The extraordinary influence of awe on humans


Sarah Berry

It makes us feel small yet encourages us to be bigger.

Awe is one of the “highest experiences” of the human psyche according to Richard Dawkins, while Einstein said we are “as good as dead” without it.

Feeling awe makes us more generous and humble, reduces stress and creates a sense of timelessness but a new study says that it evokes something else in us that is emotionally unique.

All emotions serve a function, the authors explain, to give us context within our social settings. When we feel love or happiness, for instance, we position ourselves more closely to those around us, feelings of embarrassment and shame on the other hand diminish our sense of status in relation to others while pride increases it. With each emotion we position ourselves differently and it drives our behaviour towards others.

Awe evokes something else in us.

“People sometimes experience the emotion of ‘awe’ when they are in the presence of something that is so vast that their current understanding of the world, their surroundings, or themselves is challenged in someway,” explained the study authors from the University of California, Berkeley.

This is an emotion many of us understand by looking at the expanse of stars against the black of night, when we are surrounded by sheer cliffs or hundred-year-old trees, in the midst of a raging thunderstorm, when we watch another human perform an extraordinary feat or act of altruism, when we listen to moving music, look at artwork, witness or experience childbirth, take psychedelic drugs or read religious scriptures.

In these moments, as our awareness expands and our world becomes bigger, our identity becomes inconsequential.

“Awe, as it has been observed, produces a small self,” the authors said.

This small “diminished” self serves a great purpose, they hypothesised; it connects us to our universal self – each other.

To test this idea, the researchers conducted six different experiments with 2137 participants.

They wanted to see whether it differed from other positive emotions like joy and amusement but also negative emotions that can leave us feeling small, like embarrassment and shame.

They also wanted to see whether different cultures experience awe differently.

In diaries used to describe their experiences of awe, it was found that while interpersonal interactions and nature most commonly elicited awe, “individualistic” participants from the United States were 20 times more likely to feel awe at their own actions while “interdependent” Chinese participants were “significantly” more likely to experience awe at the actions of another.

It was also found that unlike joy or happiness, awe made participants from all cultures feel small but unlike negative emotions such as shame, it did not make them feel less powerful or smaller in social status; it made them transcend themselves and align with others, making participants more likely to act for the greater good by collaborating, acting with generosity and kindness.

“We have demonstrated the robust effect of awe on the small self,” the authors wrote in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“This universal influence of awe, we believe, holds keys to understanding why the human species, with unprecedented complexity of self-representation, has at the same time evolved to experience an emotion that so quickly diminishes the self, be it in nature, art, religion, or around inspiring people.”

How to experience more awe daily

“It is most likely to occur in places that have two key features: physical vastness and novelty,” according to the Greater Good Science Centre at Berkeley. By noticing the details of both yourself (your breath, your feet on the ground, the air on your skin) and what is around you (the sounds, smells, sights, patterns of light and shade and any other sensations) can turn ordinary moments into awe-filled ones:

– Be mindful of the natural elements and objects around you on a daily basis (eg, trees, clouds, leaves, the moon, moving water, animals, etc), and notice how these make you feel and what emotions they evoke.

– Explore a new part of the city on foot, walk through an aquarium or planetarium, around a cathedral or to the top of a skyscraper, walk slowly through a museum, art gallery, botanic gardens or a zoo.

– Watch the sunrise or sunset, stand outside on a clear night and look at the stars and moon, travel to a mountain or waterfall, walk along a beach or stand among a grove of towering trees.


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