Last week, a one-year-old Hawaiian monk seal swallowed a large fishhook. As a result, F28, as his flipper tags read, was loaded into an oversized dog carrier. He hardly fought it. In his transport crate, he looked quite small and extremely tired. Quickly, another team whisked him off in the back of a truck to the Lihue airport where the endangered marine mammal caught a flight on a U.S. Coast Guard C-130 to O’ahu. I’m pretty sure he bypassed TSA completely. Lucky dog.
Meanwhile, a team of scientists and a marine mammal veterinarian prepared to perform surgery. But, after x-rays, they decided to first try removing the hook using an endoscope that they threaded down the seal’s throat. And it worked. Three-and-a-half hours after starting the procedure, Dr. Gregg Levine pulled a nearly two-inch-long hook out of F28’s broad mouth—to loud cheers and, no doubt, a ripple of horripilation throughout the room.
Horripilation: a very scientific-sounding term for when the muscles surrounding hair follicles contract, causing hair to rise. You may call it “goose bumps.” In Hawaii, we use the term, “chicken skin” for this physiological response.
When faced with a threat, many nonhuman mammals horripilate to make them look bigger and less vulnerable. In those instances, horripilation serves as a survival strategy. But horripilation in nonhuman animals can also serve as its own threat or warning, as when the fur along my dog’s back rises when she meets another dog. Then, horripilation is about hierarchy.
I know only a few men—I won’t name names—who can increase their shirt size through horripilation alone. Most of us just don’t have enough hair on our bodies, nor is it long enough, to make a visual difference in our appearance. So, what purpose does this physiological reactions serve in humans, if any?
New research by psychologists Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner suggests that the kinds of chicken skin moments in humans induced by awe motivate us to act in ways for the greater good of all.
Awe: An overwhelming feeing of reverence, admiration, or wonder produced by that which is grand, sublime, or powerful.
In one experiment, Piff and Keltner asked people how much awe they experienced in their lives on a regular basis. Later in the study, they gave each person 10 lottery tickets. The people could keep all the tickets or give some with another unidentified person who had not received any. “We found that participants who reported experiencing more awe in their lives, who felt more regular wonder and beauty in the world around them, were more generous to the stranger. They gave approximately 40 percent more of their tickets away than did participants who were awe-deprived.
The key element here is awe. Let’s ponder some experiences that create awe in our lives. Like the time Lola the Humpback whale breached for two nonstop hours beside my boat. Or the way dappled sunlight slipped through a forest of koa trees at sunset on Hawai‘i Island when I was birdwatching over there a couple years ago.
And last Friday when F28 returned to Kauai–this time, on a helicopter. The little dude knows how to travel. A few of his friends gathered at the very beach where he was born a year ago to release him back into the wild. We watched as he emerged from his transport carrier, glanced around—as if to say, “Are you done prodding me?”—and galumphed for the water, where he spends two-thirds of his life sliding through the seas in search of goodies to fill his belly.
That was a chicken skin moment, for sure. I hope F28’s got a big, fat tako (octopus) stuck to his face right now. Those eight-legged critters are good eating for a monk seal.
Awe, according to Piff and Keltner, draws us out our of out individualistic, ego selves and into a collective one. In the New York Times, the duo wrote, “In still other studies, we have sought to understand why awe arouses altruism of different kinds. One answer is that awe imbues people with a different sense of themselves, one that is smaller, more humble and part of something larger. Our research finds that even brief experiences of awe, such as being amid beautiful tall trees, lead people to feel less narcissistic and entitled and more attuned to the common humanity people share with one another.”
Rightly or wrongly, here’s what I’ve deduced from the study: Awe-inspired chicken skin moments can save the world. So, go. Get more awe. Now.