Awe is a complex emotion. Despite having been pondered for thousands of years by philosophers and religions, it is only in the last two decades that awe has received scientific study.
Whilst the reason for this delay isn’t clear, since the study of awe began in earnest, it has been revealed as a vital emotion for people to experience.
Let’s cut to the chase; when do you experience awe?
I’m sure everyone has felt it at some point, even if you were unaware what it was you were experiencing. Awe can be elicited in many ways; staring up at a hundred year old tree, looking out of a waterfall as water cascades down below, watching an Olympian achieve a world record, comprehension of a complex theory, or staring up at the vastness of the night sky.
According to one of the foundational studies concerning awe by Keltner and Haidt in 2003, there are two factors that combine to create awe; perceived vastness and the need for accommodation.
Perceived vastness is essentially what it says on the box. To induce awe in someone, the stimuli must be vast. This doesn’t always mean physically vast, however, like staring up at the Milky Way or down into the Grand Canyon. Perceived vastness can refer to an idea or concept that, to put it simply, blows your mind. Or a person whose statue or reputation strikes you down with awe.
The second condition to induce awe is ‘need for accommodation’. Essentially, this is the term that describes the need to wrap your head around something outside of your experience. It is why, when faced with something awesome, we can feel small, insignificant; our ‘need for accommodation’ is making us question our place in the universe and perhaps readjusting it.
When these two conditions are met, you can experience awe.
But why should we seek that out? Why did awe evolve in the first place?
To be annoying, I’m going to tackle the second question first.
There are two main theories as to why awe evolved, both have evidence for and against, bear this in mind when reading.
The first is one proposed by Ketner and Haidt in their 2003 study; social harmony. Rather, the maintenance of social hierarchies that allow for groups of human to cooperate effectively. We know that a person can invoke awe. Whether via some physical achievement such as winning an extraordinary amount of Olympic medals, or through sheer personality or perhaps, political prowess. This is the basis of the social harmony theory, awe elevates people that the group decides are worth elevating, thus reinforcing the accepted societal structure.
But whilst awe may have evolved for this reason, there is another theory that has been postulated by researched Chricio and Yaden in 2018, that of ‘nature-first’. As the name suggests, this theory puts forth the idea that awe evolved as a response to natural stimuli, perhaps to allow early humans to identify favourable places that were safe from predators. It is easy to imagine that the best places to survive are ones in which predators are easy to spot; high points surrounded by sweeping vistas where visibility is at it’s greatest. Such locations are often associated with eliciting awe today.
Both of these theories find support when you consider what awe can do for you. The most well-known side-effect of awe is that of insignificance. That’s not to say that you don’t matter, it’s merely stating that when faced with something that challenges your sense of self, often the result is a readjustment of where you fit in the universe.
Let’s look at that example in detail. From our perspective, Earth is huge. One person would be stretched to see it all in their lifetime, even if they lived until well over one hundred. We as people must choose where we spend our time, and who we spend it with. Those two things are vitally important and shouldn’t be taken for granted, but let’s zoom out a little. The Moon is not quite 385 000km away; it would take almost one hundred Australia’s laid out in a row to reach from Earth to the Moon.
Let’s zoom out again; Venus is the next planet to Earth if you look towards the Sun. At it’s closest point to Earth, it is 41 000 000 km away. That’s roughly 106x the distance of Earth to the Moon. And in that vast distant, there is nothing but the expanse of space.
The idea that the planets are sitting next to each other is a common one, because that is how the maps of the solar systems display them.
It’s hard to break away from this idea but when you do, I can almost guarantee that you will be awe-struck by the true vastness of our solar backyard.
But numbers are often dismissed, really, what is 41 000 000 km? We can’t imagine it, and so we dismiss it.
Thankfully, there are smarter people than I, and Josh Worth has done the work to truly capture the size of the solar system.
Scroll right and have your mind blown, then come back and I’ll tell you why being awestruck is a great thing.
You feel smaller.
I’ve spoken about it already and used the term insignificance but that isn’t entirely accurate. Awe doesn’t make you insignificant, it makes you feel smaller. That may seem like a distinction without a difference, but insignificance leads to the belief that you don’t matter, and that couldn’t be farther from the truth. When you feel smaller, whether it be looking up at the sky or out onto a vast sweeping savannah, you re-assess your place in the world and multiple studies (I’ll link them in Further Reading) have shown that this increases your sense of connectedness to the world, decreases materialism, and increases pro-social behaviour, whilst also making you more humble and more likely to be honest about your strengths and weaknesses.
Not only that, but awe can increase your skepticism, and decrease the likelihood that you will be persuaded by weak or poor arguments by increasing your ability to think critically. But personally, I think the most important side-effect of awe is how it influences your perception of time.
A 2012 study by Rudd, Vohs, and Aaker, found that people induced to feel awe felt that time was more plentiful and expansive than a group of people induced to feel happiness. More importantly, other studies have found that those who experience awe regularly find time to be more expansive and are therefore more willing to spend their time helping others, volunteering for charities, and are more likely to seek experiences over material gain.
Awe can’t give you more time, but it can make you feel like the time you have is better spent.
I hope in the future, when presented with the opportunity to experience awe, whether it’s taking a moment outside to look up, meditating, staring out at the ocean, or looking into a mind-bending theory, you take it because it will make you feel better.
Even if it has to make you feel small first.