A view into awe-inspiring experiences

Sadhana Sarma and Aurelia Yang

Standing next to a grandiose waterfall, even the tallest human in the world will be inclined to feel a sense of overwhelmingness, an emotion that is a prime example of awe. Awe can be conceptualized as the experience of encountering something so vast in size, beauty or intensity that the brain struggles to fully comprehend it. It is a quality capable of inspiring and adjusting one’s perception of the world, changing the way people perceive mundane objects and tasks by stimulating a confounded reaction.

Awe itself can stem from a variety of intense experiences. Up until 1757, when Irish philosopher Edmund Burke began a revolution in our understanding of awe, the sensation was limited to religious experiences. In the present day, events such as witnessing childbirth and hiking to a nice view are most often associated with such a feeling. It can, however, be found in all environments and situations. Seeing repetitive patterns of light and dark, listening to moving music and travelling can be experienced daily and are capable of stimulating feelings of amazement. Despite the wide range of stimuli that qualify as awe-inspiring, they all share a capability to inspire the same level of the feeling.

Economics and Government teacher David Pugh has experienced awe through his many travels. As someone who has been to places such as New Zealand, the South Pacific, and the Swiss Alps, Pugh has had to opportunity to experience different perspectives of nature.

“I think the experience of travel has been the most awe inspiring because it has really opened me and my mind up,” said Pugh. “You realize how small you are88 and you appreciate other cultures, and you realize that people are pretty much the same around the world.”

The prototypical awe experience, at least in Western cultures, usually involves encounters with natural phenomena that are immense in size, scope or complexity. On a week long backpacking trip up Mount Phillips in New Mexico, where the Rocky Mountains meet the Great Plains, sophomore Sakin Kirti felt awe through one of these archetypal experiences.  

“The mountain hike went up to 11,000 feet,” said Kirti. “When you see a view like that and you see the spread of great plains on one side and rocky mountains on the other side, you can see just how vast everything is compared to you as you’re standing there.”

According to the study “Awe, Uncertainty, and Agency Detection” by Valdesolo and Graham, even something as simple as watching nature videos can evoke feelings of awe; such items reduce one’s tolerance for uncertainty, leading to an increase in spiritual beliefs. Though awe is often still believed to only come about from religious experiences, it has proven to be equally palpable for the religious and nonreligious alike, as awe is evoked by anything that takes one out of their usual mindset and allows him or her to make a connection with something greater. For the non-religious, awe often inspires individuals to believe in evolution as a process that is orderly rather than one that is random.

Experiencing vastness firsthand can also expand one’s worldview. It essentially changes the way individuals perceive themselves and the world around them by shrinking their ego and thus humbling their personalities.

Senior Kevin Huang experiences awe through being an astrophotographer and often witnesses majestical moments in nature, such as fog giving away to sunrise.

“So many times before have I woken up, looked up at the gloomy overcast weather, and felt unmotivated to go to class,” said Huang. “That morning I learned that all this time there was a heavenly scene waiting if only you got above the fog, and it has changed my perception on the obstacles and hardships we face in life. Daily frustrations, negative emotions, and unhappiness feel so minute and distant [when one experiences awe]. The quality of vastness awes us and gives us clarity on what is really important.”

For example, standing in a tall grove of trees may increase generosity and raise awareness of surroundings, as doing so promotes “feelings of a small self” in individuals, according to the studies done by “Awe, the Small Self and Prosocial Behavior” by Paul K. Piff, a professor at the University of California, Irvine.  

Awe is also capable of shaping one’s sense of time. One series of studies conducted by Melanie Rudd, a Stanford University professor, found that awe’s ability to shape a person’s sense of time increases overall satisfaction and inspires preferences in individuals for experiences over materialistic products. The studies, composed of a series of three experiments, also revealed that feeling awe significantly altered people’s mental schemas, or framework, allowing them to perceive time in a more efficient manner.  

On top of all the emotional benefits of experiencing awe, new studies show that it may also be beneficial to human health. Cytokines are defined as proteins produced as a signal that the immune system needs to work harder and aid cell movement to sites of inflammation and trauma. These proteins are important for killing pathogens and healing wounds, but, when hyperactive, they render an individual easily susceptible to disease. Jennifer Stellar of the Berkeley Lab tested the relationship between cytokine levels and positive emotions, finding that the only emotion that predicted results of lowering cytokine levels was awe. Though not yet concrete, the study has shown that awe can be physically advantageous on top of its already proven emotional benefits.   

Awe-evoking experiences serve as a means of inspiring people to expand themselves spiritually, often pushing them to search for more awe, and of humbling themselves through the experience. Those who surround themselves with such situations experience dramatic improvements in both mental wellness and health. Going on a hike through the vast scope of the Grand Canyon or simply observing the radiant night sky from a balcony have the potential to change an individual’s entire worldview, inspiring them to perceive and act with positive motives and humbled mindsets.