May 4, 2021
In Fall 2020, Neuroscientist Dr. Virginia Sturm announced the results of a new scientific study that showed that going on 15 minute awe-walks could promote brain health in healthy older adults. As someone who researches emotions, Dr. Sturm’s goal was to tap into the emotion of awe—an emotion akin to childlike wonder—to offer individuals an accessible, affordable way to live healthier lives. These kinds of research studies are exciting as they don’t involve expensive pills or technology, but simply teach people how to tap into certain emotions and activities that can help produce feelings of wellbeing.
As someone who has been working in recent years to build productive bridges between the arts and the health sciences, Jennie started wondering how applied, ethnographic and arts-based research methods might be able to encourage more people to engage in awe walking. It seemed an appropriate project for exploring encounters between arts, ethnography and pedagogy as she felt artistic and ethnographic tools might help teach more people about the benefits of awe walking. She noticed that Sturm’s study, designed as a randomized controlled trial that focused on outcomes, had little room for sharing the sensory experiences of the awe-walks themselves. If people were inspired by the idea of awe walks, perhaps there could be ways to encourage more awe walking by drawing on the creative documentation of the walks themselves. Joined by graduate students from the Applied Intercultural Arts Research Program she runs at the the University of Arizona, Jennie and her team spent the last few months testing out different ways to craft bridges between awe walks and different forms of creative engagement and creative documentation.
Initially, we started the project thinking about how we—the researchers—could use artistic and ethnographic methods to document and reflect on our own awe walks. Our idea was to craft narratives about awe walks using art and words. For our first tryout, we went on weekly awe walks guided by predetermined themes (light, texture, color). Each week we documented our walks using photography and then we shared our favorite photos with each other on a WhatsApp group. Our thought was that then we would take the photos and reflect on them through writing as well, adding narratives to our documentation and walking processes.
After those first weeks, we realized quickly that what was most engaging about our assignment was the spontaneous sharing of images with one another. It was fun to receive WhatsApp messages with images of light, color, and/or texture and it also encouraged us to go on more walks. It was also fun to send them as it felt like sending little gifts to brighten each other’s days. Our images often entered into conversation with each other as well, allowing us to communicate through imagery in compelling and engaging ways. We did find some time to sit and write reflections, but agreed that the most productive use of our time was the walking and sharing of images, more than the written narrations. Finding time to sit and write about our walks sometimes felt tedious and more lonely and somehow distanced from the spontaneous energy of fleeting moments of awe documented and shared in little digital snapshots. It was harder to know who we were writing these reflections for, whereas with the photos, their relevance and purpose seemed obvious.
Realizing the potential of creating social connections by sharing awe imagery, our interests shifted away from just documenting awe walks for ourselves. Instead, we began thinking about how creative approaches to documenting and sharing moments of awe could be used to teach others to use enhance their own awe walking experiences and to engage with each other around the positive emotion of awe. This shift aligns with the goals of the Applied Intercultural Arts Research program that seeks to train graduate students with tools that can be used to implement community-based arts initiatives that draw on the arts to address diverse social issues.
Wanting to push the envelope of creativity beyond photography— and in response to some team members wanting to move away from the impulse to always document with their phones—we spent the next few weeks giving ourselves assignments to go on awe walks and then produce something artistic. First we collected a single image to turn into a Zen Tangle, an approach used in art therapy brought to us by Sydney. Next, Rebecca—who has since left our team due to too many commitments—sent us out to collect objects and turn those into something artistic. As creative individuals interested in adding more arts-based practices to our lives, these prompts were fun and fulfilling for us to follow, although they did require extra time to produce the artwork. When discussing this as a group we found that in many ways, art making and awe walking produced complementary feelings of wellness. They each gave us opportunities to relax and focus on something beyond our daily tasks. The only downside was that in making art, we sometimes felt we became critical of our own artistic abilities, which took away from the positive and wellness-inducing goals of the practice. Finding the time to do extra art projects we also recognized to be potentially challenging if working in larger groups of people with different schedules and amounts of free time.
Next, we introduced the Encounters group to awe walks by asking everyone to go on a walk and then leading a zen tangle exercise on Zoom. After a year of talking heads on Zoom we found that being on Zoom together doing art felt quite enjoyable and it was fun to see the results of the artwork produced. We received similar comments from some of our participants afterwards as we collected all the images via email. Since we established a determined time for this event, it did not add time consuming homework to participants weeks, but instead contained the assignment within a given time frame that was shared. In our feedback discussion on this exercise, Anna asked us what our research project had to do with ethnography. Reflecting on this question, we discussed how our methods were in fact deeply informed by Jennie’s background in sensory and visual ethnographic research, Sydney’s familiarity with art therapy techniques, and our shared interest in using the arts to encourage positive social change through applied projects.
What is tricky about our project in the context of Anna’s question is that of course the things we are observing and documenting are largely nature walks and not people—commonly the object of ethnographic study. We had also moved away from the auto-ethnographic approach we had started the project with back in December when we stopped doing as much reflective writing. Nonetheless, the way we had been going about talking about our project was deeply informed by ethnographic ways of thinking. We were setting out on walks using a specific methodology that included close observation of our senses and surroundings, and also how best to use artistic modalities to evoke senses of awe from the moment in a way that could be shared with others. This is very much at the heart of the field of sensory ethnography, which asks how and through what modalities one can best evoke multi-sensory experiences. Our methodology in some ways resembles elements of Photo Voice, a research method used increasingly as an arts-based method in health sciences research in recent years where individuals are asked to take photos and then reflect upon them in a group setting. We also were coming together routinely to discuss these processes to find commonalities and themes and to refine our process to be as effective as possible. Shifting towards applied scholarship, we had come to focus less on writing up lengthy reports on our findings, and instead on re-crafting, refining, and reimagining how we could turn these walks into something that could be shared with others in productive ways. As educators, we had become most interested in thinking about how to use creative methods to make awe walking accessible to others. Although Dr. Sturm designed this study around older adults, we have come to feel that people of all ages have the potential to benefit from awe walking and hope to come up with a set of prompts that can be used across social groups of all ages.
In preparation for trying to make a system that can be shared with others, our last tryout involved inviting a group of individuals (some from Encounters and some from our own personal networks) to participate in a month-long WhatsApp group dedicated to awe walking and creatively documenting awe walks. We offered prompts each weekend and invited participants to share throughout the week. After an initial week of no themes, we then used light, sound, and texture to guide our participants. Instead of asking them to produce or use a specific art modality, we invited them to share any way they wished. We wanted to keep things open to allow flexibility in creative representation.
Similar to our own awe walking WhatsApp group we found that people posted most in response to each other. If the chat went dormant, it remained that way for days. If someone posted, usually this was answered by a flurry of enthusiastic other posts. It was great to see how some expressed themselves mostly with narrative writing, others through photos, others through film. The sound week was probably the most challenging as it is less natural to ask people to seek out and document awe-inspiring sounds. Then, our last week we asked people to produce something artistic also fell flat. We think it was too time consuming of an ask for such an informal commitment. There is a delicate balance when adding things into someone’s schedule to encourage wellness and if the commitment starts feeling too heavy or daunting, we found that people shy away.
For our publication, we hope to draw together some of the images and reflections from our early walks, the images produced in our online digital session, and screenshots from our WhatsApp awe walking series. We then hope to craft an instructional booklet that can be downloaded and implemented to encourage others to create creative digital sharing groups for encouraging awe walking. We hope to implement our own toolkit next fall in a campus-and-community-wide initiative at the University of Arizona around Arts and Aging.