Why Do We Feel Awe? Essays & Opinions
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Dacher Keltner

Awe: For Altruism and Health?

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.

In 1757, a revolution in our understanding of awe began thanks to Irish philosopher Edmund Burke. In A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Burke detailed how we feel the sublime (awe) not just during religious ritual or in communion with God, but in everyday perceptual experiences: in hearing thunder, in being moved by music, in seeing repetitive patterns of light and dark. Awe was to be found in daily life.

Today in our Berkeley lab when we study people’s narratives of awe, we find evidence of awe in the quotidian. Yes, awe arises during the extraordinary: when viewing the Grand Canyon, touching the hand of Iggy Pop, or experiencing the sacred during meditation or prayer. More frequently, though, people report feeling awe in response to more mundane things: after the perfect burrito, when seeing the leaves of a Gingko tree change from green to yellow, in beholding the night sky when camping near a river, in seeing a stranger give their food to a homeless person, in seeing their child laugh just like their brother.

A new science is now asking “Why awe?” This is a question we can approach in two ways. First is the distal sense of why awe became part of our species’ emotional repertoire during seven million years of hominid evolution. A preliminary answer is that awe binds us to social collectives and enables us to act in more collaborative ways that enable strong groups.   

For example, in one study from our Berkeley lab, Michelle Shiota had participants fill in the blank of the following phrase: “ I AM ____.”  They did so 20 times, either while standing next to an awe-inspiring replica of a T. rex skeleton in UC Berkeley’s Museum of Paleontology or in the exact same place but oriented to look down a hallway. Those next to the T. rex were more likely to define their individual selves in collectivist terms – as a member of a culture, a species, a university, a moral cause. Awe embeds the individual self into social collectives.

Near to Berkeley’s Museum of Paleontology is a stand of eucalyptus trees, the tallest in North America. When you look up into these trees, and their peeling bark and surrounding nimbus of greyish green light, goosebumps may ripple down your neck, a sure sign of awe. So in the spirit of Emerson and Muir – who found awe in nature and changed our understanding of the sublime – Paul Piff staged a minor accident near that grove to see if awe would prompt greater kindness. Participants first either looked up into the tall trees for one minute or oriented 90 degrees away to look up at the facade of a large science building. Participants then encountered a person who stumbled, dropping a handful of pens into the soft dirt. Our participants filled with awe picked up more pens.   In subsequent studies, we have found that awe – more so than emotions like pride or amusement – leads people to cooperate, share resources, and sacrifice for others, all of which are requirements for our collective life. And still other studies have explained the awe-altruism link; being in the presence of vast things calls forth a more modest, less narcissistic self, which enables greater kindness toward others.

A first answer, then, to the question of “Why awe?” is coming into focus. In the course of our evolution, we became a most social species. We defended ourselves, hunted, reproduced, raised vulnerable offspring, slept, fought, and played in social collectives. This shift to more collective living required a new balancing act, that between the gratification of self-interest and an orientation toward enhancing the welfare of others. Awe emerged as one solution to this problem. Brief experiences of awe redefine the self in terms of the collective and orient our actions toward the interests of others.

A second answer to the question of “Why awe?” is of the proximal kind: what does awe do for you in the present moment? And here, the science is proving to be clear. Momentary experiences of awe stimulate wonder and curiosity. Parents have long known this. Sleep deprived, they watch, on occasion awe-struck, as their four-year-old marvels at every object in the world, in a perpetual state of awe, peppering them with endless questions of why. Biographers routinely discover this in their studies of innovators. Awe drives people to paradigm-shifting discoveries and new technologies. Such was the case of Darwin, Muir, and Einstein. Our studies at Berkeley are finding that simply watching short videos of expansive images of the Earth leads people to generate more unusual exemplars of a category (e.g., “furniture”), to find greater interest in abstract paintings, and to persist longer at working at difficult puzzles when compared to appropriate control conditions. 

Awe also may be important for good health. The focus in our lab is on one branch of the immune system known as the cytokine system. Cytokines are chemical messengers that are often produced by cells in damaged tissue. Many cytokines elicit an inflammatory response, which is important for killing pathogens and healing wounds. Psychology is discovering that a hyperactive cytokine response renders the individual chronically sick and vulnerable to disease, a process that may be involved in how poverty shortens lives. Jennifer Stellar from our lab recently documented that of all the positive emotions humans experience, only awe predicted reduced levels of cytokines. Though this is still quite speculative, it raises the possibility that some of the pernicious effects of poverty are due to awe deprivation.

One last study from our Berkeley lab speaks to the promise of daily awe. Amie Gordon gathered people’s daily reports of awe for two weeks and found that it is surprisingly common in everyday living. Every third day, people feel that they are in the presence of something vast that they do not immediately comprehend. For example, seeing gold and red autumn leaves pirouette to the ground in a light wind; being moved by someone who stands up to injustice; and hearing music on a street corner at 2 AM all elicited such an experience. Intriguingly, each burst of daily awe predicted greater well-being and curiosity weeks later.

Thus, I suggest that you add “seek more daily awe” to this year’s resolutions. Take the time to pause and open your mind to those things which you do not fully understand, and you will be the better for it.

Dacher Keltner is professor of psychology at the University of California.

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