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Feature - issue 5

The Human Cosmos

Words by Jo Marchant
Photography by Emilio Ramos

When NASA astronaut Chris Hadfield climbed out of the International Space Station for his first spacewalk in April 2001, it was the culmination of decades of training and preparation. A hard-headed, disciplined pilot, Hadfield had studied maths, physics, engineering and robotics. He had flown over 70 different types of aircraft. He had spent 50 full days practicing spacewalks in the pool. “I was completely technically prepared for what was going to happen,” he says. Yet in a sense, he wasn’t prepared at all.

When he first floated free in the vacuum of space, holding on to the spaceship with one hand, all thoughts of his mission - to prepare a 56-foot-long robotic arm for installation - temporarily left his head. Instead he was “attacked by raw beauty”. To his right was the velvet, bottomless bucket of the universe, stretching on forever and brimming with stars. And to his left, the whole world - an exploding kaleidoscope of colour - poured by. “I found it stupefying,” he said later. “It stops your thought.” Alone in his spacesuit, looking down on “six billion people and all of the history, all of the beauty and poetry and everything thatis human”, Hadfield says he learned something in that moment that a lifetime of books, lectures and calculations had been unable to teach:

“The power ofthe presence of the world, as told to me by my ability to see it.” Hadfield’s insight - the importance of his own ability to see the world - goes against the modern conviction that scientific observations and rational thought offer the best, if not the only, way to explore reality. In the western world at least, we have inexorably removed personal experience from our understanding of the universe. People once inhabited an enchanted (if sometimes terrifying) cosmos of myths and gods and spirits, in which meaning shaped reality and celestial events flowed through human lives and beliefs. Over the centuries, we have used a sieve of mathematical laws and equations to strain ourselves out of the stars.

There have always been those who fought against this trend, but overall the picture - the great achievement of science - is clear. We understand the universe as a separate external reality that exists regardless of how we perceive it: a physical realm that came into being billions of years before our ancestors first gazed at the sky and will continue for billions more after the last living creature is gone. Our knowledge of this universe now comes from measurements made by detectors and processed by computers, rather than any personal view ofthe sky. The approach has been breathtakingly successful.We can probe inside dust clouds; photograph impossibly distant galaxies; explore the afterglow of the big bang; detect minute ripples in the fabric of space-time. We can write an evidence-based account of how the universe exploded into being and make predictions about how it may end. It’s a privileged view of space that we are the first people ever to glimpse. By superseding our own eyes, we have achieved scientific insights and discoveries far beyond anything our mere senses could ever reach.

‘‘I found it stupefying... the power of the presence of the world, as told to me by my ability to see it.’’

— NASA astronaut Chris Hadfield

From a practical point of view too there’s no longer any need to actually look to the sky. Ancient societies relied on the wheeling heavens to guide the intimate workings of their lives, but satellite navigation systems now locate us at the click of a button, and digital clocks tell the time far more accurately than the sun ever could. Meanwhile, if we do happen to glance up, light pollution shrouds the view so effectively that we’ve forgotten what once was. Even the Milky Way, until a few decades ago a great river across the night sky, so bright that people saw stories in its shadows, is no longer visible at all to most people in Europe or the US.

From a data-gathering perspective,this erasure is inconvenient but not catastrophic - astronomers can build telescopes on remote mountaintops away from artificial lights, or send them into space. But is the data all that matters? Was there nothing more than numbers in our view of the stars? A few summers ago, on a feature assignment, I found myself in a tiny one-man tent, sheltering from a violent thunderstorm in the remote mountains of Mexico. When the rain finally stopped, I squeezed out into the night. I felt anxious and alone, until I looked up and was hit by a rush of adrenaline. Above me was a radiant, shimmering sea; an ocean of light that stretched not just from horizon to horizon but deep into forever.

For a brief moment, I was lifted up, connected, home. Thinking back, it isn’t the individual constellations I remember, or the planets, or even the glittering ribbon of the Milky Way. It is simply the sheer awesome power of the sky. In London, UK, where I live, the night sky is dull and dark with a neon orange glow, its emptiness broken by only a few struggling pinpricks of light. But here the veil was lifted, as if returning to me something that I hadn’t even known was lost. On this moonless night, it seemed there was no blackness at all. There was only silver. Only stars. Today, this is a view many of us rarely witness in full force, but writers through history give remarkably similar accounts of how they feel when looking up at the cosmos from Earth.

In the first century AD, the astronomer Ptolemy said that searching out the wheeling stars made him forget his mortality: “My feet no longer touch the earth, but side by side with Zeus himself, I take my fill of ambrosia, the food of the gods.” Nearly 2,000 years later, the Swiss philosopher and poet Henri-Frédéric Amiel lay on a nineteenth-century beach, his back against the sand, looking up to the night sky and through the Milky Way. The sight induced a reverie that was “grand and spacious, immortal, cosmogonic… when one reaches to the stars, when one owns the infinite!” Until a few years ago, scientists ignored this more human side of stargazing. Now, though, they’re fast realising that far from being merely aesthetic, direct contact with the cosmos can have profound, practical effects for our mental health, and how we choose to live.

One of the pioneers is Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley.After years spent studying negative emotions such as anger and fear, he wanted to investigate a positive aspect of human experience, something that could trigger powerful and long-lasting changes. He chose “awe”. In 2003, Keltner co-published scientists’ first working definition of this emotion, describing it as the feeling we get when confronted with something vast,that transcends our normal frame of reference and that we struggle to understand.

‘‘[One experiences reveries so] grand and spacious, immortal, cosmogonic… when one reaches to the stars, when one owns the infinite!’’

— Swiss philosopher and poet Henri-Frédéric Amiel.

It’s an emotion that combines amazement with an edge of fear, in which the force we confront is so huge it dwarfs us, or even threatens to consume us altogether. Whereas wonder, much loved by scientists, is more cognitive, often involving attempts to solve a puzzle, awe seems to block rational thought. It’s the moment we are forced to give in to mystery; when we acknowledge how much there is beyond us that we do not understand. According to Keltner, the vastness can be physical or conceptual, and there are many potential sources. Researchers have since been eliciting awe in volunteers using everything from dinosaur skeletons to tall trees.

But there’s nothing bigger than the cosmos. One of the most reliable methods to inspire awe is to show people photographs or videos of the starry sky. The results have been surprising. It turns out even mild awe, as triggered in lab experiments, can significantly change our mood and behaviour. First, looking at awe-inspiring images seems to break habitual patterns of thinking, making people more creative, and more interested in the world. There are also lasting effects on health and quality of life. Keltner’s team has found that after experiencing awe, people feel happier and less stressed, even weeks later. What’s even more interesting, though, is that awe seems to make us nicer people.

After feeling awe, volunteers become less worried about personal concerns and goals. Instead, in study after study, they describe themselves as feeling more connected to other people and the world. They make more ethical decisions, are more generous and are more likely to make sacrifices to help others. They care less about money but more about the environment.They feel as if they have more time. Researchers think that by expanding our attention to encompass the bigger picture, awe shrinks our sense of self. In 2017, Keltner found that after feeling awe, people signed their names smaller and drew themselves smaller.

In 2019, neuroscientists in the Netherlands reported that watching awe-inspiring videos quiets activity in the brain’s “default mode network”, thought to relate to our sense of self. “Awe produces a vanishing self,” Keltner told me. “The voice in your head disappears.” As a consequence, we feel more connected to a greater whole: society, Earth, even the universe. Awe research chimes with recent explorations of transcendent states, where people feel at one with the cosmos, as triggered for example by spiritual experiences or psychedelic drugs. Neuroscientists at Imperial College London led by Robin Carhart-Harris have been scanning the brains of volunteers high on psilocybin and LSD and found that these drugs reduce activity in the default mode network, just as awe does, an effect that correlates with a sense of boundlessness, and loss of self. “My feeling is that it’s the same thing,” Carhart-Harris told me. “Psychedelics are hijacking a natural system and fast-tracking people to these experiences of awe.

‘‘Psychedelics are hijacking a natural system and fast-tracking people to these experiences of awe.’

— Robin Carhart-Harris, neuroscientist at Imperial College London.

The results of these studies, then, help to explain what’s happening in the brain not just when people trip on drugs, but when they gaze at the stars, connect with nature, meditate, or travel into space. As well as reduced sense of self, the boundaries between normally segregated bits of the brain break down, boosting creativity and flexible thinking. In fact, Carhart-Harris and others suggest such states may help to reverse rigid thought patterns that we develop throughout our lives. Young children are highly adaptable but as we mature into adulthood our identity hardens, and our thoughts and behaviours congeal into well-worn paths.

Prescribed patterns are efficient, but they reduce the capacity for new ideas and can be harmful, as in depression, when people become trapped in ruts of negative thought. Carhart-Harris suggests awe can loosen those chains. The traditional scientific view, which underpins our modern society, is that our rational, waking consciousness gives the most accurate and useful view of reality, whether our immediate surroundings or the cosmos as a whole. From business and politics to medicine and education, we tend to trust and prioritise rational thought. Meanwhile we dismiss awe and wonder as childish, and discount transcendent states as a meaningless distortion.

But this picture is turning out to be flawed. The research suggests that instead we should see different conscious states as more like a dial, in which our perception is highly filtered at one end, versus a broadband stream at the other. Having narrow filters in place gives us a strong sense of self. It allows us to focus on details, think logically and engage efficiently with the physical world. The expanded awareness of awe and transcendence, however, injects flexibility, creativity and connection. We grasp a bigger reality, look beyond narrow daily concerns and make decisions that not only make us happier as individuals, but also sustain the planet and work for the benefit of humanity as a whole.

Today, our focus on smartphones and screens rather than the broader horizons of nature means awe is disappearing; we’re rarely forced to confront the fear of the vast unknown. In 2015, Keltner warned “awe deprivation” is changing us: “People have become more individualistic, more self-focused, more materialistic and less connected to others.” There are different ways to balance the dial - experts suggest everything from engaging with nature and the arts to mindfulness meditation and immersing ourselves in virtual reality. Above all, I think we should fight to preserve the biggest, most mind-blowing experience out there, central to human existence for millennia but now fading fast: the starry sky. Contemplating the stars doesn’t necessarily teach us any new facts. It is of even greater value, because it allows us to think differently about what we know.

Excerpts from Jo Marchant’s book The Human Cosmos: A Secret History of the Stars (Canongate).

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