The Benefits of Awe Experiences

Preliminary studies by Jennifer Stellar at Berkeley indicate that of all the positive experiences, only awe predicts a significant reduction in cytokine levels. High levels of this chemical messenger are associated with excessive inflammation and increased vulnerability to disease. Other studies at Berkeley show that simply watching a short video of expansive natural images lead to better results in test of creativity and more persistence while attempting to perform difficult tasks. I recently saw a documentary film, “Antarctica: A Year on Ice”, by Anthony Powell. I think essentially everyone would be awestruck after seeing such a beautiful film.

A study by Arnie Gordon at Berkeley indicated that awe experiences are relatively common, occurring on average every third day. These experiences create a “stop-and-think” moment that makes us more receptive to new information and more aware of others. Awe sensations can be triggered by such things as appreciating the wonders of nature, art, music, acts of kindness or experiencing something vast that is not immediately understood.

In modern society we tend to spend too much time looking at our cell phones or generally being self-absorbed. It’s important that we actively seek out every day awe experiences. It’s not that hard. For example, I have found that if I have a camera in my hand and I’m looking for something nice to photograph, I’m much more apt to see beauty in simple things like patterns, textures, or colors. Watching children experience the world is another frequent source of awe.

I recently heard about something my granddaughter did. I didn’t actually see what Emily did, but I could picture it in my mind. I was a bit concerned about Emily when she was younger because she seemed to be inordinately afraid of dogs, but that seems to have changed now that she is two years old. A friend of my daughter and son-in-law came to visit them and brought along a six-month-old black Labrador. Emily delighted in playing with the dog and chasing after him. She finally tired the dog out to the point where the dog needed to take a nap. She was told the dog needed to go “nighty night.” When the dog laid down to sleep, Emily got her blanket to cover the dog… along with one of her favorite stuffed animals. That act of kindness and altruism was certainly an awe moment for me.

The importance of Awe!

I was going to entitle this entire blog site “Awesome Antarctica” because it relates to how I feel about many of my Antarctic experiences and because it ties into the book I have just written. But then I realized my blog was going to cover a wide variety of topics unrelated to Antarctica. Also, the word “awesome” is so overused these days that it has lost much of its power. However, the feeling of awe is more important than most people realize. In fact, it has become the topic of a number of psychological studies.

Scientists think that one of the reasons why we as humans experience the feeling of awe is because such a transcendent experience helps us think more about beauty, nature and humanity. Studies have shown that such feelings help us think more of others and less about ourselves. In an evolutionary sense, it has helped us realize that we are part of something larger, part of a group. And that has aided in our survival as we began to live in social collectives.

Studies also show that the experience of awe helps to stimulate feelings of wonder and curiosity, which undoubtedly has led to numerous important discoveries to advance civilization.

I’ve not seen any studies about when feelings of awe begin, but I think they begin early in life. When my lovely granddaughter, Emily, was only fifteen months old, she ended up having to watch a home video. I assumed she would find it thoroughly boring. I took the video when my wife and I traveled to France along with a small group of adults. I didn’t think Emily would have any interest in such things as cathedrals, medieval towns or World War II battle sites. I guessed the only reason why she didn’t start squirming right away was because she was comfortable resting in grandma’s arms while she quietly sucked on her bottle and passively watched the video. Twenty-five minutes later the video showed a scene of Monet’s Garden— a classical shot of an arched bridge over a reflective pond filled with lily pads and surrounded by flowering trees. Emily suddenly sat upright, dropped her bottle and said “Wow.” I didn’t even know that word was part of her limited vocabulary. There was no doubt in my mind that she was awestruck by the beauty of the scene. And I was similarly awed by her reaction, not only because it was so unexpected and so welcome, but also because I realized we both shared the same sense of beauty. In a sense, the same shared humanity.