The Power of Awe Download PDF

Why you need to start blowing your mind more often.

Last august 21 at 4:30am, I roused my 7-year-old son, Simon, from his bed in a creaky hotel in Cheyenne, Wyoming. In a few hours, a rare solar eclipse would occur. Dawn revealed a brilliant blue sky, promising a clear view of totality. Simon was thrilled; I felt indifferent. Neither of us had witnessed an eclipse. But my expectations were tempered. I’d been to Machu Picchu, Victoria Falls, the Himalayas. An eclipse is a mere two minutes of solar showmanship. Big whoop.

We scouted all morning for the perfect viewpoint, driving pockmarked jeep roads before settling atop 6,400- foot Prairie Dog Hill. Wearing protective glasses, we watched the sun become a black disk, a void in the heavens. Yellow tendrils danced along its circumference. A starry night sky appeared—even though it was 11:44 a.m. Crickets started chirping, and then a crimson glow swept the horizon, creating the startling illusion of a 360-degree sunrise.

“Oh my goshhh!” Simon yelled. “Oh, wow! Wow!”

Witnessing my child’s pure and unmitigated elation ended my indifference, as did this cosmic spectacle that seemed to slow time. I was simultaneously energized, intellectually aroused, and overcome with unbounded optimism—as if life had suddenly revealed its infinite potential. There were about a dozen other onlookers nearby, and I had the inexplicable urge to hug each and every one of them. Nothing had ever made me feel like this.

It was awesome.

Scientists have been studying the effects of awe for some time. In 2003, psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt defined the emotion as being somewhere between “the upper reaches of pleasure and … the boundary of fear.”

“Awe is triggered by the perception of either perpetual or conceptual vastness,” says David Bryce Yaden, Ph.D., a research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania who studies brain response to transcendent experiences. Solar eclipses, the Grand Canyon, and the Milky Way engage the perpetual form, which is largely visual and nature- based, he explains. Stirring TED Talks, music, and art kindles the conceptual variety, which is more cerebral and subjective to the person experiencing it. Both blow your mind but in very different ways.

And here’s the best part: Awe is not only mentally invigorating but also appears to be physiologically beneficial. Research shows that it may lower your risk of inflammation, ease stress, aid immunity, enhance well-being, improve your marriage, and more. Compared with toiling away on the treadmill or choking down kale, it’s an easy and fun way to improve your mental and physical health. Here’s how it works, and how to use it to make your health (and entire life) more awesome.

Awe May Reduce Inflammation
Chronic inflammation in the body is associated with many illnesses, including cardio- vascular disease, arthritis, diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s. In 2015, Jennifer Stellar, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, analyzed how various emotions are associated with a blood protein called inter- leukin-6 (IL-6), a common indicator of inflammation.

Stellar evaluated seven different emotions—joy, love, pride, amusement, compassion, contentment, and awe. Study participants completed a survey on how frequently and intensely they experienced these emotions. Then Stellar collected saliva samples to determine their IL-6 levels. She found that people who reported feeling more awe had lower levels of IL-6.

This was the first evidence of a potential biological path- way between awe and reduced inflammation. And of those seven emotions, awe was the strongest predictor of lower levels of IL-6. Stellar is now tracking IL-6 in real time with people in the midst of awe- inspiring moments. 

Awe Lowers Stress and Affects Immunity
Every morning as Neha John-Henderson, Ph.D., com- mutes to work, she makes a special effort to appreciate the stunning mountain scenery. An assistant professor of psychology at Montana State University in Bozeman, she studies the influence of stress on human immunity. And she’s learned that the awe she experiences may affect how likely she is to become ill.

The reason, once again, is inflammation. People who report high levels of stress tend to have higher levels of inflammation in their immune system; but John-Henderson’s research found that people who reported experiencing more awe had lower levels, per- haps because awe enables you to view stress from a healthier perspective.

Not only can awe be used to proactively manage stress, but it can also help depressurize you during particularly anxious times; in fact, says John-Henderson, that’s when awe might have the most anxiety-reducing benefit. Feeling stressed? Take a break and do one of the awesome things listed in “One Totally Awesome Week”.

Awe Inspires Creativity
Melanie Rudd, Ph.D., an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Houston, has done research in the Swiss Alps. There she put her volunteers either in a parking lot, which she describes as (duh) a “low-awe condition,” or on a mountain summit, a “high-awe condition with this glorious panoramic landscape.” She provided ample time for both groups to take in the views and complete a short survey. Then she offered a choice of thank- you gifts: a bag of prepackaged trail mix or a chance to make their own using the same dried fruit and nut selections. Those who’d ridden the gondola to the mountaintop overwhelmingly chose the do-it-yourself option.

Rudd later confirmed these findings by showing TV commercials to another set of volunteers that were either happy, neutral, or awe-inspiring (with images of waterfalls, whales, and astronauts in space). “Then we asked if they wanted a coupon to buy pre-made chocolates for a loved one for Valentine’s Day, or a recipe to make the chocolates themselves,” she says. Those who viewed the awe-inspiring commercial were more inclined to embrace their inner chocolatier.

So what’s going on here? Rudd showed that the experience of awe shakes our confidence in our existing knowledge and makes us more motivated to learn. And what do we do with this desire to learn? As her findings indicate, we make stuff. “Awe can enhance people’s openness to learning, and as a consequence they want to create,” she says.

Awe May Lift Your Mood
More than 21 percent of American adults will experience a mood disorder at some point in their lives. New science suggests that regularly experiencing awe might provide a potent boost to your mood and sense of well-being.

Last year, scientists scanned the brains of attendees at a weeklong spiritual retreat where they were expected to have many awe-inducing experiences. Scans from before and during the event suggested positive changes in the function of serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters that are part of the brain’s reward and emotional systems.

Other studies have found changes in the autonomic nervous system that connects the brain and body. Normally, the sympathetic (arousal) system and the parasympathetic (quiescent) system are yin and yang; when one rises, the other falls, maintaining your body’s overall equilibrium. But that all changes with awe, because these two systems seem to elevate simultaneously.

“So you not only have this incredible rush of energy and joy,” explains study coauthor Andrew Newberg, M.D., a neuroscientist at Thomas Jefferson University, “but also a tremendous sense of calmness and bliss.” The feeling of connectedness that awe induces is another possible mood lifter, adds Yaden, who was also involved in the research.

Awe Evokes Spirituality
Loads of scientific evidence trumpets the health benefits of spirituality—churchgoers live longer, it enhances mental health, and it has been associated with better self- reported physical health in cancer patients. Some doctors credit the placebo effect: If you’re convinced that your god has healing powers, then so is your immune system, which responds accordingly by get- ting you well. But you don’t have to be born again to enjoy the benefits of spirituality. Several studies illustrate that awe can produce spiritual or religious- type experiences.

In a series of experiments, Piercarlo Valdesolo, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Claremont McKenna College in California, played clips from BBC One’s Planet Earth to people who were later questioned about their beliefs on two competing evolutionary theories. One theory emphasized the role of randomness in natural selection; the other depicted evolution as directed, implying an omnipotent force in control. Valdesolo says he was amazed when participants describing themselves as “non-theists who believe in the explanatory power of science” predominantly favored the directed-evolution explanation. Put another way: Awe suddenly made them more spiritual.

Why? Humans have an innate desire for order and explanation; we hate randomness and uncertainty. It’s stressful. “So whatever is avail- able to alleviate that feeling of randomness or uncertainty, you will take,” Valdesolo says.

Awe Makes You Less of a Dick
Sometimes it’s hard to be nice. When you’re stressed, angry, frustrated, or exhausted, you can become a self-absorbed dickhead. Stellar and her fellow researcher Paul Pi, Ph.D., a psychologist at UC Irvine, wanted to know how much awe it takes to remain amiable during trying times. They recruited 93 undergraduate students and split them into two groups: A control group was led to an area on the UC Berkeley campus with a mundane view of nothing in particular; the second group took an elevator to the top of a 200- foot clock tower from where they could gaze outward for miles. Everyone was given four minutes to look at their surroundings, during which time researchers administered a survey that asked them to rank the intensity of 14 distinct emotions, with awe and humility among them.

Not surprisingly the control group felt significantly less awe than the people in the clock- tower. But those on the tower also ranked humility high. In fact, awe and humility seemed to be inextricable, with the former inducing the latter.

“Awe is the emotional vehicle that makes you feel connected to something larger than your- self,” says Pi. “Awe makes you feel less entitled, less narcissistic, and more compassion- ate because it makes you feel less important. That’s the part that matters for kindness and generosity.”

Awe Strengthens Relationships
Astronauts who view Earth from space often report feeling a oneness with humanity and the universe. It’s a shift in mindset that psychologists call the “overview effect.” According to Soviet cosmonaut Boris Volynov, who flew two Soyuz missions, “you begin to be more kind and patient with the people around you.”

Dr. Newberg mapped blood- flow in the brains of people experiencing a spiritual sense of awe. He found that the region in charge of establishing our sense of self in the world partially shuts down. Meanwhile, the area controlling emotions and arousal res up, releasing feel-good dopamine. In short, awe dissolves the boundary between self and others. We become less self-absorbed and more focused on the emotional needs of others.

Awe’s impact on intimacy soars even higher when people witness a mind-blowing event together. “Any time you have a shared emotional experience, it’s a stronger experience and it starts to de ne the relationship,” explains Valdesolo. Seeking out awe-inspiring moments with anyone you want to feel closer to induces open-mindedness and affection, he explains.

“It may override the boredom, the routine you get into,” adds awe researcher Amie Gordon, Ph.D. “It might help you to see that person in a different light, and feel closer and connected.” My son and I reminisced about our eclipse odyssey for months. The next total solar eclipse visible from the United States will be on April 8, 2024. You can bet we’ll be there.

Copyright © Michael Behar. All Rights Reserved.

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