Rex Basterfield’s piece on undue awe provokes several reactions in me. I long ago realized that people often follow rituals – including psychotherapy rituals – in the hope that they will achieve heightened emotions. We can become stuck to practices and beliefs in the hope that we will be able to revisit earlier experiences of awe.

Any ritual can invoke a special space in the mind. In neurological terms, this might be reduced to dopamine production: dopamine is the ‘reward’ chemical, released during pleasurable activity of all kinds. If you add a little serotonin to the mix, then you have a genuine bliss state.

Freud believed that human activity is driven by libido – the urge for sexual activity (and Thanatos – the death-wish), but more accurately, we are driven by the urge for dopamine release. Researchers long ago showed that dopamine is produced during drug and alcohol use, and when gambling – so it isn’t all about sex! It might also be true that many religious mystics seek to damp down and overcome the desire-driven urges of normal life, which is to say: to quiet the dopamine system.

I too have long pondered the nature of awe in religion. The oldest human settlements contain shrines where ancestral bones were stored (and probably revered with awe). The first cities center on temples – until skyscrapers took over as the biggest buildings. Julian Jaynes argued that our ancestors heard the voices of their gods and acted in accordance with their wishes. This may or may not be true, but there is a special place in the human mind for awe.

I’m not sure that the builders of great cathedrals had a cynical motivation. I grew up in the cathedral city of Lichfield, so medieval buildings seem normal to me (strangeness can induce more awe, I suspect).

I recently had the good fortune to visit Paris. The last time I was there, Notre Dame cathedral was a rather frightening soot-stained monstrosity; now, it almost shines, it is so clean. It is some time since I realized that these remarkable buildings must have been very different when they were brand new: the colored light, the beauty of choral sung polyphony, the overwhelming vision of heaven and serenity that these magnificent structures offered. In our more secular times, we might think of the impact of a huge, new shopping mall, but with the glory of God, rather than the glorification of commerce, at its heart.

Of course, in the Gothic era there were neither architects nor composers: the master masons often worked over generations to construct a cathedral, and later masons at times had to shore up the errors of their predecessors (the flying buttress probably came into being to support existing structures, long before the Gothic period). Hundreds of remarkable choir masters adapted existing tunes – often, like the homme armé mass, secular in origin – to fit to the words of the catholic mass; they did not ‘compose’ as such.

There was a motivation for those who contributed financially: monks would sing masses for the deceased, to shorten their time in purgatory. Time or money spent on a cathedral might be converted into heavenly favor. The purchase of such “indulgences” was a significant cause of the Protestant reformation: money previously spent on masses and buildings had been reduced to documentation.

It may be that there were manipulative notions in the minds of those great artists, but it seems more likely that sometimes corrupt clerics commissioned these magnificent works of art with ulterior motives. I believe, for the most part, that the endeavor has been an honest attempt to glorify God (or, in polytheistic temples, gods) and to stimulate dopamine production as a way of sharing a mystical experience. However, we now know that dopamine production is not a good measure of either reality or truth.

As my colleague Yuval Laor has shown in his work, when we are in a state of awe, we often mistakenly attribute all-round genius to the person who offered us the awe-producing technique. In fact, awe can be inspired by following repetitive or fixing routines – for instance, staring at a wall or another person’s face – that have been borrowed by some cult leader from an existing tradition.

As with cult experiences, it is important to realize that awe is inside us – it isn’t actually generated by the scale, the skill, the celebrity, the beauty, or a sense of the miraculous, but by our response to these stimuli.

Sadly, much contemporary fine art does not inspire awe, rather derision or amusement. But exceptional architecture is still being made. I rather hope that great artists will continue to produce awe-inspiring work, no matter what their motivation!

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Jon’s new book? Do you have a story about awe that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!