Those moments that induce awe and possibly even guide and shape the rest of one’s life are more than just a curiosity for NIU alum Elliott Ihm. He’s making a name for himself as a researcher of such phenomenon and recently was invited to give his first talk on this innovative area research he’s now pursuing as a graduate student in California.
Ihm grew up in DeKalb and received his bachelor of science in psychology at NIU. His presentation took place during the International Conference on the Evolution of Religion in Santa Ana Pueblo, NM, and focused on how the state of awe is often used by people to make meaning that can guide their lives.
Currently a graduate student in the Psychological and Brain Sciences program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, he works in the META Lab where he is researching the neuroscience of attention and meditation, and the psychological impact of awe-eliciting experiences. He also participates in a working group called the Religion, Experience and Mind (REM) Lab.
For Ihm, his experience at NIU participating in research labs led by David Bridgett, Angela Grippo and Doug Wallace influenced his current path of study. He said those labs provided his first experiences critically discussing current scientific research with a team of collaborators, and opened his eyes to how curiosity and research can lead to important discovery.
“I would strongly encourage any current students interested in graduate school for psychology or neuroscience to get involved with a research lab on campus as soon as possible,” he said. “Research experience is the most important part of graduate school applications. That’s because it’s a way to gain practical experience that you can’t get from taking classes or reading books.”
Ihm’s submission for the conference was chosen to be one of seven plenary talks. He said the conference was significant for him because it was the first major talk he’s given, and because it provided a unique venue for people from evolutionary biology, psychology and religious studies to share ideas.
“It provided a valuable forum for the emerging cognitive science of religion,” he said of the conference.
His presentation, “Awe as a Meaning-Making Emotion: Implications for the Evolution of Religion,” focused on – in Ihm’s words — the brain as a meaning-making machine.
“The brain represents the world in terms of meaningful objects, situations and events, in a way that guides actions,” he explained. “Humans develop belief systems, including worldviews and the life stories that form our identities, and use them to interpret their interactions with the world. When this process is working properly, we experience a sense of meaning in life, psychological well-being and physical health.”
Ihm’s presentation was concerned with experiences that challenge existing belief systems.
“I presented evidence that both positive and negative experiences of awe are associated with lasting changes in worldview and identity,” he said.
Ihm decided to further study this topic after seeing a symposium on the psychology of awe in 2014, as he was starting graduate school.
“I have always been curious about why people believe things, and why people change their beliefs, so religious experiences were particularly interesting to me,” he said.
Ihm plans to continue to study the processes by which people turn their experiences of the world into stories that guide their lives, and how meaning-making and storytelling capabilities have evolved.