Part 1: High on Awe
(Watch this first: https://youtu.be/VkV2nx6fRTA)
I’ve been bitten by a bug. It looks a lot like love and, like love, this has turned me into a bit of a crazy person (assuming that watching the same video dozens of times is … well … a bit off). But it isn’t love. It’s AWE. Like love, awe has uplifting and connecting properties. It can make us feel at one with the universe and agape at its beauty. Unlike love, it has no negative side effects or outcomes. Today, I’ll expound upon the merits of awe and the genius of the Foundation material that activated my awe circuits. And next week, I’ll teach you how to activate your own awe-some experiences on demand.
There are thousands of professional and amateur critics busy arguing the success or failure of Apple TV’s new series, Foundation. I’m happy to leave the job of dissecting this stunning work of art to them. My own attention is riveted on the title sequence – the initial 82 seconds of the show.
This little piece of wonder leaves me euphoric. I’ve been experimenting with psychedelics lately: For me, this free, legal high, delivered in a quick hit, is far better. Why? I’m tapping into the experience of awe – the most underrated and unacknowledged happiness emotion. The scientific study of awe is relatively new, but here’s what we know so far: Awe is easy to generate, readily available, and a viable mental health intervention that can be self-administered.
What is Awe?
Simply put, awe is an emotional state in which we experience the presence of something vast – something that transcends our normal understanding of the world. This can be found in nature, art, a brilliant idea, or an impressive feat, including acts of great skill or virtue.
Panoramic views, stunning sunsets, remarkable human accomplishments, great works of architecture, art, and music all have the power to evoke feelings of awe. Each of these experiences push us outside of our daily experience, challenging our assumptions and even the bounds of reality. When contemplating them we may feel small, insignificant, and yet connected with the world around us, in touch with something greater than ourselves. Time seems to expand as we are immersed in the present moment, detached from our normal, mundane concerns. In this way, the experience of awe is closely related to transcendental experiences often described by experienced meditators and psychonauts (psychedelic aficionados).
Awe may be a basic human emotion, meaning that it is seen in all cultures, manifested by recognizable facial expressions and physiological changes. These characteristics are important because they require presence, stimulate pleasure, and can actually be used to self-generate sensations of awe – something we’ll talk about in detail next week. For now, know that we can observe awe as it’s happening and use these physical manifestations as a tool for igniting awe.
Readable awe characteristics include:
- wide eyes
- jaws dropping
- raised eyebrows
- deep inhalations
- physiological arousal
- enhanced visual perception
- goosebumps shivers, chills, release of energy
As I watched Foundation’s title sequence, I felt chills running up and down my spine, my eyes were wide and glued to the screen and my heart rate quickened. These were the awe alerts that insisted I attend to the moment. I’ve held viewings of this title sequence on Zoom and had the distinct pleasure of watching everyone plunge into awe, displaying many of these characteristics. Observing this also served to deepen my own experience. I was in awe of the impact of awe.
Whether awe is a basic emotion or something more complex, awe—our capacity for deep pleasure in facing the incredible and trying to take it all in—may reflect a basic need to understand the world in which we live.
There are three realms of awe: sensorial, conceptual, and interrelational/transcendent. Let’s learn about the art of the title sequence and examine how Foundation’s title sequence activated all three realms.
The Awe-Inspiring Title Sequence of the Asimov Science Fiction Epic, Foundation
Note: Don’t be concerned if you don’t react to this work of art the way I do. What ignites awe is specific to each individual. But I urge you to continue reading. This example is useful as a model of the transformation of a simple event into a transcendent experience. Understanding this process will help you discover your own awe-generators.
A title sequence (also called the ‘intro’ or ‘opening sequence’) is essentially a mini-film before the episode that credits the cast and key members of the production team using visual concepts and sound. It can be an extraordinary art form in its own right. Because title sequences for television series are repeated at the beginning of every episode, they’re highly memorable and distinctive and help to establish a show’s identity.
Your familiarity with title sequences might begin and end with the invitation to skip them, as prompted by your streaming service.
Netflix: Skip intro?
Lyssa: Not a chance.
In this particular title sequence, all three realms of awe are elicited through multiple mediums. In exploring the visual imagery, the score, and even the font, we can experience the intricacy of both this work of art and the realms of awe in action.
Foundation’s title sequence was produced by Imaginary Forces*. Creative Director Ronnie Koff described its development: “The inspiration behind the title sequence is from the trilogy’s historical narrative of the galactic empire. In the Foundation novels, the process of recording history is through ‘The Mural of Souls,’ which is used simultaneously as the future, past, and present record for the galactic empire…We took this initial creative concept and ran with it, transforming a 2D mural into a vivid 3D animated design scape.” The Mural of Souls is perpetually in motion as future, past, and present morph, and Koff was able to capture this on film!!!
The visual effects are simply stunning, activating the sensorial awe circuits instantly. Rich and royal colors delight the senses. Paints that appear to be grains of metallic sand weave together and apart – flowing images that disintegrate and reintegrate, diverge and converge, depicting the dance of time. Textures jump off the flatscreen and can be viscerally “felt.” This is literally impossible. Hence, the awe effect of this piece is not simply sensorial. It is transcendent.
Another Asimov invention that infuses this mini-masterpiece is the fictional science of psychohistory. Psychohistory combines history, sociology, and mathematical statistics to make general predictions about the future behavior of very large groups of people. It is the science that predicts the fall of the Galactic Empire. This fictional science was the basis for Bear McCreary’s expansive score.
“Inspired by the ‘psychohistory’ of the source material, I wanted to incorporate mathematics into the score. Using custom computer software, I crafted an ‘orchestra’ of sampled instruments playing dazzling patterns of algorithmically generated musical notes that would be virtually impossible for human beings to play.”
The score makes my heart leap. And so does this quote. Observe the language. The words, “dazzling patterns” evokes in me a vivid sensory experience. This phrase instantly engages my imagination, sparking internal sounds and images. There’s an alien, other-worldly quality to the music precisely because it is a joint effort between humans and machines. Humans can’t play this piece alone. It is sensorial and transcendent at its core.
(see Bear at work in the official music video)
The beauty of these dreamscapes elicits primal sensations and, along with music that resonates at a visceral level, we are fully-baked in multi-sensorial awe. Sight, sound, touch, and movement are all activated.
And then there’s the glorious font.
The tilting quality of the ‘A’ and the ‘N’ suggest the off-balance status of the Foundation universe. The Empire will fall. Will humans survive?
The ‘U’ is narrow, just as individuals are narrow in the grand scheme of things. Psychohistory is unable to fathom the individual and is only able to predict the future of the collective. One little letter captures the major flaw of Psychohistory.
The ‘O’ slays me. What is the deeper meaning of the dot within the circle? Is this the spec of dust that we humans are, within the expanse of the endless universe? And why does the dot appear in one ‘O’ and not the other? Does this symbolize human extinction?
Now, you may (reasonably) ask, “How can someone be emotionally impacted by a font?” Well, as with all artistic endeavors, not everyone will be affected. But for me, this font elicited multiple realms of awe. There’s the sensorial beauty of the thing (OMG, it’s dripping sands of metallic gold paint!). And then, there’s the way it sends my mind skittering with curiosity and questions and analysis and wonder. This is the conceptual realm, with my primary question being: What does this mean? Which leads into the interrelational/transcendent realm, as I wonder, “Where do humans fit in the scheme of things?” I also took the time to research the font, find a knock-off, and learn how to add it to my website’s font collection. These efforts extended and deepened the awe-interaction.
Have another look at the title. What does it elicit in you?
The third realm of awe is interrelational/transcendent, which typically derives from connecting with other people and animals. While the title sequence isn’t technically interactive, we get a flavor of connection. This piece conveys the epic grandeur of larger-than-life heroes and villains – individuals with the destiny of the human race in the palm of their hands.
These archetypes are primal, ancestral. On some level, we all know we’re interconnected and that our fates are linked. If we ever had doubts, they’ve been decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Everything affects everyone, if only we care to see.
germ + aerosol = a disease that circles the globe.
This piece carries the story of humankind through space and time. It connects me with humans past, present, and future, in our struggle to survive and flourish.
These interrelational awe aspects are imaginal. Weaving what I see with what I think about what I see (metacognition), I construct ideas about humanity and enter the conceptual realm of awe.
There is a more direct link on the interrelational level as well. I’m awed by the talent that created this masterpiece – their storytelling capacity, technical prowess, and artistry. This is truly a remarkable human accomplishment by artists and technicians who were able to fully engage my mind and spirit. Then consider all the people I’ve since shared this experience with – all those minds blown! This is why time is, and never was a constant: 82 seconds has expanded to encompass all these experiences. This is the transcendence made possible by awe-inspiring great works.
The power of Foundation’s title sequence is its simultaneous strike on all three realms of awe. The combination of sensorial, conceptual, and interrelational/transcendent aspects of awe in an 82-second shot is especially powerful.
But my awegasm from this piece goes quite a bit deeper and broader. First, I experienced a profound level of intellectual stimulation. I needed to understand how this piece managed to affect me so profoundly. In other words, I wanted to learn!
Questions like, “How did Imaginary Forces use cinematographic tools to engage my senses?” scampered around my brain. I could practically feel the neurochemical messengers racing around my neural circuitry, firing up the synapses. This was (and is) a deeply pleasurable experience for me – the joy of immersion in a new learning destination. And this continues as I further investigate the art of the title sequence.
This piece also reignited the existential inquiry that often accompanies my meditation teachings. As I watch images, painted in sand, first appear solid and then disintegrate, I wonder, “How fixed is any object? Where does it end and where do I begin?” A sense of the enormity of the universe (both The Empire’s and my own) is stirred as I try to reconcile the view of both tiny and enormous objects on the screen. This piece presents a perspective that we rarely find in real life. There is joy in recognizing how tiny we are in the midst of the enormity of what we can accomplish.
More than anything, this piece aroused a deep sense of connection that I can only compare with “the love drug” – MDMA (otherwise known as Ecstasy or Molly). Both awe and MDMA decrease activity in the brain’s ‘default mode network,’ the system responsible for self-referential thought, and increase systemic availability of oxytocin, the hormone/neurotransmitter that generates loving feelings toward others. That’s the neuroscience of it. My actual experience was that I needed to share this title sequence with everyone. And I did. Joining others as they watched the video tapped into a deep well of joy for me.
I’ve mentioned joy three times now and this is particularly noteworthy. I’m not prone to this emotion and it’s something I rarely experience. Unlike awe, joy isn’t an emotion that’s easy to self-generate. This experience of awe provided a route to joy for me, making it even more awe-some.
At this point, I realize that I’ve begun to approach the title sequence – and the emotions it generates – as something sacred. I will continue to watch it with awe and joy until those emotions fizzle. In How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan states that awe, “… experiences can’t readily be interpreted according to our accustomed frames of thought… By rocking those conceptual frameworks, awe has the power to change our minds.” This title sequence did change my mind, and much for the better. Who can argue with an 82-second, legal, easy-to-acquire hit of joy-inducing awe.
* Another of my favorites from Imaginary Forces is Stranger Things – it’s just so brilliantly 80’s retro neon.