Research, Mind & body, Berkeley Voices

After Thoughts: Dacher Keltner on the science of awe and psychedelics

By Anne Brice

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Dacher Keltner, faculty director of the Greater Good Science Center and a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, discusses how our sense of self goes silent while experiencing awe and while using psychedelics.

After Thoughts is a series that highlights moments from Fiat Vox interviews that didn’t make it into the final episode. This excerpt is from an interview with Keltner featured in Fiat Vox episode #68: “Building community one person at a time.”

Kelter is also the host of the Science of Happiness podcast , for which guests try a practice that research has shown increases happiness, connection and well-being.

A photo of Dacher Keltner standing in a beam of sunlight.

Dacher Keltner is the faculty director of the Greater Good Science Center, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley. (UC Berkeley photo)

Read a transcript of “After Thoughts: Dacher Keltner on the science of awe and psychedelics”:

[Music: “Friction Model” by Blue Dot Sessions ]

Dacher Keltner: My lab, the Berkeley Social Interaction Lab , for 25 years has been trying to map what our emotions are — in the face, in the voice, in the brain, in genetics, in peripheral physiology, the nervous system below the brainstem.

And my lab mates and I started to realize that this realm of awe and bliss and ecstasy and aesthetic emotion, the chills you get listening to music or the tears you experience when you see an activist who really moves you, no one had really mapped those. So, we’re far along on mapping awe, and it is an incredible emotion.

One of the striking findings in the new science of psychedelics, which Michael Pollan has wonderfully written about in How to Change Your Mind … They started to go in search of the soul and the brain when you’re on psychedelics. And it turns out what happens is this part of your brain called the default mode network, which is parts of your cortex that really look at the world through an egocentric lens, shuts down. So, in some sense, awe is enabled when our self shuts down, which is true to the experience.

And that’s what happens, so far what we know, in awe, which is if I’m feeling awe looking at nature, the default mode network goes quiet, regions that are associated with moral reward are activated. So, importantly, what happens in the brain is your self becomes silent.

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