What Cirque du Soleil can tell us about the neuroscience of awe

Have you ever started crying at a live show? Not because it’s sad or even all that emotional, but because the spectacle is so overwhelming that it feels like all your synapses are firing at full capacity and the feeling has to leak out of your body as tears, or yelling, or dancing?

For me, it happens regardless of whether or not I like what I’m watching. I cried at Hamilton during “Satisfied” when time rewound and the stage started turning backward, and that was partially because it was a perfect theatrical moment. But I have also cried at the circus when acrobats did something so impressive that I was pretty sure they might be about to die, which is not something that I think should be that emotional; at superhero movies when the music crescendoes during the final battle, which is really just manipulative on the movie’s part; and during A Star Is Born when Lady Gaga takes the stage and does that “HA-ah-ah-ah-ah-ahhhhhhh,” which I will allow she is very good at but which is a disconcerting thing to cry at because I truly did not care for A Star Is Born.

My reactions have almost nothing to do with the aesthetics of what I’m watching or my own critical judgment; it’s a physiological reaction that seems to override my brain.

You might call that feeling awe, the awe created by spectacle. It’s been studied by scientists across disciplines, but now Cirque du Soleil — the circus company whose entire brand revolves around creating spectacle and being awe-inspiring — is studying it in the wild. And in a scientific report that will be submitted for peer review and publication, they’ve come to the conclusion that understanding awe can help us understand how to become less anxious and more open.

Cirque du Soleil hired scientists to figure out exactly what is going on inside your head when you watch a Cirque du Soleil show

Last April, Cirque du Soleil teamed up with a group of neuroscientists, artists, and technologists at Lab of Misfits, an experimental research lab, to explore exactly what happens in people’s brains when they watch a Cirque du Soleil show. (Yes, I have also cried at a Cirque du Soleil show.)

“Fans and critics alike have been calling our shows ‘awe-inspiring’ for more than 30 years now, and yet when we asked fans as marketers, ‘How do you feel? How do we connect with you?’ they were not able to explain it,” says Cirque du Soleil’s chief marketing and experience officer Kristina Heney. “We would get the proverbial world cloud of ‘Oh, my god, wow, you have to go, amazing, life-changing,’ but we couldn’t understand that emotional bridge.”

For Cirque, it was a chance to better understand its audience. For the Lab of Misfits, it was a chance to fulfill its mission of “experiential science,” which involves “placing the public at the center of the scientific process of discovery.” The idea is that by putting the public at the center of the experiment, the lab is able to develop richer insights — and, as its website notes, can also create “meaningful content for PR and marketing initiatives.”

I asked the lab to explain to me exactly what it was studying with Cirque. In neuroscience, “awe” has a specific definition, says Lab of Misfits director Beau Lotto. “It begins with surprise: ‘You’ve surprised us! That’s new. Brilliant.’ But surprise usually just ends,” he explains. “Then you have a sense of wonder. You want to know. You have a desire to understand the source of that surprise. Awe then goes further and says, ‘I want to know, but in order to know, I’m going to have to shift my reference frame. It’s impossible. I can’t figure out how that bit works.’”

The Lab of Misfits fits audience members with EEG caps.
Matthew Soltesz

To study awe, the Lab of Misfits enlisted audience members at Cirque du Soleil’s O show in Las Vegas. Over five consecutive nights, they drafted 282 Cirque ticket holders — split roughly evenly between men and women — to let the lab into their heads during the show.

For 60 of the participants, the lab literally looked at what was happening in their heads. They fitted those participants with EEG caps that measured their neurological responses during the show.

What the lab found was that at the moment that audience members reported experiencing awe, the brain activity in their prefrontal cortexes — the part of the brain that is in charge of executive function, where we decide what our intentions are and then act on them — went down. “It’s as if they were losing their sense of attentional control,” says Lotto. “They weren’t focused on looking at things. They were just taking it in.”

At the same time, activity in the default mode neural network — the part of the brain that is associated with imaginative thought and memory — increased. “That’s activated when you’re awake but you’re daydreaming, imagining,” says Lotto. “It’s linked with divergent creative thinking as opposed to convergent. You’re increasing the connectivity in your brain.”

After activity went down in the prefrontal cortex and increased in the default mode network, Lotto says, an asymmetry emerged in participants’ prefrontal cortex. “What it’s correlated with is the desire to step forward,” he says. “So: You’re losing yourself, you’re becoming more divergent-thinking, and now you want to step forward.”

For the rest of the 282 participants in the study, the lab’s look inside their heads was more metaphorical. They gave those audience members a series of psychological questionnaires — half before the show and half after — and asked them to self-assess their sense of awe every few minutes throughout the show.

The first test these participants took was a version of the “Identification With All Humanity” test, a scale developed by psychologists in 2012 to measure how close people feel to their communities and to the rest of the world at large. People who said they had experienced awe during the show, Lotto says, felt closer to the rest of the world than the rest of the group.

And when given the Balloon Analogue Risk Taska test developed by psychologists in 2002 to measure respondents’ tolerance for risk — participants who said they felt awe during the show were much more tolerant of risk than the rest of the group. They also reported a decreased need to feel correct and more openness to ambiguity.

Awe might be our brains’ way of dealing with the horror of uncertainty by making it fun

Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology and director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley who studies awe, says Lotto’s results are consistent with his own understanding of awe. “We’ve got a lot of findings in that vein,” he told me over the phone. “Humans have to fold into social collectives. It’s essential to our survival, and awe helps us with that. Empirically, we find people feeling awe are more humble, and their sense of self diminishes, their sense of network expands, they become more altruistic. They have a quieting of self-interest and a turning to people around them.”

Keltner does, however, push back against some of Lotto’s interpretations. To begin with, he thinks Lotto’s definition of awe could be more precise. “We define awe as having two key appraisals, which is how we ascribe meaning to what we’re perceiving,” Keltner said. “The first is a sense of vastness that makes you feel small, and then the second is when you don’t understand what’s happening. That roughly maps onto what they’re describing, but it’s more parsimonious to rely on these appraisals. Surprise is its own distinct state; it’s different from awe.”

Moreover, he cautions against defining the functions of the prefrontal cortex and the default mode neural network too closely when interpreting these results. The default mode network, he notes, is associated with ruminative thinking, as Lotto says — but it’s also associated with memory and storytelling. That means that when awed spectators experience increased activity in their default mode network, they’re not necessarily thinking in new and divergent ways. “Maybe it’s like, ‘Oh, we’re at the circus, that’s making me think of a story,’” says Keltner.

Lotto argues that his results, which have not yet been peer-reviewed or published, show that awe is our brain’s way of handling uncertainty, which he sees as the greatest problem we face every day. “Every piece of data that your brain receives — every piece of light, every sound — is literally meaningless for your brain, because it conflates multiple things about the world. It doesn’t come with instructions,” he says. “So every living brain evolved to solve that fundamental problem of uncertainty. And what’s more, if you weren’t sure during evolution what was a predator, you died. So we literally evolved to hate uncertainty.”

But, Lotto says, we have to deal with uncertainty in order to make our way through the world. His theory is that awe is the mechanism we use to handle that uncertainty, to experience it constructively and then to step forward into life.

So when we are dazzled by the spectacle of live performance, when we are first shocked and then moved into wonder by an ambiguity our brains cannot quite resolve, when we find ourselves in the state of pleasurable overwhelm that is awe, Lotto thinks this is the result of our brains finding a way to deal with the great existential threat of uncertainty. We are startled out of controlling our brains, pushed into divergent thinking, and then we want to step forward, into the uncertainty.

For Cirque, the hope is that we will all be able to understand that attending a live show in general and a Cirque du Soleil show in particular will make us fundamentally better and more open-minded people, less anxious and less afraid of uncertainty. When a live show makes you cry in response to its spectacle, the thinking goes, it’s not just a weird physical phenomenon that happens regardless of your personal taste; instead, it is your mind coming face to face with uncertainty and staring it down, making you better and stronger in the process.

“This could be a fundamental route to creating openness in people,” Lotto argues: “awe mediated by live performance.”

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