The Continuous Nature of Awe

Different kinds of awe may yield different kinds of life enrichment.

Posted Nov 16, 2015

The emotion of awe fascinates as much as it confounds. There is a long history attempting to conceptualize awe. In recent years, psychological scientists also have attempted to understand awe, leading to some intriguing studies and findings.

It is striking that previous views present awe as an either / or phenomenon. Many presentations give the sense that individuals either experience awe in full or don’t experience awe at all. In contrast, most psychological phenomena best are conceptualized along some kind of continuum.

In light of this, it seems necessary to distinguish the strongest kind of awe experiences that have the most power to transform individuals’ lives from awe experiences that are moderate in strength from awe experiences that include some (but not all) defining elements.

Reviewing the history and science of awe, it seems that the strongest, most transformative experiences of awe:

  1. Overwhelm individuals with something that transcends their current knowledge or understanding of the world,
  2. Immerse them in the process of trying to accommodate what previously was known with what currently is being experienced,
  3. Involve feelings of smallness or humility in the presence of something greater,
  4. Result in a profound change in thinking or behavior, even in self-definition,
  5. Retain a vivid long-term memory of the event, and
  6. Occur very infrequently, maybe even only a few times in life.

Many of the best known awe experiences demonstrate these criteria. Some are so overwhelming that they also come with fear. St. Paul’s reported incident of “seeing the light” on the road to Damascus is an example.

Milder awe experiences possess some of these characteristics, but they may be less intense, and some may not be exhibited at all. For instance, whereas transformative awe experiences may result in a change in self-definition, milder awe experiences may result in a temporarily newfound appreciation of something. The memory may not be as vivid or long-lasting. These milder experiences may occur more frequently, even daily.

One of the most significant differences between transformative kinds of awe experiences and milder kinds of awe experiences may have to do with the amount of surprise involved. This may make it more difficult to experiment with transformative awe because this kind of experience may not be as able to be planned. However, milder awe experiences intentionally may be cultivated or sought to a greater extent. Previous research has benefitted from this in that it seems to have manipulated milder awe. Examples include having research participants stare at a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, empathize with a literary character viewing Paris from the Eiffel Tower, view vast scenes of nature via video, and gaze at tall trees. To my knowledge, no scientific research has been able to arrange conditions to manipulate transformational awe. Probably the closest manipution has been when research participants have been asked to recall powerful awe experiences, but remembering an incident is not the same as experiencing it.

If it is true that surprise is essential to stronger awe experiences, there are implications for individuals desiring more awe in their lives. For example, if going on a vacation to a vast, but unknown location, it may be more powerful to travel without much foreknowledge. Watching videos about the destination beforehand may diminish the sense of surprise that enables a stronger experience of awe.

This conceptualization also encourages individuals to intentionally seek mild awe experiences. There may be a variety of ways to do this. Even something as simple as mindfully being in the presence of a body of water for 20 minutes can bring a whiff of awe into everyday life.

Andy Tix, Ph.D., also often blogs at his site The Quest for a Good Life. You can sign up to receive e-mail notifications of new posts at this site.

Note: Myles Johnson contributed substantial insight to this post.

About the Author

Andy Tix, Ph.D., is a faculty member in the Department of Psychology at Normandale Community College.

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