Why this photo is so important

Humans are hard wired to react to certain things in certain ways. We love linear narratives, also known as stories, and when situations or events become disjointed, we often lose interest, almost like they’re too much work for our brains to process.

Images can also elicit a strong group response. Sometimes an image evokes a feeling without a story being attached to it. We can fill in the blanks ourselves.

1016152029_42a69f11eaAnd sometimes we collectively find ourselves in horrific awe when we learn about the backstory attached to an already upsetting image.

walter-palmer-lion-NOT-CecilAnd thanks to a section in our human brains called the right supramarginal gyrus, we are also capable of empathy and a shared understanding of predicaments and emotions experienced by others in far away places, even if circumstances are presented to us with minimal storytelling…
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If you’ve seen the video on YouTube of yosemitebear62 as he comes upon a double rainbow and allows himself to just be in awe of such natural beauty, you probably know what I mean.

I recently posted this image of a throng of Austrians ready and waiting to help Syrian refugees fleeing their war torn country for a better life in Europe.
austriaThis, on the heels of the photo of little Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body being taken out of the waters where he and his brother and mother drowned while attempting their own escape from Syria.
syrian-refugee-boy-turkey-2Some of my readers lamented that negative and hostile comments were posted to that photo of the Austrians waiting to help the refugees. I see that kind of reverse, or anti-social reaction in a lot of things. It feels pretty counter intuitive to me. I don’t know why people can either pretend to be, or actually be so cold except that it’s possibly a defense mechanism.

I’ve been thinking about the sort of heartfelt response elicited from that Austrian photo, and I think it can be explained by something I recently read in Scientific American magazine  which discussed the importance of the feeling of “awe.” Not surprisingly, the raw, basic emotions evoked by stories and images like those mentioned above effectively erase superficial and artificial constructs which can make us all feel separate. By stripping away the manufactured layers and attributes which we believe make us special and different, we level the playing field and rejoin our tribe.

Research continues to show that when we relate to, and empathize with, other people and living creatures on a very basic and primitive level, if we allow it to happen, we become better, more moral people. In scientific terms, it’s called prosocial behavior. We express more empathy, we understand that we are all part of something bigger than ourselves, and we begin to cooperate and be kinder and more understanding towards one another. Although the Scientific American article doesn’t go this far, I’d venture a guess that this is why things go “viral.” I think that in an increasingly complex and undecipherable world, we evolved apes, all of us from Africa, yearn (crave?) for a “fix” of what it feels like to again be part of our “group.”  Such in-group behavior is an evolutionary bias that made survival of our species more likely.

Suffice to say that on an overpopulated planet, increasingly experiencing catastrophic shortages of precious resources (leading to destabilization of political, social, and economic order), the concept of “awe” can be a litmus test, of sorts, for what’s coming down the pike. I’d go so far as to say that each and every one of us should exercise our “awe muscle” because the next few decades are going to test the strength of our shared humanity like nothing else.

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