Scientists Are Trying to Solve the Mystery of Awe

Photo: Michele Falzone

Think about a time you’ve experienced awe. Maybe you were gazing up at a massive mountain range, or looking down into the depths of an infant’s eyes, or watching lightning as it seemed to crack the sky open. Maybe you felt humbled, or shaken; maybe you were struck by the vastness of the universe and your own tiny part in it. Psychologists consider awe a form of “self-transcendence”: you temporarily blur at the edges, feeling a connection to something greater than yourself.

Accounts of awe abound in the arts and humanities, but it wasn’t until relatively recently that psychologists have begun to explore the phenomenon in depth. In 2003, researchers Jonathan Haidt and Dacher Keltner published a landmark study on the social and emotional functions of awe, reporting that it appeared to increase people’s feelings of connectedness and willingness to help others.

“The consequences of awe should be of interest to emotion researchers and to society in general,” they wrote in the study, published in the journal Cognition and Emotion. “Awe-inducing events may be one of the fastest and most powerful methods of personal change and growth.”

More recently, a team of researchers (including Haidt) built on this research in a new paper exploring the psychology of the “overview effect,” published earlier this year in the journal Psychology of Consciousness. The overview effect — the profound reaction astronanuts experience when viewing the Earth from space — was first coined in 1987 by psychologist Frank White, who published a book of the same title. In his research, White found that many of the astronauts had undergone “truly transformative experiences including senses of wonder and awe, unity with nature, transcendence and universal brotherhood.”

Since the first humans were launched into space, plenty of cases of the overview effect have been documented, but researchers have devoted little attention to examining exactly how it works. Inspired by White’s work, David Yaden, a University of Pennsylvania psychology research fellow and the lead author of this latest paper, set out to examine two questions about the effect: First, what is it? And, second, is there a way to use its emotional power in other contexts?

In addition to surveying existing research on self-transcendental experiences, Yaden and his colleagues analyzed astronauts’ accounts of their experiences — like this one from a NASA astronaut identified as Kathryn D., about the first time she saw the Earth from space:

It’s hard to explain how amazing and magical this experience is. First of all, there’s the astounding beauty and diversity of the planet itself, scrolling across your view at what appears to be a smooth, stately pace … I’m happy to report that no amount of prior study or training can fully prepare anybody for the awe and wonder this inspires.”

Or this one, from the German cosmonaut Sigmund Jahn:

Before I flew I was already aware how small and vulnerable our planet is; but only when I saw it from space, in all its ineffable beauty and fragility, did I realize that humankind’s most urgent task is to cherish and preserve it for future generations.

Both descriptions, Yaden explains, contain the two main components of awe. The first is perceptual vastness, or being confronted with something of striking physical magnitude, “like seeing the Grand Canyon.” The second is conceptual vastness, “which is like a mind-blowing idea,” he says.

Past research has shown that awestruck experiences like the ones the astronauts described appear to have psychological benefits, especially relating to altruism. In their paper, Yaden and his colleagues summarized the link between awe and unselfishness. One 2012 study, for example, found that awe “caused people to perceive that they had more time available and lessened impatience” — a social bonding effect that may also have conferred an evolutionary advantage, helping our ancestors to survive.

“Basically, evolutionarily, groups that were able to induce more experiences like awe were more cohesive,” Yaden explains, “and thus cooperated better, and thus more effectively, than other groups who had less awe.”

While these studies make a compelling case for awe’s benefits, it’s a tricky thing to study, largely because the data rely on somewhat subjective self-reporting criteria. Some past research has supplemented participants’ descriptions with facial analysis, though that too is far from exact. (An awed face, generally speaking, will have raised inner eyebrows; widened eyes; an open, slightly drop-jawed mouth; visible inhalation; and a head jutted slightly forward.)

To understand awe more comprehensively, Andrew Newberg, another of the paper’s co-authors and a neuroscientist at Thomas Jefferson University, has been studying the physiological underpinnings of self-transcendent experiences like meditation and prayer. His research, which uses techniques like transcranial direct stimulation, SPECT imaging, and fMRIs, suggests awe may be “felt” by the autonomic nervous system, which controls both our arousal and our calming (fight-or-flight) mechanisms.

“Normally, one side of the autonomic nervous system comes on and the other shuts down,” he says, “but in very intense spiritual experiences and practices like meditation and prayer, there’s evidence to show they mutually turn on at the same time. I think the feeling of awe is the combination of both.”

He points to the brain’s parietal lobe, which contributes to our spatial sense of self and orients us in the physical world — and appears to shut down in awe experiences. “The decrease of activity in that area is going to be associated with a loss of the sense of self, and a loss of the boundary between the self and other things in the world, and ultimately a sense of oneness and connectedness,” he says.

Currently, Yaden and his colleagues are studying ways to foster that feeling of connectedness — specifically, they’re looking into projects that could allow civilians to experience the overview effect, through techniques like virtual reality or a planetarium. Other possible collaborations could include companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic. “The whole space tourism industry … is essentially selling the overview effect,” Yaden says. “You’re not doing science up there. You’re there for the experience.” In the meantime, there’s plenty of awe to be found here on Earth.

Scientists Are Trying to Solve the Mystery of Awe