Exercising AWE

Have you ever been faced with something so wondrous – the starry night, the lapping of the giant blue ocean, soaring music, intricate architecture – that you felt lifted out of yourself, transported to another dimension of thought and feeling? If yes, then you have known the feeling of awe. In recent years, scientists have been trying to unravel this unique and mysterious emotion and have found that it holds profound benefits for our well-being. We thought we would put together a short primer on the experience of awe, so we can learn how to have more of it in our lives! 

  • What is awe?

In a 2003 paper, psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt presented a “conceptual approach to awe.” They suggested that awe experiences can be characterized by two phenomena: “perceived vastness” and a “need for accommodation.” 

  1. “Perceived vastness” can come from observing something literally physically large (ocean/skies) or from a more theoretical perceptual sense of vastness—such as being in the presence of someone with immense prestige or being presented with a complex idea like the theory of relativity. 
  1. An experience evokes a “need for accom-modation” when it violates our normal understanding of the world. When a stimulus exceeds our expectations in some way, it can provoke an attempt to change the mental structures that we use to understand the world. This need for cognitive realignment is an essential part of the awe experience as conceptualized by Keltner and Haidt.

Experiencing awe often puts people in a self-transcendent state where they focus less on themselves and feel more like a part of a larger whole. In this way, awe can be considered an altered state of consciousness, akin to a flow state, in addition to an emotional state. 

  • What are common sources of awe?

The most common sources of awe are other people and nature, but awe can be elicited by many other experiences as well, such as music, art or architecture, religious experiences, the supernatural, or even one’s own accomplishments. 

  • What are the effects of awe?

Awe experiences may bring with them a host of physiological, psychological, and social effects. For example, studies have found that feelings of awe can be accompanied by heart rate changes, “goosebumps,” and the sensation of chills, and there is some evidence that awe may even decrease markers of chronic inflammation. 

When it comes to psychological effects, studies have found that awe can create a diminished sense of self (an effect known as “the small self ”), give people the sense that they have more available time, increase feelings of connectedness, increase critical thinking and skepticism, increase positive mood, and decrease materialism. Multiple studies have found evidence that experiencing awe makes people more kind and generous.

  • How do we build more awe into our lives?

The beneficial emotion of awe can be brought into our lives more fully by creating certain ideal conditions for it to thrive in. To make it easy to remember think of the acronym A.W.E.:

  1. A – Attention: Focus your mind and heart on things that are likely to foster awe.
  2. W – Wait: After you focus your attention, your mind quiets down. If you wait – at least the length of one full inhalation—you can begin to experience a state of coherence. As the poet W.B. Yeats wrote, “The world is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”
  3. E – Exhale and expand: When you exhale, you relax, and when you expand, you amplify whatever sensations you are experiencing. By combining focused attention with a respiratory pattern in which your exhalation is longer than your inhalation—about 2:1—you are opening the gateway to awe.

This primer has been extracted from the paper ‘The Science of Awe’ prepared by the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) at UC Berkeley in 2018 and the GGSC’s archive on awe which you can access here for further reading.