The Mind-Bending Science of Awe

From Sarah Laskow at Atlas Obscura:

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. The two psychology professors aimed to outline the key qualities of an awe-inspiring encounter.

What they suggested was that awe typically includes feelings of vastness—something larger than a person's self or experience—and accommodation—that a person expand their understanding of the world to include this new information.

 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. 

Read the full article here.