The Mind-Bending Science of Awe

How a jaw-dropping experience—like a total solar eclipse—can change how you think.

Awe is not an everyday emotion. You don't wake up awestruck. A satisfying lunch doesn't leave you filled with awe. Even a great day is unlikely to leave you in a state of jaw-dropped, consciousness-opening fear and trembling.

Perhaps that's why, up until about ten years ago, psychology "had surprisingly little to say about awe," wrote Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt in a 2003 paper. As the two psychology professors outlined the key qualities of an awe-inspiring encounter, they suggested that awe typically includes feelings of vastness and accommodation. That is, awe is inspired by something larger than a person's self or experience, and that encounter helps expand his or her understanding of the world.

Awe might come from seeing a mountain taller than you thought a mountain could be or listening to a symphony that soars and sinks and feels like it's expanding the universe a bit. People can be awe-inspiring, too: Think of a political leader whose presence and power overwhelms. The emotion of awe might be negative or positive, depending, Keltner and Haidt suggested, on whether or not accommodation happens: It's terrifying if you cannot understand and incorporate a new experience, but enlightening if you do.

The psychologists laid out a research agenda intended to tease out "the similarities and differences between awe and gratitude, admiration, elevation, surprise, fear and perhaps even love." In the years since, they and other researchers have been testing awe. What is it? How does it work? What seems awesome, and why? For the first time, they're starting to understand both what awe does to us and what it might do for us.

When psychologists first started studying awe, one of the unanswered questions was: What do we look like when we're feeling it? Emotions come with facial expressions (smiles for happy, frowns for sad, mouth open for surprise—your basic emoji alphabet). But no one had studied what an awestruck face looks like.

Keltner and two colleagues hypothesized that an awe-filled person would widen her eyes and raise her head, eyes, and eyebrows, just a bit. And they were on track. When they asked people to perform awe, they found that people indeed often raised their eyebrows and widened their eyes. They also opened their mouths and dropped their jaws and, sometimes, breathed in. And, the researchers noticed, few people smiled.

Awe is a serious emotion. "Clues suggest that awe’s function may lie in how it makes you think," Michelle Lani Shiota, who collaborated on this research, wrote. In subsequent experiments looking at "the nature of awe," the researchers found that it often occurs when people have an opportunity to expand their knowledge of the world. When it happened, it turned a person's attention outwards, instead of towards the self.

"Nobody feeling awe is not coming out of their comfort zone," explains Craig Anderson, a doctoral student in Keltner's lab. "The experience of awe is positively coordinated with anxiety. You're experiencing something you’ve never experienced before."

It might be big or small, natural or man-made, but it stops you cold—while other positive emotion arouse the body, people feeling awe are very still—and makes you reevaluate what you actually know.

In other words, awe is kind of mind-bending, and it alters how a person perceives the world in subtle but meaningful ways. It can, for instance, make time seem to slow down.

When Melanie Rudd, an assistant professor at the University of Houston, was reading about awe, she kept coming across mentions of timelessness and this sense that time is stretched out. Time—or the lack thereof—is one of her interests, and she was intrigued by the idea that feeling awe could manipulate people's perceptions of time. In a series of experiments, she showed that after people felt awe, for short while, they felt "less pressed for time."

Awe also encourages people to account for what they're experiencing. When you're feeling this emotion, "you have this strong motivation to explain what's in front of your eyes," says Piercarlo Valdesolo, an assistant professor of psychology at Claremont McKenna College. A couple years back, he and a colleague looked at how people deal with the uncertainty inherent in awe. They found that awe seems to nudge people towards "agentic explanation"—they're less likely to accept that something happened randomly.

Instead, they attribute it to an agent, like a god, a supernatural force, or a person. "There's something about awe that seems intimately related to that," says Valdesolo. In their experiments, people in a state of awe were more likely to report belief in supernatural forces, and to believe that a random series of numbers was created by a human. His recent work indicates that awe also makes people more likely to report that science explains all natural events.

"It generally increases this desire to explain what's in front of you," says Valdesolo. "You gravitate towards whatever explanatory framework you prefer."

All this early research indicates that Keltner and Haidt's initial description of awe was accurate: It's a feeling induced by vastness that requires some sort of mental accommodation to overwhelming new information. The next step is understanding why it exists at all.

Emotions, as a rule, have a purpose. "We've evolved these emotions to help us deal with selection pressures across the evolutionary history of the species," explains Anderson. "When people are scared, they freeze or run away. People that behaved like that tended to survive long enough." In the same way, awe should have some sort of reason for existing. "This pattern of expressive behavior and subjective experience is an evolved response to situations where you’re encountering things that are vast, that sort of blow our minds," Anderson says.

So far, it seems, the purpose of awe might have something to do with drawing people together. Rudd's research shows, for instance, that when awestruck people feel like they have more time, they're more willing to use it to help others. "One of the main reasons that people don’t do those things is that they feel too busy," she says. "If awe can make you feel you’re more rich in time, you’ll be able to give more time away."

A recent study that Keltner's lab collaborated on shows that, even more than other positive emotions, awe promotes generosity. It also improves participants' ethical decision making. A paper still under review indicates that awe can makes people more humble, too.

How does that work, exactly? Anderson's research focuses on curiosity as one possible explanation. People who are prone to feeling awe also score high in curiosity, and it seems like that might be the mechanism by which the emotion creates social benefits. "You're open to meeting new people. Maybe you're a better listener," Anderson says. "Those behaviors fall under the umbrella of 'helping people fold into collectives.'"

"We actually experience awe a lot more frequently than we think," says Rudd. We encounter something in the big wide world, our minds open as we look for an explanation, and as a result we open up to connecting to other people. "But if you are keeping yourself in your routine of life, it’s going to be hard to experience that feeling of accommodation," she says. "Just going out into newness, you’re going to be more likely to run into something that’s awe-inspiring."

This story originally ran July 27, 2015.