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Science with Sam: What is awe?

Being awestruck can bring a host of benefits from lowering stress to boosting creativity. But what exactly is awe, and how do we get more of it in our lives?



Mind



15 June 2021

Being awestruck can bring a host of benefits from lowering stress and boosting creativity to making us nicer people. But what exactly is awe, and how do we get more of it in our lives? Whether it’s looking at the night sky, listening to a breathtaking piece of music, or watching mind-blowing science videos on YouTube, it’s easier than you think to feel awe every day. Want to be more awesome? Like and subscribe to our channel for more mind-blowing science videos.

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Video transcript

Being awestruck can bring a host of benefits from boosting creativity to lowering stress, to making us nicer people. But what exactly is awe? And how do we get more of it in our lives?

You don’t have to go into space to feel the power of awe. Have you ever been stopped in your tracks by a stunning view, or gobsmacked by the vastness of the world around us?

What is awe?

Psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt define awe as the feeling we get when we’re confronted with something vast, that transcends our frame of reference and that we struggle to understand. It’s an emotion that combines amazement with an edge of fear, and it can dissolve our very sense of self.

Throughout history, powerful leaders have exploited awe to exert control, using grand buildings, monuments and stories to make their subjects feel inconsequential. Think about the pyramids of Egypt, the Inca Temples of Peru, or even Trump Tower. And although awe has often been linked to spiritual or religious experiences, atheists can feel it too.

If you stand in front of a dinosaur skeleton, a cathedral, or an amazing natural view or artwork, you’re quite likely to experience something like Jim Lovell did when he looked at Earth from above. By expanding our attention to see a big picture, awe can make us feel very small. Literally.

The science of awe

One study found that people drew themselves smaller after an awe-inducing experience, but it didn’t affect their sense of status or self-esteem. Another study found that people who watched an awe-inspiring video estimated their bodies to be physically smaller than those who watched a funny or neutral video.

Using fMRI scans, scientists have discovered changes inside the brain that might be responsible. When people feel awe, it lowers activity in the default mode network, a collection of brain areas thought to make up our sense of self.  

Altering your sense of self might sound scary, but it can make you a better person. Research has shown that feeling awe can make people behave more ethically and generously.

Gazing up at tall eucalyptus trees left people more likely to help someone who stumbled in front of them.  In another study, volunteers stood in front of a T rex skeleton, and afterwards, described themselves as more connected to other people.

Awe can have personal benefits as well. It’s been shown to make us feel happier and less stressed, even weeks after an awesome experience. It cuts the production of cytokines, chemicals in the blood that promote inflammation. And it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms our fight-or-flight response.

How can we get more awe in our lives?

Most of us will never get the chance to look down on Earth from above. But simulating this effect on Earth might do the trick.

When researchers took more than 100 people on a virtual trip to space, the participants reported similar benefits to real astronauts, including tranquillity, elation, and increased altruism.

Seeing expansive videos of Earth has been found to boost people’s curiosity and creativity, inspiring them to think more originally in tests, show greater interest in abstract paintings and persist longer on difficult puzzles.

That might be why you feel as if you are stepping outside yourself, and your internal monologue goes quiet. 

Another way to inspire a powerful experience of awe is to through psychedelic drugs. Magic mushrooms and LSD also suppress the brain’s default mode network. Volunteers who have taken these drugs for research describe having their sense of self altered and feeling more connected to other people. They report feeling happier and more altruistic afterwards, and these benefits can last a year or more.

But you don’t need drugs to get a regular dose of awe. Surveys suggest people feel low-level awe on average a couple of times a week. Getting more awe can simply be a process of thinking about what inspires awe for you and building it into your routine.

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