Why Do We Feel Awe?
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Why Do We Feel Awe?

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The most beautiful thing
we can experience is the
mysterious. It is the source
of all true art and science.

-Albert Einstein
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Introduction

Why do we experience awe? Unlike fear or anger, it serves no immediately obvious evolutionary purpose. Yet, people all over the world – young and old, educated and uneducated, religious and nonreligious – report profound experiences of awe when faced with unutterable beauty or the incomprehensibly mystifying.

Now, psychologists and neuroscientists are beginning to tackle this strangest of human emotions. Simulations in the laboratory can elicit feelings of awe, and medical instruments can measure our physiological responses. And other researchers have begun hypothesizing about how and why feelings of awe may have evolved for the benefit of mankind.

In this series of essays, we ask researchers to share their thoughts on the most cutting edge aspects of this emerging field of academic study. 

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Opinions

Dacher Keltner

Professor of psychology at the University of California.

By now you’re probably mulling over some of your New Year’s resolutions – do five planks a day, eat more quinoa, keep better track of expenses. Let me add one more to your list: seek more daily awe. 

Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world. Early in human history, awe was reserved for feelings toward divine beings – e.g., gods humans invoked in the village ritual houses that sprang up some 10,000 years ago, the spirits Greek families felt guarded over their fates, and encounters with the divine at the center of the world’s great spiritual traditions.

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Shaun Gallagher

Lillian and Morrie Moss Professor of Excellence at the University of Memphis.

Gazing at the heavens has long been known to elicit feelings of awe and wonder. The first forays into philosophy and science put the night sky at the center of inquiry. Thales, often considered the first philosopher, was an accomplished astronomer who predicted the solar eclipse of May 28, 585 BC. An old tradition, derived from Plato, holds that after dusk he would walk about, eyes fixed on the stars, until the night he tumbled into an open well.   

Of course, one need not be a philosopher to be awestruck by natural beauty. Sunrises and sunsets, views from a mountaintop or from the edges of the sea, desert vistas or the silence of deep forests—all of these can inspire a sense of awe and wonder. What precisely are such feelings, and from where do such experiences arise?

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Kathryn A. Johnson

Assistant research professor of psychology at Arizona State University.

People often experience awe when they encounter things like the vastness of the Grand Canyon, great feats of architectural engineering, or a perfectly pitched symphonic orchestra. These “peak experiences” typically involve moments of self-forgetfulness and a sense of great wonder. We simply cannot grasp the immensity of the Canyon or the colossal challenge of building the Great Pyramid.

Any amazing or information-rich encounter that challenges one’s ability to comprehend can elicit awe. For instance, people can also experience awe when they are exposed to new scientific theories, scientific discoveries, or novel religious and philosophical perspectives outside their perceived norm. Consequently, many psychologists study awe in terms of learning theory and cognitive development.  In that sense, awe is an emotion that arises when we try to comprehend or accommodate new information that challenges, disorients, or overwhelms our existing knowledge structures. 

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Michelle Lani Shiota

Professor of psychology at Arizona State University.

More than 4.5 million people visited the Grand Canyon National Park in 2013; more than 3.5 million visited Yosemite. That same year, worldwide revenues for Cirque du Soleil, the Quebecois theatrical venture emphasizing extreme feats of acrobatics and agility, were close to $850 million. Fireworks displays, first developed in seventh-century China, are now featured in celebrations throughout the world at tremendous public expense. The Hubble telescope, which provides our most vivid images of outer space, initially cost $1.5 billion to launch—and accumulated costs of the project have been estimated at over $10 billion.

A behavioral scientist looks at these numbers and asks, Why? Why do people spend huge amounts of time, effort, and money on these apparently pointless activities? An economist might conclude that they are all an appalling waste of resources. Why are fireworks, circuses, and images of distant space experienced as so moving and meaningful, when they offer neither material nor social reward?

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Jesse Graham and Sarah Estes

Jesse Graham is a professor of psychology at the University of Southern California. Sarah Estes is a "To Think, To Write, To Publish" Fellow in creative nonfiction funded by the National Science Foundation.

The experience of awe can be profoundly uplifting, providing a sense of happiness, well-being, and even meaning in life. But the experience of awe can also be terrifying and upsetting, causing the overpowering “fear and trembling” described by Kierkegaard and the existentialists who followed him. Awe is a unique emotion for many reasons, not least of which is this tendency to be both positive and negative in valence.  Reviewing the scant empirical literature on awe, Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt concluded that its essential features were not overall good or bad feelings, but rather, on the one hand, some perception of vastness, and, on the other hand, an adjustment of one’s mental structures (sometimes even one’s entire worldview) in order to accommodate that vastness.

What purpose could such a multifaceted emotion serve? Scientists and philosophers have long debated whether religion (including both collective practices and specific beliefs in gods and the afterlife) is an evolutionary adaptation, or a byproduct of other adaptations. These same debates can be applied to our capacity for awe. While many feeling states produce action tendencies that are clearly adaptive—such as fight-or-flight responses, disgust-based avoidance of harmful substances, or perhaps even making amends to others when feeling guilt and remorse—this doesn’t seem to be the case with awe. You might feel indescribable awe and wonder at the edge of the Grand Canyon, but it is not at all consistently clear what to do with this intense feeling. Write a poem? Sing a hymn? Go tell others about what you saw and felt? Try to capture the experience in a photo? Pray?

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