The Emotion of ‘Awe’ Has Shaped The Human Race In Many Surprising Ways

Awe Shapes Humans MedEd

I vividly remember the first time I went camping. After pitching our tent, checking out the nearby Columbia River, and toasting a few marshmallows on the fire, I wandered aways into the forest, and looked up for the first time. I saw the sky as I had never seen it before – there were more stars than I ever could have imagined. It’s an understatement to say that I had never in my life been so awestruck.

Awe is an amalgam of many emotions, combining amazement, disbelief, veneration, or wonder that is inspired by authority or the sacred or sublime.

Awe is what the first humans felt when they reached Australia and stumbled upon a fantastical world of 1000 pound flightless birds, 20 foot lizards, and 10 foot kangaroos.

Awe is what Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin felt as they were leaving their boot prints on the surface of the moon. Indeed, awe is what astronauts invariably report feeling upon seeing Earth from orbit.

Describing the types of experiences that induce awe is not hard to do. However what is hard to do is explaining or describing the feeling itself. We’ve all felt something similar. It is often times beyond words.

Proposing a description, researchers Jonathan Haidt and Dacher Keltner have found a way to conceptualize the emotion of awe, what they call the “prototype of awe”: perceived vastness and induced accommodation. (PDF)

A Closer Look At The Prototype Of Awe

Perceived vastness: For a stimulus to provoke awe, it must be vast, larger than life, and most often larger than yourself. This can be true in a physical (Grand Canyon, skyscraper, monster wave) or metaphorical (piece of music, religious text, rousing speech, opening crawl of Star Wars) sense.

Induced accommodation: Because an awe stimulus is bigger than you and transcends your normal frame of reference, you must shift your worldview to accommodate the experience. Folks who report feeling awe use words like “earth-shattering” or “changed how I saw” or “I’d never realized” are coming to terms with induced accommodation. If you don’t come to terms with the new reality, it’s terrifying, so you’re compelled to integrate it.

What inspires awe?

Haidt and Keitner hypothesize that awe developed in humans to enable hierarchies. If low-status people were “in awe of” higher-status people, the latter could become leaders and maintain social cohesion. Faced with immense power (“vastness”), the lower-status people would need the capacity to accept lower status (“induced accommodation”) without causing strife.

Time and time again, awe appears to shape our sense of self, increase our connection to the world and its inhabitants, and expand our time perception, even if only for a few moments.

Their research proved one thing –  it actually doesn’t take much to elicit awe. To study awe’s effect in people, they were showed commercials that feature waterfalls and astronauts, or had them stand in grove of eucalyptus trees on the Berkeley campus. And they are still achieving these results.

Experiencing awe has several interesting effects on how people think, feel, and even heal.

A “smaller” self

Astronauts looking at Earth from orbit frequently report a sense of kinship with their home planet. They truly want to protect it from environmental harm, past simply buying a hybrid vehicle and recycling soda cans. In the face of such vastness human foibles are rendered inconsequential (“we shouldn’t be killing and fighting”; “you’re small compared to everything else”).

A series of studies found that awe makes the self “smaller.”

Reduced sense of entitlement

In a recent UC Berkeley study, increased their prosocial behavior befell subjects standing in a grove of eucalyptus trees who experienced awe —they were more willing to give—and reduced their sense of entitlement.

Time ‘stops’

Studies show that exposure to awe-inducing stimuli causes people to feel less time pressed (PDF). Subjects became more willing to donate time to help others  (although not money). Time scarcity, whether perceived or real, is a serious condition in the modern world which increases stress, and diminishes one’s ability to “live in the moment”, leading to increased unhealthy behaviors.

“Seriously, who’s got time to cook or go to the gym?”

It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when we spend so much energy fretting over the scarcity of time that we run out of time to do anything. Any reduction in time scarcity will invariably improve one’s quality of life.

The biggest moments of awe, can feel like time has been stopped altogether.

For more on the study of awe, including how it improves people’s ability to discern and diffuse arguments, download the full report here.

Joseph Bryant
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