice and personable. The last one was warmly glad about the positive outcome. Tomorrow I’m going to phone Historic Scotland and ask them to thank the man at Huntly Castle for his help.

In any case, all is well. I have my camera back and my faith in humanity nudged up a notch; and I’ve had glimpses of two Scottish castles that I want to return to visit when I have time to do them justice. All in good time; all in good time.

Extending my student time

I’ve just received word that my application for a one-year extension to my PhD program has been approved. I’ve known for some time that I was unlikely to be able to finish within what the university calls “standard duration”, but I finally managed to convince my supervisor that I would need an extension. Some of the delay is due to things that were beyond my control (health issues that have involved doctor visits and sick days), some that I could have controlled (mostly due to travel), and some that might have been within my control if certain things had been otherwise. Regarding the third category — I’ve had a really difficult time getting my head around qualitative analysis, given my highly quantitative background; and sometimes it has come into my head that this whole thing would have been a lot easier if I had done it in an Informatics department. But I’m stretching myself more by being in a Design program, and that was a large part of the point.

Next I have to start the process of extending my student visa, but that should be fairly straightforward. I am still looking for a job (and a work visa sponsor), but extending my student visa will give me more time to make that happen, as well as less stress about the urgency. The sooner I can do this, the better — the five years I will have to work before I can apply to settle in the UK won’t start until I get a work visa — but since I love what I do and can’t see stopping altogether as long as I am capable of working in user experience, I don’t mind a bit of a delay. (When I do start work, I will switch to part-time student status to complete my PhD.)

UK Registered Traveller: my first experience

While I was in the US last month I received an email from British Airways informing me that I was now eligible to apply to be a UK Registered Traveller. Under this program, people who are citizens of Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and the USA, and who have a UK visa, can use the UK/EU queue when entering the UK. It also removes the requirement for filling out a landing card1, which asks the purpose of your visit, where and how long you will be staying, and what you are bringing into the UK2. I applied right away, and the approval came through while I was gone. So when I returned to the UK, I completed my enrollment at Heathrow. After confirming my details, the border agent gave me a card and told me to write my name and RT number on the back. The whole process was pretty easy, and I was delighted that they approved me in time for me to enroll when I returned. It costs £70 to apply for one year (of which £50 is refundable if you are denied), but I don’t know whether subsequent years are £70 or £50. I hope I will find out. :-)

I was surprised to read, in my approval email, that my card would be valid only until mid-January because my visa expires at that point. (I had missed the fact that to apply you have to have a UK visa.) But I’m working on staying anyhow, so once I have either a work visa or an extension to my student visa I will update my visa details and hopefully the rest of the year will be added.

Yesterday I used my card for the first time. I had gone to Switzerland to lead a workshop at UX Lausanne, and although the queue at the UK border was no shorter for UK/EU passports than for “other passports”, I wanted to try out my new privileges and see how it worked. While standing in the queue, holding my passport and my card, I caught the attention of the queue monitor, who asked if I was Canadian. (Evidently, Canadian passports are the same color as US ones.) I moved my hand so she could see my Registered Traveller card, and she said it was fine. The border agent did ask me what brought me to the UK (I replied that I live here — I love doing that :-) and I said, as I always do, “My visa is on page 20.” On this flight it didn’t really save me any time (although it was nice not to have to fill out the landing card), but on flights from the US it undoubtedly will, as most of the passengers are American.

1I wanted to include an image of a landing card, but unfortunately I couldn’t find one that offered the right to use it. Odd that the UK government doesn’t make it available.

2Fortunately, one can bring up to 2kg of mayonnaise, so my supply of Duke’s Mayo is safe.)

Visa news (good news!)

I don’t know how I got the idea that I couldn’t leave the UK and return during the last six months of my student visa, but the student visa advice counselor at the university’s Student Support and Well-Being Centre has just disabused me of that notion. She said the US works that way (so that may be where I got the idea) but in the UK it’s generally three months and for citizens of “low-risk” countries (including the US) it’s generally not a problem. So I am no longer worried that I may not be able to travel to Europe or the US between mid-July and when I get a work visa sorted.


Officially retired from CSC

About three weeks ago I made a decision and took action on something I’ve been thinking about for a couple of years: I decided to leave CSC and start drawing my pension. I worked there full-time from 1977 to 2005 and part-time from 2009 until now (with VERY little work since I’ve been in the UK, as I was on the government side and those projects all require you to be physically in the US while working on them). I met and worked with Antonio there (that’s my late husband, for those who met me less than 14 years ago today) as well as many other wonderful people, some of whom are still friends. I learned a lot and gained an incredible amount of invaluable experience, and CSC management was incredibly supportive when Antonio and then my mother needed me to help care for them in their last months. CSC was not my first job, but it might as well have been — I grew up there, professionally — so this feels like closing a major door. (If I had waited until I was 65 I could have worked for them again, but since I’m doing this before age 65 I won’t be able to work for them again, ever.) But since I’m Doing What Needs to Be Done to stay and work in UK/Europe after this academic adventure of mine, I shouldn’t need the US-based work. So today was my last day as a CSC employee. It feels like ending a relationship; and in a way it is exactly that. So I am feeling both up and down about this. But I tell myself that it’s time.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,322 other followers