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On awe

Hanna Negami (B.A.) is a graduate student at the Urban Realities Lab. You can read more about her and her work here.

1. Can you tell us about your role in the Urban Realities Lab, and how long you have been involved?

I’m a graduate student starting my third year in the lab. I completed my undergrad at Brandeis University in Massachusetts before applying for a combined masters/PhD program at the University of Waterloo. I’m currently writing my master’s thesis at Dr. Ellard’s lab.

2. What lead you to focus your research interests on environment and cognition?

I’ve always been interested in psychology – and when I was at Brandeis I took a couple of architectural theory courses which I found really interesting. When I was applying to grad programs, I already knew I wanted to do something in neuroaesthetics which is at the intersection of neuroscience, art, and aesthetic experience. One way I thought I could apply that was seeing how we respond to built spaces.

3. I’m interested in hearing more about your work on awe in response to built spaces; can you elaborate on that?

Much of the psychological research that focuses on awe is done on natural spaces, and their capacity to evoke a sense of awe. You definitely feel awe when you encounter something beautiful or witness a vast landscape, however they are by no means the only stimulus that can evoke awe. Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt defined awe in a 2003 paper as an emotion that you can experience when you encounter something that is vast, so that can be due a number of features, for example size or scale. Something that makes you reappraise your existing mental models. You have to incorporate this new experience into your existing understanding of the world.

4. What kind of outcome is associated with awe, psychologically-speaking?

It’s mostly positive, but there can also be a tinge of fear associated, interestingly. It could be due to the ‘unknown’ that’s associated with something that vast, like when one observes the ocean.

5. What are you interested in exploring in the future?

My master’s project is on how built space can create awe, but another project I want to pursue is how people perceive and interact with public spaces, how people distinguish public from private spaces and what makes a public space ‘public’. But trying to get at that from a psychological or cognitive point of view. I’m looking forward to finding a way to observe that.

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