The state of awe is an unusual and complex emotion, mixing emotions that don’t tend to go with each other, such as ecstasy and fear. Surely such a complex emotion that is so deeply personal, cannot be quantified or captured in any scientific manner, right?
Well, maybe it can. While the concept of awe and wonder has a long history in philosophy and religion, William James and Abraham Maslow helped bring it to psychology. Today, much of the contemporary investigation of awe stems from a 2003 paper, “Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion,”, written by Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt. In that seminal article, the authors argued that there are two main cognitive appraisals that are central to awe experiences: the perception of vastness and the struggle to mentally process the experience. Vastness need not be perceptual, such as seeing the Grand Canyon, but can also be conceptual, such as contemplating eternity.
Studies conducted since that 2003 paper have found that people’s ratings of the intensity of their awe experience is associated with a wide range of positive outcomes, including increased life satisfaction, a feeling that there is more time available, increased generosity and helping, and decreased aggressive attitudes. Subjective ratings of awe have also been found to affect the way we perceive our bodies (leading us to underestimate it size), temporarily increase religious and spiritual feelings and actions, and temporarily increase both supernatural belief and the tendency to perceive human agency in random events.
This is all well and good, but do the existing measures of awe really capture the full complexity of this emotion? University of Pennsylvania psychologist David Yaden didn’t think so. Yaden observed that the experimental literature on awe lacked a robust state measure of awe that included multiple dimensions of this self-transcendent experience. In his broader work, Yaden identified the core features of a self-transcendent experience: decreased feelings of self-salience and increased feelings of connectedness (see “The Varieties of Self-Transcendent Experience“). Yaden classified awe as satisfying these criteria.
When my paths crossed with Yaden at Penn, we bonded over our mutual interests in self-transcendence and creativity (among other topics). Almost immediately, we got to work on creating a new awe scale that more fully captures the various aspects of the awe experience as described in the scientific literature, and that captures the essential elements of a self-transcendent experience. We were very grateful to work with a dream team of researchers, including Dacher Keltner, Elizabeth Hyde, Alice Chirico, Andrea Gaggioli, and Jia Wei Zhang.
In our study, we first asked participants to “Please take a few minutes to think about a particular time, fairly recently, when you felt intense awe.” We then had participants write a few paragraphs about their experience. Here are some of the anonymous responses:
- “The moment I set my eyes on the view of the lake during the winter holidays I was immediately in awe. My jaw literally dropped and I was just blown away. The view was jaw-droppingly beautiful. My eyes lit up and my face was all grinning from intense amounts of joy, relief, and awe at the spectacle in front of my eyes.”
- “I was watching Elon Musk give his speech on his intention to send humans to Mars. As he went through the different stages required to build the requisite infrastructure, including a mission to land supplies on Mars, I felt completely floored. I was both amazed and stunned at the size and scope of what he was proposing…”
- “My last time experiencing awe was watching my daughter play Silent Night on her sax. My daughter plays in the jazz Ensemble in school and was given the solo for this year’s convocation… Watching her play recently, she amazes me.”
- “The time that I felt intense awe was when my wife and I went into the Rocky Mountains for our honeymoon. I had never been outside the state of Missouri and couldn’t contemplate something being as large as the mountains are.”
The majority of the participants rated their awe experience as “strongly positive.” We asked participants to specifically indicate what elicited their experience of awe. “Natural scenery” was described as the most frequent trigger, although other triggers were also represented: great skill, encounter with God, great virtue, building or monument, powerful leader, grand theory or idea, music, art, epiphany. The second most represented trigger was the “other” category. Consistent with what Abraham Maslow once observed about peak experiences, a number of the write-in responses referred to childbirth as a trigger for intense awe experiences.
We then had participants fill out a survey that included our new items about the specific experience of awe. The “Awe Experience Scale” included the following core characteristics of the experience:
- Vastness (“I felt in the presence of something grand”)
- Need for Accommodation (“I felt challenged to mentally process what I was experiencing”)
- Time (“I sensed things momentarily slow down”)
- Self-diminishment (“I felt that my sense of self was diminished”)
- Connectedness (“I had the sense of being connected to everything”)
- Physical Sensations (“I felt my jaw drop”)
We found that all six of these facets of the awe experience were substantially related to each other, suggesting that they tend to co-occur during the awe experience. Critically, the scale was related to a number of important variables:
- The greater the experience of awe, the higher the rated intensity of the experience.
- The experience of awe was related to heightened feelings of wonder, curiosity, inspiration, contentedness, appreciation, love, trust, happiness, and joyfulness.
- The only uncomfortable emotions that were uniquely related to the awe experience were “stressed, nervous, overwhelmed.” This is consistent with awe being a unique mix of exaltation and fear/reverence.
- The largest personality trait associated with the awe experience was openness to experience. This makes sense, considering that openness to experience is also related to a number of other self-transcendent experiences, including flow, absorption, appreciation of beauty, and romantic love.
Finally, we found that the awe experience was not associated with level of religiosity, but it was significantly related to spirituality, religious service attendance, and practices such as prayer and meditation. Therefore, while religion certainly encompasses more than just transcendent experiences— religion also serves a fundamentally social, community-binding function— our findings do suggest that certain spiritual practices, rituals, and interventions might be able to increase awe and other transcendent experiences in in all of us—regardless of our religious beliefs.As Yaden puts it, awe is the “everyperson’s spiritual experience.”
In addition to spiritual practices, how else can awe be increased? The scientific findings suggest that increasing exposure to the many “triggers” of awe in one’s daily life can increase the chances that one will increase in awe in one’s daily life. One promising technology for increasing awe among those with a more restricted lifestyle– such as those who are hospitalized or among physically disabled individuals– is Virtual Reality (VR) technology.
Many individuals simply don’t have the physical opportunities to walk the streets of Paris, climb Mount Everest, or orbit planet Earth (well, most of us are not capable of climbing Everest or orbiting Earth). Alice Chirico and her colleagues have been inducing awe in the laboratory by showing participants forests of tall trees in a 360-degree VR environment. Through the use of VR technology, they have been able to increase the intensity of the awe experience as well as increase a sense of presence and even enhance creative thinking.
Researchers have already begun using our Awe Experience Scale in on-going research to measure awe in nature, museum, meditation, virtual reality, and in clinical studies using psychedelics. We hope that our more multidimensional measure of the awe experience will spur even further research on this understudied yet important self-transcendent human emotion.