How To Be Moved

by Maggie Doyle | 10/24/18 2:15am

“That was so moving.” I’ve probably heard those words hundreds of times throughout my life, in reference to hundreds of different things. A performance can be moving, as can a song or a speech. Though seemingly very different, what ties these experiences together is their ability to move us outside ourselves.

When asked what last moved him, Luc Golin ’22 said a speaker from high school came to mind. 

“One of our senior speakers talked about losing a friend to suicide in high school, which was very tough for the whole school,” Golin said.

  Interim Dean of the College and sociology professor Kathryn Lively said the root of being moved is empathy.

“One of the things that makes us human is our ability to role take,” she said. “When we see someone and allow ourselves to feel their emotional response … we’re moved by that.”

That seems to be the root of what moved Golin: his ability to move outside himself with empathy. 

  This same source of empathy also created a situation in which Daniel Gold ’22 felt moved. 

“Over the weekend, I was reading a book for my history class — it’s called ‘If He Hollers, Let Him Go’ — and it’s about the plight of African-Americans in California during World War II, and it was a very moving book, because at the end, the main character perished when he had his whole life ahead of him,” Gold said.

  Psychological and brain sciences professor Annemarie Brown shed light on how we experience empathy.

  “[Empathy is] simulating what other people feel,” she said. “We’re putting ourselves in their shoes, and we feel a portion of what they’re feeling.” 

Brown added that we experience this on a very literal level.

“When people are experiencing a heightened experience of empathy, they show higher activation in brain areas that are typically involved in … a gut feeling, or a sensation within the body,” she said.

According to Brown, emotions move us to prioritize. She explained that at any moment in the day, we are faced with a tremendous amount of information, and emotions allow us to sort out our priorities. 

Despite the pain empathy can cause us, Brown added that evolution gave us the ability to empathize to survive as a community. 

“We have these interdependent, supportive, cooperative networks that allow us to live easier lives,” she said. “Empathy is a crucial component of that social glue that lets us depend on others.” 

  Though on a surface level, being moved emotionally might seem separate from the definition of movement associated with physical presence, there seems to be at least an association. People are motivated to do something differently when they’re moved by something.

  Mariana Peñaloza ’22 said the last time she was moved was at a lecture. 

  “There was a talk last week about anti-slavery constitutionalists … and at least for me, it was a revelation that there are a lot of things wrong in the world, and that I have a responsibility to fix it,” she said. 

  Applying Brown’s insights on emotions, it seems this effect of galvanization is the result of Peñaloza’s emotional response prioritizing others’ human rights. Even when it isn’t delivered upon, I think most people relate to the feeling of needing to do something after being moved.

I felt a similar sense of galvanization after watching a documentary about sweatshops for a class last year. I felt an immediate need to dismantle consumerist culture, and though that didn’t happen, it changed the way I think about and physically engage in the world. 

  In a different way, people are also often moved outside of themselves by a strong sense of awe. Kate Miller ’22’s description of being moved fits closely with this experience. 

“The candlelight ceremony that we had before the first day of classes [moved me],” she said. “I think that was really just a good moment for our class as a whole, and when we were walking all with our candles and sang the alma mater, symbolizing the beginning of our journey together was very moving.”

  This sense of being moved is certainly different than the feeling of empathetic sadness. In Miller’s experience of being moved, she connected to something larger than herself. 

“It’s something that’s hard to explain … you feel it in your soul,” Miller said. 

Lively explained that this different type of connection is what people experience when they’re moved by different things, such as a sunset, words or the weather. 

“When we allow ourselves to experience awe, it’s usually something bigger than ourselves … when we get beyond the ego,” she said. 

  Lively specifically named seeing the Grand Canyon as an experience that moves people. 

“You know that moment where you first step to the ledge, it’s like a hush falls,” she said. “All of a sudden, you are no longer interpreting the world through your individual filter — the noise dissipates.”

I remember being 12 and seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. In my imperfect memory, I recall driving for what seemed like eternity. I was frustrated with my brothers, and my whole family had gone stir-crazy; in my mind, the pain of this journey was not worth the rock formation at its destination. However, stepping to the edge, I had the same feeling I get in cathedrals, a connection to something divine. I was small compared to its grandeur and temporary compared to its longevity. As Lively said, I was truly moved outside my ego. 

Jonah Beger, marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, recently did a study analyzing what emotions spread the fastest over social media. As might be expected, anger and disgust were very likely to go viral, but interestingly, “awe” such as “feelings of wonder and excitement” waranted a stronger emotional reaction, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

Brown said that, although we don’t know much about awe, there is an evolutionary reason we’re moved by it. Though in the moment, awe can feel like stillness. It’s a positive emotion that moves us to discover.

  “[Awe] is really important in motivating us towards discovery, motivating us towards the positive spread of information,” she said. “This is what sparks an interest in novelty and what drives a lot of scientists … it stimulates us to explore.”

Brown’s last experience being moved was associated with this sense of awe. 

“My last class, they were really engaging deeply with the material, and it sparked a sense of pride … I feel a surge to do more, it’s very exciting,” Brown said.