Lost in a new land: experiencing Awe now

Alastair Somerville
6 min readMar 28, 2020


Wanderer Abover the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich (photographic reproduction was done by Cybershot800i. (Diff), Public Domain, ttps://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1020146)

This is a post about how suddenly strange the world has become for many of us. How existing ideas of how things work, where things are and even what time means have changed. Ideas of the human experience of Awe will be used to provide some sense of how we get thru the New Now.

Diagram of time and experience of Awe

It has been less than a week since the UK went on Lockdown. We’re been in isolation for slightly longer in our home due to a warning about a person with Covid19 attending a conference I was at. It was Service Design in Government in Edinburgh.

The diagram above came out of a discussion after a workshop at that conference. John Waterworth shared ideas about how to start projects and develop roadmaps of actions. You can download the workshop slides here.

The diagram overlays some ideas from research into the human experience of Awe onto the time framing that the workshop used. You can read that research paper here.

What seems to be relevant now is how disorientation and reorientation are fundamental to massive shifts in human experience. The sudden shifts, for many people this week, in work, in school and in mobility have been such a kind of disorientation.

This post is about how understanding the experience of Awe may help you sense your own place in a new land. It also may help you understand that both time and social connection are needed to find new foundations in such a new place.

I will use three sections to describe how Awe can work.

  • Now: Physical sensations and Self diminishment
  • Next: Perceived vastness and Time perception
  • Later: Connectedness and Accommodation

1) Now

Physical sensations

I have not slept well this week. I wake much too early.

This is a visceral reaction to the changes that have happened. Work cancelled, children’s activities cancelled, trips out cancelled.

Our experiences start in our bodies. Our gut feelings are truthful sensations. Recognising them in ourselves and the people we know is a start.

Self Diminishment

I am deeply aware of my individual smallness now. Being a single person during a global pandemic is humbling.

Awe can change your sense of self in relation to place, time and society.

The Victorians travelled to experience Awe. They went to the Scottish Highlands and the Swiss Alps to experience it. To stand in front of vast landscapes and feel that sense of smallness. They wanted that but they also recognised it could break them. The trips were a form of extreme sport: to experience Awe and risk loss of sense of self.

Awe is dangerous.

Awe unfoots us all in 2 crucial ways.

2) Next

Perceived vastness

Remember your first day at a new school?

How big the playground seemed? How many people seemed to be around? How tall the building seemed?

Awe unfoots our ability to scale things. We feel small and we seem unable to comprehend the shape and measure the world about us.

This is one of the major problems at this moment. All those mental models and cognitive maps you have developed over decades to understand where you are now and how to get to where you want to be? All suddenly meaningless. People are trying to fit models of work and school onto their home lives and finding the maps do not align. Strangely, home (that seemed so tiny when hypermobility was so easy) is now changing size almost hour by hour. Sometimes too big, sometimes too small.

How you make roadmaps is dependent on several systems in your brain and in your body. All of them are being affected by how constrained your physical movement is now.

Perception is more than simply sensing.

Time perception

What day is it today?

When will that homework get done?

How long is that teleconference?

Time is quite askew at this moment too. Much as we cannot measure space and place, we cannot work out time now. All of the standard methods have been temporarily lost. The 9 to 5 work day, the 8 to 3 school day.

Awe disrupts time. Time stretches out and it shrinks in.

The Ancient Greeks dealt with this by having differing ideas of Time.

Chronos was for the mechanistic sense of time as hour by hour, task by task, appointment by appointment. Modern Western society kept that idea. However, it is a brittle sense of time. When things are late or time becomes immeasurable, then tensions arise. Stress rises.

Kairos was an alternative idea. The sense of time in timeliness. Events occurring when appropriate. This is time that flexes around human interactions rather than defining them.

Some people are reacting to the loss of coherent time by applying very specific chronometric timetables to their family lives. It is perhaps too soon to do that. It also may not be the best form of time to apply now.

How we re-foot ourselves depends on how well we recognise that we are lost.

Humans have developed skills to find our way thru Awe. This moment will pass but we need to know that it natural and live thru the experience truthfully.

3) Later


Humans connect things. We find edges and landmarks in spaces to make spatial maps. We overlay grids of previous experiences to find the right pattern, the right map for this moment. We seek out other people to use social connection to stabilise individual sense of being.

Connectedness is a crucial way of absorbing the effects of Awe. The perceived vastness and the time perception problems are solved thru connection.

Talking to people. Hearing their experiences. Sharing ideas of new ways of working or schooling matters. Homo Sapiens is particularly keyed to social interaction as a way of solving problems of complexity.

Connectedness is also in taking time to observe where you are. One theory about Wayfinding is that it is about close observation of where you have been rather then where you are going. You get lost because you do not know how to go back. People who get lost generally rush into places. They do not stop and look around. They keep moving. Movement seems like the solution but it is not. Stopping and observing is the best method.

Many people now need to stop. They are lost in a new world, using maps from another place, rushing forwards.

Stopping, resting and talking are good actions now. Connectedness will rebuild sense of place and sense of self.


Finally, this is all about the human capacity of Accommodation.

Those Victorians who lived on the edge of Awe and terror in the mountains? They then hiked the mountains. They moved thru the spaces that seemed so distant, so huge. Their sense of smallness and their sense of lostness disappeared as they moved and found routes together.

Accommodation is the final part of Awe. We find ourselves and our sense of place in time, in space and in society.

All those skills we have developed over decades become usable again because we have connected and re-scaled ourselves in the new land.

The terror and the anxiety that manifested at the start of the experience are reduced because we can now see the whole place, understand how time works there, know some routes thru it and know that we are not alone.

How long this takes for any specific person differs. As the Victorians recognised, for some people, this may be too much. The awe and anxiety too hard to recover from. Compassion and care are needed.

None of this should be attempted alone. We need each other.

Where are we now?

To end this post, where are we now?

Diagram of Awe with You are here arrow just on gap between Now and Next

I suspect most of us are just about getting thru the first part of Now. We are still facing a new world of weird time and space of Next.

However, we can get thru this New Now.

  • Stopping, observing and connecting are good goals
  • Recognise the strangeness.
  • Do not rush into actions using old tools and maps
  • Talk to each other

Our humanity and compassion are the basis of our success, together.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX