#19 Neurophenomenology of awe and wonder in outer space

A Neurophenomenology of Awe and Wonder by Gallagher et al, pages 1-58

Thank you to my friend Alessio who brought to my attention some years ago the “overview effect”: the feeling many astronauts get when observing the earth from outer space. This feeling must be extraordinary, to see in one image before your eyes all the billions of humans and trillions of earthlings mingling in a bio-stew on the surface in addition to knowing that everyone who ever lived and will live for the foreseeable future comes from that tiny sphere, floating in the blackness of space. 

Awe and wonder experienced by astronauts.

The overview effect is related to the book I’m currently reading. A multidisciplinary team of researchers—Shaun Gallagher, Lauren Reinerman, Bruce Janz, Patricia Bockelman, and Jörg Trempler—developed a series of experiments to test the neurophenomenology (see definition below) of states of awe and wonder experienced by many astronauts when they view the earth from afar and deep space. I’m only 58 pages in, but the gist of their research is this: Gallagher et al (2015) have in-flight and post-flight reports from tens of astronauts experiencing awe and wonder and they attempt to replicate these results in a simulated environment on earth with non-astronauts. In the first experiment at least, they search for correlation between neuroscientific and physiological testing methods such as EEG, ECG, and fNIR (near-infrared rays) monitoring equipment juxtaposed by multiple pre- and post-simulation questionnaires and post-simulation microphenomenological interviews. Therefore, cognitive science becomes less reductionistic the more subjective data is overlaid upon the objective physiological readings. By using such a combinatory method, we can get a better idea about what simulated images had the most effect in occasioning awe and wonder in study participants. 

To get a better idea of what awe and wonder is, Gallagher et al define these “human universal” experiences as: 

Awe: a direct and initial experience or feeling when faced with something amazing, incomprehensible, or sublime. Wonder: a reflective experience motivated when one is unable to put things into a familiar conceptual framework – leading to open questions rather than conclusions … One can think that perhaps an immediate experience of awe motivates a more reflective experience of wonder” (2015, p. 6). 

You might start to see the connection I’m making between “awe & wonder” and my research in psychedelics. On a personal note, a few times after taking various psychedelics I’ve been in such a state of awe that my jaw would drop, sometimes I even drooled. Yes, this can happen when faced with otherworldly visionary phenomena that can literally take your breath away. The wonder component happens always afterwards; it’s very difficult to be in a state of wonder when you’re awestruck or at times in shock by what you perceive and think about during psychedelic-intoxicated states. Husserl says something similar, in that we cannot be in a reflective state in the present moment, we can only be reflective of a phenomenon (e.g. an object, experience, etc.) after it happens, after the fact. One of the stages of psychedelic experiences is post-experience, that is, the sober reflection of the experience hours, days, weeks, or months afterwards, also commonly called the “integration period.” According to Gallagher et al, curiosity is related to wonder; curiosity is the desire to know and understand more about that what one experienced (2015, p. 30). For my part, integration periods are less about self-development and more about philosophically making sense how such-and-such psychedelic affected my consciousness the way it did. The lulls between experiences give me the time to chew on particular puzzles and questions and to read texts that (hopefully; ideally) inform my arguments as to what is going on. In preparation for my own neurophenomenological study with iboga, Gallagher et al’s work (thus far in my reading) is turning out to be a valuable approach in doing neurophenomenology. In a personal communication with philosopher Evan Thompson, and I paraphrase what he said, there is no set way to do neurophenomenology, there are many methods and angles, and thus, it seems to me that one must do a thorough literature review of what has been done in order to tailor an experimental setup conducive to the questions one asks and dependent upon what one tests. Awe and wonder seen through the overview effect is one such step, I would argue, that is very much related to neurophenomenological studies of psychedelics. I can’t wait to finish this book and see how it might be applied to my research. 

I have some critiques of Gallagher’s et al study, such as: even if they couldn’t send people to space, they should’ve created a zero-gravity environment, dressed participants in space suits, given them some real astronaut training, experimented with G-forces in jets and spinning devices, etc. They focus for the most part on visual representations, not bad, but it could’ve been better. As well, a follow-up study should be considered/pitched/developed (ok, maybe they do this but it wasn’t mentioned in the introductory chapters) for the first batches of humans to go into space in the near future, i.e. think of Elon Musk’s ambitions to send humans to Mars and beyond. Such research suggestions allow future researchers to hit the ground running when the time comes. 

The most limiting of limitations is the inability to send non-astronauts into space. Yes, I know, stop right there: I know they couldn’t do this for safety and financial reasons. However, and this is a big one: the risk to astronauts’ lives when doing their missions add a further (at present) inexplicable and untestable component to the neurophenomenological study of awe and wonder. We have no idea what role risk-taking plays when assessing awe and wonder. Did risk have any factor? If yes, to what degree? We just don’t know. You know whether you’re sitting comfortably in a simulation on earth or risking your life to go to space, likewise, you know whether you’re sitting under a psychedelic-vision-inducing light machine such as Pandora Star, or taking a powerful psychedelic of which might have inherent deadly characteristics if used improperly and uninformedly such as iboga. My point is: in each of the former cases, one can stop the experience at any time, while the latter is along for the ride until said ride stops. 

When studying topics such as “awe and wonder” and psychedelics, the amount of risk one is willing to take definitely has an important and insightful impact on what is experienced and to what degree. What I want to know is: how do we neurophenomenologically test the idea of risk in any context? Has risk been tested neurophenomenologically? If anyone knows, please leave a comment below. 

Gallagher, S., Reinerman-Jones, L., Janz, B., Bockelman, P., & Trempler, J. (2015). A Neurophenomenology of Awe and Wonder: Towards a Non-Reductionist Cognitive Science. Palgrave Macmillan. 


Liked but didn’t use:

“Awe and wonder are experiences that transcend religion, culture, politics, and just about every other ‘contextualizing’ feature of human existence that one could imagine” (2015, p. 2). 

“This book, then, has two aims: (1) to explain the awe and wonder experienced during the adventure of space travel, and (2) to give an account of the scientific adventure of studying and wondering about such experiences” (2015, p. 4).

“Varela proposed an approach that delivered on the idea that we can take both first-person data seriously in a correlational analysis with third-person data, without reducing one to the other. Borrowing from the phenomenological approach outlined by Husserl, Varela defined ‘neurophenomenology’ as a method, or combination of methods, that involves the training of subjects in phenomenological method, and then using these subjects as participants in empirical experiments” (2015, p. 10). 

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  1. Pingback: #26 Fine-tuning neurophenomenology’s fixed and non-fixed variables - AMhouot.com

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