Astonishment is an expression of great surprise. It’s created by a sudden and unexpected event. The original word comes from Latin and means “to be thunderstruck”. Astonishment is an instinctive tactical response which interrupts conscious activity to process unexpected changes in the world.1 Whilst priming the body for action, it forces the mind to go blank and organises brain processes with an all-consuming receptivity to external events. This emotion, most often measured in milliseconds, is an instinctive preparation for another longer lasting emotion. Astonishment is always bonded to another immediately emerging emotion.
Emotional reactions to sudden and unexpected events are named according to their intensity. Mildly sudden and unexpected events cause surprise, moderately sudden and unexpected events cause astonishment, and extremely sudden and unexpected events cause shock.
Surprise – Astonishment – Shock
When an intensely sudden and unexpected event happens, much of people’s neurological and psychological architecture is shut-off from conscious access. There’s a narrowing of focus as attention is redirected to assess the new event.2 The eyes, mouth and lungs open in synchronisation with each other as a deep breath is drawn and held. The degree to which astonishment assumes control over behaviour is dependent on the intensity of the unexpected event. People’s perceived intensity of an event can be gauged through the sound they make as a crowd. The crowd instinctively inhale, and it produces a “haarrr” sound as the air passes through their mouths and their suddenly opened larynxes on its way into their lungs. More intense events produce a longer and louder “haaaarrrrrrr”.
Think of a World Cup football match when a player makes a skilful shot in an important game. Flying in a big arc the ball speeds towards the goal. The goalkeeper jumps at full stretch with one hand desperately trying to pluck the ball from the air. On both sides of the stadium the crowd stand up in astonishment. Their eyes, mouths and lungs open in synchronicity causing them to draw a deep collective breath and a “haaaarrrrrrr” can be heard inside and outside the stadium. They automatically hold their breath. Silence follows the ball’s journey. The ball reaches the goalkeeper and passes within a centimetre of his glove before shooting into the goal. The scoring side exhale their pent-up breath in a thunderous roar of celebration as they rejoice. The defending side exhale a collective sigh of desperation, slumping their heads forward, as their lungs deflate.
This describes how astonishment is an initial and neutral emotion that precedes another. The emotion that follows is dependent on whether the event is deemed positive or negative. Upon the goal being scored, one side becomes joyous, amazed and admiring of their players whilst the other becomes fearful and despairs.
This example illustrates the emotion in a way that many people can relate to it. Nonetheless, the football game environment is a simple one. In everyday life the process is much more dynamic. The fear of not knowing what is happening, and what will happen, plays a more significant role.
The process is instinctive as a blind person who is told the same story will exhibit the same emotions. In evolutionary terms, astonishment has played the role of making people act appropriately in life-threatening situations. Eyebrows are raised as the eyes open, letting more light onto the pupils. Posture becomes erect as the lungs take a deep breath, raising and firming the torso, as the body is poised to move away from the object of astonishment in the eventuality of danger. Breath is held to enhance the ability to hear whilst reducing the amount of sound made to as little as possible. This may be exhaled with a whistle, big sigh or something similar when the moment has passed without danger.3
The arms and hands may be flung out as if to prepare for a fall, protect the head, or push something away. Although the person is securely standing upright, the hands are sometimes thrown down and backwards as if to break a backwards fall or push the body up from a seated position. The expressions are not uniform in their execution and are to some degree individual to the person concerned. The environment, genetic and epigenetic (concerned with gene expressions) disposition all mix to produce a unique expression. One person may hold their breath longer, listening intently, and avoid detection, whilst another might stare wide-eyed. It is like arms, eyes and legs. One arm, eye or leg is just like another, yet all are unique and moved in personalised ways.
When an astonishing event is deemed to be positive, the expression morphs into amazement or admiration. The eyebrows lower, the eyes softly reduce in size, and the open mouth closes as it widens into a smile. When the astonishing event is deemed negative, the expression morphs into fear. Blood drains from the face and hands, leaving them cold, while blood flow increases to the legs as the body prepares to run. The limbs may even start trembling. If the fearful event is deemed to have passed, or be unrealistic, then relief is felt.
Astonishment is instinctive and largely uncontrollable. It’s an evolutionary reaction that is neutral and prepares people for an additional emotion that’s appropriate to the perceived situation. Amazement, admiration, fear and relief act as extensions to astonishment. In an evolutionary sense, astonishment is an old emotion that’s the base of several others that have evolved as direct extensions from it.
Thinking of the environments in which humans evolved allows people to understand what situations emotions have evolved to tackle. For millions of years human needs were acutely more physical than they are today.
One study focused on a distant common ancestor, capuchin monkeys, and decision making. It was found that humans share cognitive thinking biasses with these monkeys.4 The research concluded that humans have been co-evolving cognitive biasses for at least twenty-three million years (since humans split from capuchin monkeys).
Consciousness emerges – pre-dinosaur – when external events are perceived in relation to the self. This begins the development of unconscious or implicit-memories that will eventually bias behaviour through unconscious emotional responses. The process is finely tuned for millions of years from a slowly increasing vault of subconscious implicit-memories. These are what animals rely on. Instinctive responses develop into repertoires that form emotions such as astonishment, but also others like fear, disgust, jealousy and sadness. As perceptual complexity increases, emotions develop to prepare the body and motivate appropriate responses. The old emotions, such as astonishment, most likely evolved throughout the dinosaur era as cognitive biasses first started to take form in animals and while we were tiny fearful mammals. Over the sixty-five million years or more since then, astonishment developed its extensions.
The prevalence of astonishment throughout the animal kingdom is a testament to its important and incredible success. You only have to startle your cat and dog to view their astonished reaction. In so doing you witness the cross-species possession of the emotion. Just think how wide spread the expression is and wonder how long each animal has used it. This is a well-developed and fitting emotion that has evolved for sudden and unexpected events – especially life-threatening ones. It has undoubtedly played a role of paramount importance to early life and was a serious factor in evolutionary success.
Latin. Extonare = to leave someone thunderstruck.
1. To fill with sudden wonder or amazement; great surprise.