Back to the F**kture: Dacher Keltner

type - podcast
How can we use the power of everyday awe to prime innovation or create heightened levels of wellbeing? In his latest Back to The F**kture podcast episode with professor Dacher Keltner, The Future Laboratory’s co-founder, Martin Raymond, finds out. 


Awe isn’t just a feeling of being in the presence of something that transcends our current understanding of the world, Keltner tells me in my latest podcast chat. ‘It is a state of liminality that fuels innovation and sparks those moments scientists and creatives alike sometimes refer to as ‘transformative leaps’.’

Think Darwin and evolution, Einstein and relativity, Newton and Descartes on the physics of rainbows and you have awe at heart of it, he believes. The sheer fear, vastness and incomprehensibility of these subjects releases a series of chemicals in our brain – serotonin and dopamine in particular – that induce feelings of transcendence, which in turn allows us to think differently – and profoundly so.

But as Keltner discovered as faculty director of the Greater Good Science Center and in his psychology work at the University of California, awe isn’t exclusively triggered by encountering those vast mysteries that we don’t understand; it’s about retuning our brains – and the trigger mechanisms for creativity and innovation – to ‘the transformative power of everyday wonder’.

‘I think one of the central discoveries that led to the writing of the book,’ Dacher tells me on Back to the F**kture, ‘is that when we think about awe, we often think of the Northern Lights and Grand Canyons and Taj Mahals, but in point of fact, in different parts of the world, our studies show that people feel awe a couple of times a week – a leaf fall from a tree, children laughing in duets, light shining in shadows on the ground.

‘We've gathered data from 26 countries, both on what produces awe and on the subjective qualities of it. Does it involve the chills? There’s a lot of overlap. There are eight wonders that trigger awe: people's moral beauty, nature, collective effervescence, visual design, music, art, spirituality, and big ideas and epiphanies.’

These moments, he suggests, are so common, deep, universal and transformative that they offer us insights into how and why The Awe Economy, as we’ve defined it, needs to be driven by cultural metrics and initiatives rather than commercial ones.

But Keltner also believes that awe can be used to reset our brains in ways that improve wellbeing and make our emotions more robust and agile. This is especially vital when it comes to taking on the challenges scattered in our path from fallout health and wellness issues driven by the pandemic and global economic and political uncertainty. 

Published by:

1 June 2023

Author: Martin Raymond



Left: Rhona Ezuma. Right: Riding Dreams, Body Movements Issue, Ph. Megan Eagles.

It is also crucial to understanding how we can develop more creative, collaborative and transformative approaches to work, which we explore in our Work States Futures macrotrend. But the power of awe shouldn’t stop there. When it comes to designing our future hospitals, schools, hybrid workplaces or tech labs, awe’s role and positioning is vital.

Awe, in the final analysis, should still fill us with a sense of mystery and wonder about the world we live in. We should still be asking ourselves: ‘What is the end of awe?’ It is its unifying purpose. ‘Why? Because it integrates us into the systems of life – communities, collectives, the natural environments and forms of culture such as music, art and religion and our minds’ efforts to make sense of all its web of ideas,’ says Keltner. The world in other words, and how we need to come to terms with it.

Awe: The Transformative Power of Everyday Wonder by Dacher Keltner is published by Allen Lane. 

Tune in to the podcast on Audioboom, Spotify, Apple.