In Search of AWE: What it is and why we need it

Updated: Jun 2

How awesome are you? Meaning how frequently do you experience awe? More than other people do? Do positive character traits make people more likely to experience awe? Some people are indeed more awestruck than others. Researchers have explored whether certain factors—including personality, character strengths, religion, and culture—might explain these differences as well as what happens in the brain when we experience awe.


A few studies have explored whether certain personality factors make some people more prone to experiencing awe. As to the Big Five personality traits—extraversion, conscien- tiousness, agreeableness, openness to experience, and neuroticism—people who are more open to experience are also more likely to experience awe.


A study of 574 German adults found that frequency of awe people experience significantly correlates with all 24 character strengths in the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS). A person’s level of “dispositional awe” was most strongly correlated with their appreciation of beauty, gratitude, religiousness, creativity, and love of learning.


One of the earliest psychologists to explore the connection between awe and self-fulfillment and happiness was Abraham Maslow. Maslow, most well-known for his "hierarchy of needs," wanted to understand human potential, what humans are capable of as their healthiest self. Through his research, he developed a pyramid of basic human needs that delineate what is required for maximum psychological health and life satisfaction. We've since learned how the chemical composition of the brain changes as we meet more needs.




What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization…refers to the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming. (Maslow, Motivation and Personality, p 93)


In 1964, Maslow introduced the theory of “peak experiences” – transformative mystical raptures of awe; life-changing, transcendental experiences that distort space and time, and self-forgetfulness. Maslow maintained that self-actualized people, those who have the desire to reach their full potential, experience awe and practice gratitude for the extraordinary things they find in the world.




While scientists can’t seem to agree as to whether awe is an emotion or a cognitive state, recent research has taken Maslow's early work to new levels and pointed to some pretty good reasons for more awe in our lives. Recent studies have explored everything from what awe is to what it inspires within us to how it impacts us physically, emotionally, and cognitively.

In 2003, Jonathan Haidt and Dacher Keltner published a landmark study on the social and emotional functions of awe. They described it as existing “in the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear” and reported that nurturing your sense of awe makes you a happier and better person by increasing your sense of connectedness and willingness to help others.

Research conducted by Paul Piff at the University of California reinforced Haidt and Keltner’s work. Piff maintains that the concept of awe centers around two main themes: the feeling of being diminished in the presence of something greater than ourselves, and a greater motivation to be a better person.


In Piff’s research, participants who recalled an experience of awe recounted feeling small relative to the world around them. They also reported a diminished focus on personal concerns or day-to-day stressors. Increased tendencies to experience awe correlated with an increase in generosity, a decrease in a sense of entitlement, as well as positive emotions such as love, compassion, and contentment. Piff concludes that people who nurture a sense of wonder and regularly experience awe and are more altruistic. They contribute more to society by volunteering, giving to charity or making a positive impact on their communities.



The Neuroscience of Awe


Little is known about the neurological mechanisms that underlie the awe experience. One small study found differences in two types of brain waves— theta and beta—between people who did and did not experience awe while in simulated space flight. These findings suggest that people who experienced awe are more focused.


According to a 2016 research study, we’re better thinkers when we experience awe or just recall a time when we experienced awe. Because awe involves a sense of uncertainty, we are naturally compelled to search for understanding through critical thought processing which requires higher executive functions.


In another study published in the journal Human Brain Mapping, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to observe what happens in the brain when we experience awe. They scanned the brains of subjects as they watched three different types of 30-second videos. The videos featured awe-inspiring natural phenomena (e.g., clips from BBC’s Planet Earth series), funny animals, and neutral landscapes.



For the funny and neutral videos, they saw increased activity in regions of the default mode network (DMN)—a brain system that is particularly active when our minds wander or we think about ourselves. The DMN was less active watching the awe videos. This difference suggests that awe may prevent us from ruminating on problems and stressors and enable us to be more present in the moment.



5 Simple Ways to Become More Awesome!

Nurturing your sense of wonder and finding ways to add a little more awe to your life is easier than you think. It requires no special equipment, and it’s absolutely free.


Take a wonder wander. Go in search of something new or novel. Explore a new city, check out a new restaurant, or just take a different route to work. Take an awe walk with no particular destination in mind in search of cool discoveries along the way.


Make your workspace more aesthetically pleasing. Add inspirational messages or photos that trigger good memories. Integrating nature is as simple as a vase of fresh cut flowers or a potted plant. There is a wealth of research on the physical, emotional and mental benefits of nature.


Read and write about awe. Research shows that some of the benefits of awe, including reduced anxiety and increased prosocial behaviors, can be elicited by writing about a time you experienced awe or reading awe-inspiring stories by others. Sidetracked Magazine offers countless stories of “those who put themselves out there, setting aside fear and doubt in order to experience the breathtaking, the awe-inspiring and the magical.”


Watch an awe-inspiring video. Browse National Geographic or YouTube to learn something new about animals or science or space or nature. The possibilities are endless. Videos like this one from BBC involve a sense of vastness that puts into perspective your own relatively small place in the world and often make your everyday concerns seem less important.


Open your mind. Intentionally look for novelty, for beauty, for things that you’ve never noticed before in familiar places. Pay attention to the sights, the sounds, the smells. Train yourself to see things the way a child discovers things for the first time.


While Maslow explored peak experiences as life-changing, mystical raptures of awe, anyone who has ever seen the flash of the sun as it plunges into the ocean, watched a hummingbird drink from a feeder, or closely examined the intricacies of a flower knows that we can find awe in even the simplest, seemingly ordinary, things.

Maybe what Maslow was really trying to tell us was there is magic all around us… we just have to learn how to look for it and remember to be grateful for it.


 


 


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