The Unappreciated Healing Power of Awe

Lara Rosenbaum

September 25, 2023

I'm standing atop the Klein Matterhorn, staring out at the Alps, their moonscape peaks forming a jagged, terrifying, glorious white horizon.

I am small. But the emotions are huge. The joy: I get to be a part of all this today. The fear: It could kill me. More than kill me, it could consume me.

The Alps, photographed by the author.

That's what I always used to feel when training in Zermatt, Switzerland.

I was lucky. As a former US Ski Team athlete, I was regularly able to experience such magnificent scenescapes ― and feel the tactile insanity of it, too, the rise and fall of helicopters or trams taking us up the mountains, the slicing, frigid air at the summit, and the lurking on-edge feeling that you, tiny human, really aren't meant to be standing where you are standing.

Bryce Canyon, photographed by the author.

"Awe puts things in perspective," says Craig Anderson, Ph,D, postdoctoral scholar at the Olin School of Business at Washington University, St. Louis, and researcher of emotions and behavior. "It's about feeling connected with people and part of the larger collective — and that makes it okay to feel small."

Our modern world is at odds with awe. We tend to shrink into our daily lives, our problems, our devices, and the real-time emotional reactions to those things ― especially anger.

Helicopter skiing in Canada, photographed by the author.

It doesn't have to be that way. A rising pile of research has shown how awe affects our brains and opens our minds ― and we don't have to be standing at the top of the Matterhorn to get the benefits.

"In the Upper Reaches of Pleasure and on the Boundary of Fear"

That's how New York University ethical leadership professor Jonathan Haidt, PhD, and psychology professor Dacher Keltner, PhD, of the University of California, Berkeley, defined awe in a seminal report from 2003.

The feeling is composed of two elements: perceived vastness (sensing something larger than ourselves), and accommodation (our need to process and understand that vastness). The researchers also wrote that awe could "change the course of life in profound and permanent ways."

"There's a correlation between people who are happier and those who report more feelings of awe," says David Yaden, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins University and co-author of The Varieties of Spiritual Experience. "It's unclear, though, which way the causality runs. Is it that having more awe experiences makes people happier? Or that happy people have more awe. But there is a correlation."

One aspect about awe that's clear: When people experience it, they report feeling more connected. And that sense of connection can lead to pro-social behavior — such as serving others and engaging with one's community.

"Feelings of isolation are quite difficult, and we're social creatures, so when we feel connected, we can benefit from it," Yaden says.

A 2022 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology revealed that awe "awakens self-transcendence, which in turn invigorates pursuit of the authentic self."

While these effects can be seen as one individual's benefits, the researchers posit that they also lead to pro-social behaviors. Another study conducted by the same scientists showed that awe led to greater-good behavior during the pandemic, to the tune of an increased willingness to donate blood. In this study, researchers also cited a correlation between feelings of awe and increased empathy.

The Awe Experience

Yaden joined Keltner and other researchers in creating a scale for the "awe experience," and found six related factors:

  • A feeling that time momentarily slows

  • A sense of self-diminishment (your sense of self becomes smaller)

  • A sense of connectedness

  • Feeling in the presence of something grand

  • The need to mentally process the experience

  • Physical changes, like goosebumps or feeling your jaw slightly drop

"Any of these factors can be large or small," Yaden notes, adding that awe can also feel positive or negative. A hurricane can instill awe, for example, and the experience might not be pleasant.

However, "it's more common for the awe experience to be positive," Yaden says.

How Your Brain Processes Awe

Functional MRI, by which brain activity is measured through blood flow, allows researchers to see what's happening in the brain after an awe experience.

One study that was conducted in the Netherlands and was published in the journal Human Brain Mapping suggested that certain parts of the brain that are responsible for self-reflection were less "activated" when participants watched awe-inspiring videos.

The researchers posit that the "captivating nature of awe stimuli" could be responsible for such reductions, meaning participants' brains were geared more toward feelings of connection with others or something greater — and a smaller sense of self.

Another study published in the journal Emotion revealed a link between awe and lower levels of inflammatory cytokines, so awe could have positive and potentially protective health benefits, as well.

And of course there are the physical and emotional benefits of nature, as dozens of studies reveal. Anderson's research in the journal Emotion showed that nature "experiences" led to more feelings of awe and that the effects of nature also reduced stress and increased well-being.

Sometimes all we need is a nice walk.

Why We Turn Away From Awe

The world we inhabit day to day isn't conducive to experiencing awe ― indoors, seated, reacting negatively to work or social media. The mentalities we forge because of this sometimes work against experiencing any form of awe.

Example: Some people don't like to feel small. That requires a capacity for humility.

"That [feeling] can be threatening," notes Anderson, who earned his doctorate studying as part of Keltner's "Project Awe" research team at UC Berkeley.

The pandemic and politics and rise in angry internet culture also contribute. And if you didn't know, humans have a "negativity bias."

"Our responses to stress tend to be stronger in magnitude than responses to positive things," Anderson says. "Browsing the internet and seeing negative things can hijack our responses. Anger really narrows our attention on what makes us angry."

In that sense, anger is the antithesis of awe. As Anderson puts it: Awe broadens our attention to the world and "opens us up to other people and possibilities," he says. "When we're faced with daily hassles, when we experience something vast and awe-inspiring, those other problems aren't as big of a deal."

We Crave Awe in Spite of Ourselves

An awful lot of us are out there seeking awe, knowingly or not.

People have been stopping at scenic overlooks and climbing local peaks since forever, but let's start with record-setting attendance at the most basic and accessible source of natural awe we have in the US: national parks.

In 2022, 68% of the 312 million visitors sought out nature-based or recreational park activities (as opposed to historical or cultural activities). Even though a rise in national park visits in 2021 and 2022 could be attributed to pandemic-related behavior (the need for social distancing and/or the desire to get outside), people were flocking to parks prior to COVID-19. In fact, 33 parks set visitation records in 2019; 12 did so in 2022.

We also seek awe in man-made spectacle. Consider annual visitor numbers for the following:

Golden Gate Bridge: 10 million

Empire State Building: 4 million

St. Louis Arch: 1.62 million

And what about the most awe-inducing experience ever manufactured: Space tourism. While catering to the wealthy for now, flying to space allows untrained people to enjoy something only a chosen few astronauts have been able to feel: the "overview effect," a term coined by author Frank White for the shift in perspective that occurs in people who see Earth from space.

Upon his return from his Blue Origin flight, actor William Shatner was candid about his emotional experience. "I was crying," he told NPR. "I didn't know what I was crying about. It was the death that I saw in space and the lifeforce that I saw coming from the planet — the blue, the beige and the white. And I realized one was death and the other was life."

We want awe. We want to feel this way.

Adding Everyday Awe to Your Life

It may seem counterintuitive: Most awe-inspiring places are special occasion destinations, but in truth it's possible to find awe each day. Outdoors and indoors.

Awe can be found in small things, too.

Park Rx America, led by Robert Zarr MD, MPH, boasts a network of nearly 1500 healthcare providers ready to "prescribe" walks or time in nature as part of healing. "Our growing community of 'nature prescribers' incorporate nature as a treatment option for their willing clients and patients," Zarr says.

He also notes that awe is all about where you look ― including in small places.

"Something as simple as going for a walk and stopping to notice the complexity of fractal patterns in the leaves, for example, leaves me with a sense of awe," he says. "Although difficult to measure, there is no doubt that an important part of our health is intricately linked to these daily awe-filled moments."

Nature is not the only way. Yaden suggests that going to a museum to see art or sporting events is also a way to experience the feeling.

An unexpected source of man-made awe: Screens. A study published in Nature showed that immersive video experiences (in this case, one achieved by virtual reality) were effective in eliciting an awe response in participants.

While virtual reality isn't ubiquitous, immersive film experiences are. IMAX screens were created for just this purpose (as anyone who saw the Avatar films in this format can attest).

Is it perfect? No. But whether you're witnessing a birth, hiking an autumn trail bathed in orange, or letting off a little gasp when you see Oppenheimer's nuclear explosion in 70 mm, it all counts.

Because it's not about the thing. It's about your openness to be awed by the thing.

I'm a little like Dr Zarr in that I can find wonder in the crystalline structures of a snowflake. And I also love to hike and inhale expansive views. If you can get to Switzerland, and specifically Zermatt, take the old red tram to the top. I highly recommend it.

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