Lindsay Christensen



Taking in a breathtaking sunrise, the expansive view from the top of a mountain, a vast field full of blooming wildflowers, or the birth of a child – these experiences share the ability to induce a profound emotion – awe. While “awe” is often most recognizable in children as they expand their grasp of the world, it is far from a fleeting feeling for children alone. Research shows that awe can powerfully shift everyone’s (adults included!) physical, mental, and emotional health and bring deeper meaning into our lives. Read on to learn about the science of awe and how to incorporate more of this powerful emotion into your life.

What Is Awe?

Awe is a complex emotion that is difficult to define. Merriam-Webster defines awe as “an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime.” While awe can be positive or negative, in the Western world, we primarily associate awe with positive experiences; studies show it is positive awe experiences that are associated with health benefits. (Source, Source)

Positive awe experiences are often induced by nature, spiritual or religious experiences, or music. They are characterized by goosebumps, exclamations of “wow” or “whoa,” and the sensation that you are witnessing something profound.

Scientists believe that awe evolved to help our ancestors survive in the face of uncertain environments. It is becoming clear that awe experiences still serve an essential purpose in the modern-day world, benefiting our physical, mental, and emotional health. In fact, experiencing awe may provide the same positive health impacts as meditation, which is lauded for its health benefits! (Source)

Awe may represent a “pathway” to mental and physical health by engaging several vital processes in our bodies:

  1. Altering the function of the nervous system.
  2. Diminishing focus on oneself and increasing focus on one’s community and helping others.
  3. A heightened sense of meaning, also referred to as a “sense of purpose.”

Together, these shifts may enhance our well-being, helping us achieve a higher expression of health. (Source)

Awe: A Healing Tool

Emerging research indicates awe has diverse physiological effects on the body; in fact, some have gone so far as to describe it as a healing tool. Awe may confer health benefits by stimulating the vagus nerve, reducing activity in the default-mode network, increasing oxytocin, and aiding the immune system. Let’s discuss each of these health effects in turn. (Source)

Awe Stimulates The Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve is one of the main nerves in the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is the nervous system branch responsible for the “rest and digest” response. The vagus nerve regulates functions such as digestion, heart rate, and the immune system. In our stressed-out world, parasympathetic nervous system activity is often dampened while sympathetic (“fight or flight”) activity is ramped up. Practices that support the vagus nerve help balance parasympathetic and sympathetic activity. Research shows that awe stimulates the vagus nerve, supporting stress reduction and inducing a sense of calm. (Source)

Awe Reduces Activity In The Default-Mode Network

The default-mode network (DMN) is an area of the brain associated with self-reflective processes such as thinking about oneself, remembering the past, and planning for the future. While the DMN is vital for survival, excessive DMN activity and the resulting emphasis on self-focus are linked to a low mood, body image issues, and social problems. Dampening DMN activity may shift the focus away from oneself, promoting a calmer and more focused state of mind. Awe reduces activity in the DMN, which may partly explain its calming, centering effects. (Source)

Awe Supports Mental And Emotional Wellness

Experiencing awe can boost mood, decrease self-criticism, and enhance creativity, supporting overall mental and emotional wellness. (Source)

One way awe may support mental and emotional well-being is by releasing oxytocin, a “feel-good” hormone also released by hugging, cuddling, breastfeeding, and sex. A healthy level of oxytocin is associated with diverse physical and mental benefits, including reduced pain and stress and dampened appetite. (Source, Source, Source)

Aids The Immune System

Studies show that awe may aid the immune system, dampening inflammation. Awe reduces interleukin-6 (IL-6), an immune signaling molecule involved in the body’s inflammatory response. Elevated levels of IL-6 are associated with chronic illness, pain, and depression, so lowering levels of this compound is a top priority for optimizing health. (Source, Source, Source)

How To Cultivate Awe

Awe may not seem like an emotion you can “cultivate” in your life, like contentment or gratitude. However, scientists who study awe suggest that it is an emotion we can cultivate through intentional practices. The following practices may promote awe experiences:

Spend Time In Nature

Nature is one of the most common elicitors of awe. In fact, experiences of awe may be one of the reasons why spending time in nature is associated with positive health outcomes. (Source)

Religious And Spiritual Experiences

Engagement in spiritual and religious practices and experiences is tied to better health and stronger social connections; awe may mediate the health benefits associated with these experiences. Joining a spiritual or religious community or simply engaging in spiritual experiences, including spending time in nature, can help you cultivate awe. (Source)

Observe The Kindness And Moral Beauty Of People

Observing acts of kindness and moral beauty, such as helping a human or animal in need, can also lead to an awe experience. When we see others engaging in small gestures of kindness, the resulting awe can make us feel better and more likely to perform good deeds ourselves. (Source)

Experience Moving Music

Appreciating music, whether at a concert, festival or even in your home, can induce profound feelings of awe. Listening to certain types of music may trigger awe by activating the vagus nerve. (Source)

The Awe Experience Scale

Awe can be quantified, in a sense, by the “Awe Experience Scale.” The Awe Experience Scale asks participants to rate their experiences of awe based on 6 core characteristics of awe:

  1. Vastness: Feeling like one is in the presence of something expansive and limitless
  2. Need for accommodation: Feeling as though it is mentally challenging to process what is happening
  3. Time: A sensation that the passage of time has changed
  4. Self-diminishment: Feeling like one’s sense of self is diminished
  5. Connectedness: Feeling connected to the world around oneself
  6. Physical sensations: Experiencing physical sensations such as goosebumps or feeling one’s jaw drop

The Awe Experience Scale may help scientists better study awe so we can, ultimately, better understand how to integrate awe experiences into our lives. (Source)

Awe experiences need not be significant, transcendent events. We can experience awe in our daily lives by looking at the world with fresh eyes and finding wonder in the millions of little miracles that surround us daily.

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