The Science of Whoa

When you step to the edge of the Grand Canyon, or take a gondola across Niagara Falls, or look over any natural abyss or up any colossal structure, well, there’s a certain thing that happens. Invoking Keanu Reeves and Joey Lawrence at once — an admirable feat itself — I call this feeling the whoa moment.

It’s that weightless feeling we get when we walk into a huge cathedral or behold a haunting religious painting or painted sarcophagus, things that make us say, Whoa! Seriously. Is this fo’ real?

Museum lighting

Yesterday morning, on the front cover of its morning edition, The New York Times published a photo of a 1,500-year-old Buddhist relic held in the National Museum of Afghanistan, a museum that was devastated by the Taliban in 2001. One can only imagine how it must feel to behold this relic in person, to breathe the air of it. Its age, its spiritual significance, its stunning composition, its serenity, and even the story of the danger it survived in 2001, all help create an aura around the object. The thing has gravitas.

But the truth is that the light fixture just out of frame adds a lot to the object’s gravitas. As if it hovers there contemplating its long, varied past, the Buddha head sits washed in light on a black pedestal in a black space. It’s the lighting that clues us into this object’s special character, making it seem magical. Can you imagine what it would look like in a busy room lighted by brutally buzzing fluorescents? Not so special anymore. The object would probably begin to resemble a half-hearted high school sculpture project more so than a priceless cultural treasure.

fluorescent lighting, not magical

So, check it out. Ever heard the one about how smiling can trick your brain into feeling confident? (If you haven’t, check out Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk on body language and smiling.) Well, the same law applies to home lighting. That ceramic dish your son made in high school, the diploma you committed to earning, the signed print that speaks to you: This is YOUR masterpiece.

You may not have ancient relics or paintings by Donatello in your house, but adding a small museum-style light, like the LED Recessed Mini Swivel Light, to accentuate any special thing in your home can tempt your (and your guest’s) brain into experiencing that whoa moment we have when we encounter something with gravitas.

Mini Swivel LED light

Next time you encounter something that makes you go whoa ­— either in a natural or artificial environment —  think about the relationship between light, lighting, and the way you experience what you see.


Tom Sowders

After majoring in creative writing at NC State, I worked in the home remodeling industry. Then, I attended graduate school for a really long time and gained experience as a writer and writing instructor. I live in the Raleigh-Durham area with my wife and baby boy, and you can find me around the Triangle anywhere there's good music and/or NC-style BBQ.