Jessica Koehler Ph.D.

Beyond School Walls

Inspire Your Mind

The transformative power of awe.

Posted Jan 01, 2020

r.classen/Shutterstock
Source: r.classen/Shutterstock

When I reached the summit, I peered out at the vast expanse, overcome with emotion. Coursing through my mind and body was a hybrid feeling of ecstasy and marvel. At that moment, the fleeting sensation transcended my reality and eternally altered my perception of the world.

Frequently conceptualized as a sense of wonder, awe is a complex emotion associated with deep and personal change. From the tears stimulated by beautiful mountain vistas to the astounding emotional connection following the birth of a child, it is difficult to describe the experience of awe.

What is this perplexing emotion, and why does it occur?

Dachner Keltner of the Greater Good Institute at the University of California at Berkeley and expert in the study of awe suggests:

"Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world."

Keltner and his colleague, Jonathon Haidt, suggest that awe is prompted primarily by nature, art, and impressive individual feats—including acts of great skill or virtue. They suggest that awe arises from conceptually and perceptually vast stimuli that require updating or accommodation to current mental schemes.

While many of us assume awe is only elicited by the extraordinary, such as viewing the Grand Canyon, we often experience awe in the everyday world—in changing leaves, viewing the stars, and listening to laughter.

Evolution of Awe

From an evolutionary perspective, why did awe become part of our emotional inventory? Why do we feel awe?

In earlier human history, solitary existence was risky. Despite our biological drive for individual survival, humans needed to be part of a larger social group for safety. Recent research suggests that experiencing awe encourages us to be more collaborative and concerned about the needs of others.

Michelle Shiota and her colleagues found that study participants who viewed an awe-inspiring dinosaur replica later defined themselves in more communal terms. Compared to the control group, they were more likely to refer to themselves as a member of a culture, a species, or a moral cause. Shiota and colleagues indicated that awe "embeds the individual self in a social identity."

In a separate experiment, researchers had participants view a grove of the tallest eucalyptus trees in North America to induce awe. The researchers found that participants in the awe-inducing condition were more likely than the control group to help someone in need. In addition, the experimental participants also reported feeling less entitled and self-important.

The presence of wonder encourages us to be less egotistical versions of ourselves. Awe orients us toward the interests of others by making us feel small but connected to the world—which in turn increases our prosocial behavior. From an evolutionary perspective, the movement toward social units increased our likely survival.

Awe at an Individual Level

Aside from evolutionary adaptiveness of awe, what does awe do for us individually?

By encoding the assumptions and biases of our past experiences to our present and future, our brain narrows our perceptual bandwidth to focus on prediction. Nothing we see is free from bias. This perceptual process discourages us from stepping into uncertainty. However, the world is always changing and, as neuroscientist Beau Lotto suggests, we need to change to advance—so stepping into uncertainty is crucial for human innovation

Lotto proposes that awe—one of our most profound perceptual experiences—is the solution for us to step into uncertainty. By stimulating wonder and curiosity, awe may be the key to creativity. It drives us to move into uncertainty by unchaining our perception from its limited bandwidth. Lotto further suggests that by reducing our need for cognitive control and closure, awe instigates an appetite for risk-taking.

Awe may also boost our physical health by reducing inflammatory cytokines. Elevated levels of these chemical messengers, produced by cells in damaged tissues, are related to chronic illness and disease vulnerability. Interestingly, researchers have shown that experiencing higher levels of awe is related to lower levels of measured cytokines.

Keltner states,

“That awe, wonder, and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggest that the things we do to experience these emotions—a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art—has a direct influence upon health and life expectancy.”

Virtual Reality to Induce Awe

In a recent experiment, researchers tested whether experiencing virtual reality (VR)-induced awe would have an effect on creative thought. The results suggest that some components of creativity—fluidity, flexibility, and elaboration—can be positively affected by awe-inducing VR experiences.

Neuroscience of Awe

Over 30 years ago, philosopher Joseph Campbell said, "Awe is what moves us forward."

This profound notion is being studied by neuroscientists and yielding fascinating results. Neuroscientists studying awe are uncovering interesting details of what our brains do during awe-induced states.

While experiencing awe, the prefrontal cortex—responsible for executive functioning and attentional processes—is suppressed or down-regulated. Interestingly, activity in the Default Mode Network (DMN) is increased when our brains are awe-induced. The DMN is an intriguing web of connections that have been repeatedly shown to be active during creative thinking and ideation.

Final Thoughts

Famed children's author, E.B. White, said, "Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder."

This insightful advice may be key to unlocking human progress and improving physical health. As we look to find new ways to move humanity forward, perhaps gazing at nature and witnessing everyday love and kindness could be an important component to ignite altruistic behavior and spark innovation!

References

For a fascinating look at how awe changes our perception, see Beau Lotto's Ted Talk: How We Experience Awe and Why it Matters.