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Awe: The Most Incredible Emotion and Its Spectacular Effects

What do the Aurora Borealis, the view of Paris from the Eiffel Tower, and Roger Bannister’s sub-four-minute mile have in common? They elicit an emotion called "awe." This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen explores the 4 grand effects of this unique emotion.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
Episode #233
Awe-inspiring starry sky at night.

What does standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, looking up at the Sistine Chapel, and Katelyn Ohashi’s perfect 10 viral gymnastics floor routine have in common?

They might bring a tear to your eye without you knowing exactly why. In their own way, they are each entrancing and sublime. They all leave you saying “Wow!” a telltale sign of a little-known emotion called awe.

Awe doesn’t have to be rare: the birth of a child is a great example of something that happens worldwide 250 times a minute, but still inspires awe. Neither does awe have to be sparked by the natural world: man-made structures like the Taj Mahal, St. Peter’s Basilica, and the Great Wall of China all inspire awe. Awe doesn’t even have to come from something physical: a virtuosic performance, amazing athletic achievement, and of course, religious and spiritual experiences can all be awesome.

Awe is a mysterious, can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it emotion. It’s more complex than the peanut butter and jelly of sad, mad, and glad. If awe were a pizza, it would be loaded with a lot of very different toppings including morality, spirituality, and aesthetics.

But even if awe is hard to describe, like jazz, you know it when you experience it. When awe is particularly strong, we are humbled by its presence and feel graced or fortunate. Awe is transcendent, shifting your attention away from yourself and making you feel part of something larger—humanity, the earth, the universe, or a higher power.

In the journal Cognition and Emotion, psychologists Drs. Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt took a stab at describing the two fundamental components of awe.

One of the requirements was perceived vastness. Vastness might refer to physical size, like the Himalayas or the Montana sky. But it can also be vast prestige and power—the Oval Office, though technically just a room, is way more vast than its physical dimensions. And finally, vastness can refer to a force, like a holy presence or the human spirit.

The second component was a need for accommodation, defined as an inability to process, for example, the scale of the galaxy, the complexity of string theory, or the presence of a powerful individual using one’s current mental frameworks. It’s being unable to make sense of something, and therefore needing to expand your concept of what is possible, real, or happening in order to take in the experience. In short, it’s your brain saying “does not compute” when faced with the virtuosity of humans, nature, or spirituality, which kickstarts a change how you think about the world.

The researchers also pointed out that awe can have different flavors. Just like frustration and irritability are variations on anger, awe can take very different forms as well. For instance, sensing the presence of God in worship or contemplation can be awe, but so can the feeling of insignificance when gazing through a telescope at the rings of Saturn.

In a distinctly more terrestrial flavor, awe can also be triggered by a celebrity that makes onlookers gape, fawn, and act deferentially. Imagine you find yourself sitting next to your favorite movie start or sports hero on a plane. Hopefully you won’t unload on them like Liz Lemon did to Oprah: “Hi, I’m Liz Lemon and I lost my virginity at 25,” but the resulting sense of being tongue-tied, overwhelmed and yes, awestruck, is a definite flavor of awe. In fact, some scholars think awe developed throughout evolution to prompt reverence and devotion to group leaders, which in turn prompted social cohesion.

On a related note, just as something can be awesome, something else may be awful. In the natural world, alarming events like a window-rattling thunderstorm or the eruption of a volcano can trigger awe tinged with fear. Charismatic leaders like Gandhi and Mandela may have inspired others to transcend the self and feel connected to a larger mission, but so did leaders like Hitler and Bin Laden.

So how exactly does this powerful emotion change us? What marks are left by perceived vastness and a need for accommodation? This week, we’ll take a look at 4 effects of beholding both the awesome and the awful.

Effect #1: Awe Makes Us Feel Small

In a creative study, researchers approached over a thousand tourists at Yosemite National Park, arguably one of the most awe-inspiring places in the world, and Fisherman’s Wharf, a popular waterfront tourist attraction in San Francisco. 

Among other tasks, participants were asked to draw a picture of themselves on a piece of paper pre-printed with a sun and grass for scale and to sign the picture with the word “me.”

Participants at Yosemite drew themselves almost one-third smaller than those at Fisherman’s Wharf. In addition, the “me” signatures of participants immersed in the grandeur of Yosemite were significantly smaller than those signed in the bustle of the city.

Awe researchers link these effects to something called the “small self.” Awe makes you feel smaller, not in a shameful way, but in a humble way. It’s the sense of insignificance we feel when looking up at the night sky or watching an IMAX flyover of a wildebeest migration. Awe diminishes our normally big human egos and connects us to something larger.

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About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
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