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

“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.”

Neuroscience defines awe as: first there is surprise, then comes a sense of wonder and a desire to understand the surprise.

Cirque du Critteres by Peggy

A group of neuroscientists, artists, and technologists at Lab of Misfits, an experimental research lab, looked at what happens in people’s brains as they watched a Cirque du Soleil show. They recruited 282 members of the audience and put EEG caps on 60 of them.

 The caps measured neurological responses during the show.

  • The moment the audience member reported experiencing awe, brain activity in their prefrontal cortexes (The part of the brain that is in charge of “executive function”, which makes plans and decisions.) decreased. They were not focusing, but were taking in what was happening. 
  • Simultaneously, activity increased in the part of the brain that is active when you are daydreaming or imagining. (The part associated with creative thinking).

The audience recruits who did not wear the caps were given several test, some before the show, some after and asked to rate the awe they felt during the show.  Those who experienced awe reported:

Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology and director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley who studies awe:

 “We’ve got a lot of findings in that vein. 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.”

“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.

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