Thoughts On Awe & Creativity

Updated: Jun 19, 2020

Untitled No. 1 by Agnes Martin

“Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God.John Muir

I recently relocated to the mountain-range haven of Tasmania, and the wistful ways my new community speak of their mountain home tells me there is something more to living nestled in such a unique space. Something about this type of landscape has always been oddly compelling for me, and I know I’m not alone in this.

The affluence of the arts and creativity across Tasmania speaks to the creative influence of living in this type of environment. Of course, it’s not just Tasmania. The Alps, the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains are just a few prominent areas that spring to mind that have appeared multiple times across art and literature. As a writer, I’ve never felt so laden with ideas and a sense of promise as I have since moving to my new home. There is something very powerful about the presence of the mountains.

However, behind my writer’s brain, lies the inquisitiveness of a psychologist, so I got to thinking. Is there more to it?

As it turns out, there is.

How Mountains Motivate Us

Dr. Melanie Rudd, Associate Professor with the University of Houston, holds a Ph.D. from Stanford and specialises in the study of awe. Specifically, Rudd has explored the connection between awe and creativity — and mountains.

Why mountains? Well, so far as inspiring awe goes, nothing quite does it like a mountain.

In two studies, Rudd used mountains as the backdrop for inspiring experiential creation (that is, an activity where you play a direct outcome in the creation rather than playing a passive observer of something being created). In a recent co-authored journal article, Rudd and her colleagues examined participants in the Swiss Alps. One group was based at the bottom of the mountain in the parking lot, a decidedly non-awe inspiring location, and another at the top, a high awe-inspiring location. Both groups were provided with the opportunity to learn, through the provision of literature about their environment and hiking, and to also create, through mixing their own trail-mix or selecting a pre-made product.

The group at the top of the mountain was more engaged in the learning material and also opted to create their own trail-mix over the group at the bottom who selected the pre-made mix.

While that might not sound wildly compelling, Rudd argues it goes some way to back up other ideas held about the emotion of awe for creativity. A lot of research has explored the evolutionary benefits of our emotional spectrum, but awe is still in its early beginnings of being studied. Despite the early days, the research is demonstrating awe has the distinct ability to change the way we think.

Generally, when we feel positive emotions, we tap into our existing knowledge and memory banks to back-up what we’re experiencing. Other positive emotions don’t necessarily encourage behavioural change. Awe inspires a different response.

According to Rudd:

“Awe is different: it makes you feel like you need to adjust your way of thinking, but not in a negative way. Most of the time, the idea of changing how you think is scary and threatening. But when you’re experiencing awe, it’s a positive feeling, and it reassures you that this is not a dangerous situation — this is a safe environment, so it’s OK to open your mind and think. When we’re feeling this way, our desire to create just shoots up.”

No Mountains? No Problem

Knowing how the environment we exist in impacts our state of mind has a roll-on effect on how we engage and connect within it. It also goes some way to explain why mountain landscapes, in particular, have been home to some of the most prolific creatives across the centuries.

But it isn’t just mountains. Awe can be triggered through a multitude of experiences and activities. Waking up to catch the sunrise or simply getting out into nature can have a similar impact. Even reading the biography of someone you find inspiring, or allowing some time to visit an art or history museum can get the emotion of awe flowing. Think about some of the experiences you’ve had that have elicited the feeling and how you can invite more of that into your life.

If you’re struggling with creative block or motivation to dive deep into your own creative pursuits, tapping into some awe could be exactly what you need to kick-start things once more.


First published on Medium.

Copyright © 2021 Elaine Mead