The Power of Awe

  • 8 June 2016
  • sjanicke

I don’t think I can remember a time when I had that many goose pumps as I had last week. And no, it was not because I was cold. It was a result of sitting in the car for, what ended up being, about 25 hours. Well, sort of. I drove across the country which gave me the opportunity to witness all sorts of natural wonders I never encountered before: The beautiful wide open desert in the “enchanted” state of new Mexico, wooden trees from a time before the dinosaurs in the petrified forest in Arizona, and most impressive, the vastness of the Grand Canyon. If you have an experience that you cannot put into words, your mouth opens, your eyebrows rise, and chills trickle down your back, you are likely experiencing the self-transcendent emotion of awe.

Awe is one emotion of a group of self-transcendent emotions (also including, for example, elevation and gratitude) which all have in common that they transcend the self, meaning they get us out of our ego-focused heads and oriented towards others and things greater than ourselves.

Awe, specifically, is the amazement elicited by vast stimuli—such as certain forms of beauty, ability, perfection, supernatural causality—that require a measure of accommodation because our capacity to understand and comprehend the experience is challenged. So things like grand vistas as the Grand Canyon, for example, great skills, such as a 5 year old (or really anybody) playing Beethoven’s 9ths symphony on the piano, or breathtaking architecture, art, and music all can elicit awe and make us feel small and insignificant, and the presence of something greater than ourselves.

Research has documented a host of amazing effects from the experience of awe. For example, the researchers Rudd, Vohs and Aaker (2012) found that participants who watched an awe inspiring video of beautiful nature or recalled an experience of awe, felt like they have more time available afterwards, were less impatient, more willing to volunteer their time to help other people, preferred experiences over material products and experienced greater life satisfaction compared to a control group. 

The researcher Paul Piff and his colleagues showed that specifically awe (compared to other self-transcendent emotions) predicted greater generosity in an economic game, ethical decision-making, generosity, and prosocial values. Additionally, the researchers showed that when participants looked at some amazing large eucalyptus trees, compared to a control group who looked up a tall building, they showed more prosocial helping behavior (helping a person pick up pens that the person dropped) and less entitlement.

Additionally, studies show that awe can make us more curious, creative, and can enhance our critical thinking skills.

Together these research findings indicate that awe seems to enhance our collective concerns towards others, makes us feel more connected, kindhearted, less narcissistic, humble, and it breaks down the us vs. them thinking, which is the root of many societal problems in today’s world.

So really, awe is an incredible powerful self-transcendent emotion.

Now, what do we do if we don’t have the Grand Canyon around the corner to get us awe inspired?

As outlined in this great article by Dacher Keltner, a University of Berkeley Professor and founding director of The Greater Good Science Center, awe experiences do not always have to come from the most incredible sceneries or situations. In fact, we can experience awe also from the small and mundane things in everyday life: The tiny flower that grows out of the cement (or as in my case, out of my sink) against all odds, the vast star filled sky at night, thunder and lightning, or changing of the leaves in the fall. 

Research shows that, on average, people experience awe every three days and the more awe we experience, the greater is our well-being and curiosity even weeks later.

Now, Keltner argues that even though even the small things can elicit awe, due to our increased work hours and our technology addiction, we spend less time in nature, with life music, in museums or at other art events, and thus, decrease our likelihood to experience awe in our lives. However, I think that he forgets that the time we spend on our smart phones and with our technologies in fact, can be a great source of awe inspiration.

The first example that comes to mind when it comes to awe inspiration and media, is probably Jason Silva, a media artist, filmmaker, philosopher and youtybe legend of “shots of awe”. He awe inspires thousands of people daily with mind expanding consciousness talks using video and sound editing for an (almost) whole body experience. 

Another example would be sitting in an Imax theater and watching “Hubble” or Jake in “Avatar” flying across the pandora landscape on a beautiful dragon like creature.

Generally, I would even argue that thanks to social media we can come across experiences of “wow” and awe more frequently than we ever would in reality. How often do you see beautiful nature scenes posted in your facebook feed? Or extraordinary talents of people displayed or musical performances shared? The current media landscape makes it possible for me to  get the chills from listening to Stevie Wonder in an online video even though I cannot afford or I am not close to the life performance. Thanks to the researcher Dacher Keltner from the University of Berkeley who advised facebook on their new Emoji options, we now can even express our awe experience with the “wow” Emoji and it looks like we are doing this quite often as well. (see picture)

Of course, at the same time, we may miss out on some mundane awe inspiring experience in the real world while focusing on our phones all day long and I would never argue that social media is now a substitute for experiencing awe in nature or in the presence of other people. However, I think we don’t give social media any credit to be a source for wonder and awe; something we should, however, considering how much time we spend with this medium nowadays.

Even more so, with examples such as the videos of Jason Silva, or other edited forms of video or music and art online, awe stimuli can be created at a speed and in an amount never imaginable before the advent of social media.

That in and of itself is awe-inspiring, I think.