This post examines the virtue related to awe. As with my other posts in this sequence, I’m less interested in breaking new ground and more in gathering and synthesizing whatever wisdom I could find on the subject. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about this virtue and how to nurture it.


What is this virtue?

“The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle.” ―Albert Einstein[1]

Awe is most typically described as an emotion, but it (or something similar like “elevation” or “wonder”) frequently also gets named among the virtues. A virtue is a characteristic habit; an emotion usually is not, unless it expands to become part of one’s personality. So this is a little confusing.

Part of the problem is that the virtue associated with awe does not seem to have a name in English, so we use the name of the emotion as a placeholder. The virtue, I suggest, has two main non-emotional components:

  1. Openness to (or maybe “welcoming of” or “seeking out”) experiences of awe.
  2. Skill in processing those experiences so as to get the most value from them (not being merely “awe-struck”).

What is awe?

The modern literature on awe seems to have settled on a definition that goes something like this:[2]

Awe is when a person encounters something so tremendous that they struggle to accommodate it into their understanding, and they temporarily lose themselves in this struggle, with an attentive and perhaps anxious fascination.

We can break this down into components: 1) an overwhelming stimulus, 2) a struggle to fit it into one’s worldview, 3) a leaning-in to this struggle. The virtue of awe includes the willingness or eagerness to engage in such a struggle and the skill to do it well (one does not recoil from the tremendous, or surrender hopelessly if at first one fails to come to grips with it).

The immediately following sections describe the typical characteristics of awe-provoking stimuli and of the emotional experience of awe. Further along, I will consider the components of the virtue: how to welcome the struggle that awe invites us to, and how to engage with it productively.

First I want to consider some other possible characteristics of the emotion of awe that expand on the one-sentence definition I gave above. Feel free to skip the following section if you want to cut to the chase and learn more about the virtue associated with awe.

Awe in more detail

Awe is sometimes considered a “peak experience”. When people experience awe they often have the sense that something significant is happening.

Awe is usually brief in duration, though it may also be memorable and a subject of later reflection.[3] “[W]e can’t sustain it for long… Awe is an emotion we seem to be able to tolerate only in short, small doses, but thinking about what awed us can take a lifetime.” One author posited three varieties of awe: “delayed awe” (we have a visceral emotional response before we can identify it as “awe”), “immediate awe” (we experience the emotions and intellectual awe simultaneously), and “reflective awe” (we label what happened “awe” in retrospect).[4]

Awe can be positively (reverence, ecstasy) or negatively (dread, horror) tinged. It can make us more appreciative of our lives but also remind us of our terror of “the vast nothingness”: “an anxiety of non-being that’s an unavoidable requirement of the experience of being” and “often results in as much sadness as delight.”[5] Some people tend to welcome awe and see its challenges as opportunities to evolve their worldview; other people avoid awe and find it uncomfortably threatening to have their worldview destabilized.

It is more typical for people to attribute awe to the stimulus (“that’s so awesome!”) than to the experiencer (“I tremble with awe!”). This may be because awe is similar to aesthetic appreciation, which we also tend to describe that way. Or it may be because awe has a demonstrable effect of miniaturizing people’s self-image and reducing their ego-focus: they concentrate more on the stimulus and less on themselves. One author went so far as to say that the “defining characteristic” of awe is its temporary “ego death, meaning dissolution of the sense of self, replaced by a feeling of total immersion in, and connection with, something much more vast and meaningful.”[6]

There is something of a paradox here: Awe itself seems to be a very internal, personal thing. A person at the Grand Canyon experiencing awe may turn to their more jaded companion and incredulously say “just look at that!” but this is unlikely to summon the missing awe: the awe is a characteristic of the awe-filled person, not of the stimulus. But awe is not experienced introspectively but by absorption in the stimulus that prompts it; to the person experiencing it, it does seem to be out there, not inside.[7] I am not aweing about the Grand Canyon; the Grand Canyon has awed me.

Awe has some resemblance to mystical/religious revelations, which were described by William James as having the “four marks” of ineffability (they resist communication), noetic quality (they seem authoritative), transiency (they are brief), and passivity (they happen to you, not by you).[8] James also noted self-reduction as a characteristic of these experiences, which is another resemblance with awe (“Only when I become as nothing can God enter in and no difference between his life and mine remain outstanding”). Perhaps mystical/religious experiences are a subset of awe experiences. Certain types of profoundly affecting hallucinations and delusions might be another example (or mystical/religious experiences might be a subset of those, if you prefer). Another possibility is that awe experiences generally contain something supernatural. One author reported that “almost every story of awe I collected contains an element of something uncanny, bizarre, magical, or even ghostly.”[9] In experiences of awe, commonly something doesn’t add up: we’ve encountered something that doesn’t fit with what we’ve assumed was the natural order of things.

Paul Pearsall collected reports of awe to try to draw some conclusions about the awe experience and about the awe-prone. In his sample (which excludes people who don’t experience awe at all, and is otherwise idiosyncratically selected), he found that about ten percent of people seem particularly awe-prone and get “awed again and again” while the rest appreciated their experiences of awe but thought of such experiences as rare.[10]

Symptoms of awe

Among the commonly-reported symptoms of awe are:

  • A feeling, verging on fear or dread, that one is in the presence of much more than one had accounted for.[11]
  • An anxious need to accommodate the awe-invoking experience into one’s worldview, and probing attempts to do so.[12]
  • A change in time perception.[13]
  • A diminution of the sense of self (both that you think less about yourself and that to the extent you do think about yourself your self-image is smaller and humbler)[14] which can also include feeling more connected to or integrated with others or the world at large.[15]
  • Rapt attention.[16]
  • Physiological changes such as being frozen in place, having goosebumps and chills, stuttering, gasping, increased heartbeat frequency, and characteristic (cross-culturally similar) facial expressions and vocalizations (woah, wow, oh, ah).[17] These somewhat resemble physical symptoms associated with submissive admiration in a social context.[18] They also remind me of the characteristic symptoms of horror, and indeed one author explored the classic horror genre (e.g. Dracula) by considering these to be myths about awe: how do we confront the overwhelming, incomprehensible, and menacing?[19] Another author suggested the goosebumps and chills promote huddling behavior (we react to awe by seeking out company) and that this is evidence that awe has the function of strengthening social bonds.[20]
  • Sometimes experiences of awe resemble what Abraham Maslow described as “peak experiences” in that they include such features as “disorientation in space and time, ego transcendence and self-forgetfulness; a perception that the world is good, beautiful, and desirable; feeling passive, receptive, and humble; a sense that polarities and dichotomies have been transcended or resolved; and feelings of being lucky, fortunate, or graced.”[21]
  • Awe can be elating, elevating, ecstatic.[22]

What typically prompts awe?

If awe is an important ingredient in a flourishing life, it may be useful to know what sorts of stimuli tend to provoke it.

The authors I reviewed most commonly characterized awe-invoking stimuli as “vast,” but it seemed from some of their examples that it was not always the size of the stimulus, but the amount of challenge the stimulus provoked, that led to awe. A modestly-sized stimulus that nonetheless assaults the fundamentals of your worldview (your bowl of granola speaking to you) is more likely to provoke awe than a grander one that is merely unanticipated by some less-fundamental paradigm (a freak thunderstorm in the dry season).

The “vastness” of an awe-provoking stimulus might be more precisely expressed (I think) as a sort of “uncompressability” — you can maybe hold in your mind some simplified concept of an awesome thing, but when you are confronted with that thing in all of its complexity or enormity, you realize that your concept was much too small to hold it.

“[V]astness can be either perceptual (e.g. seeing the Grand Canyon) or conceptual (e.g. contemplating eternity).”[23]

“A stimulus may convey vastness in physical space, in time, in number, in complexity of detail, in ability, even in volume of human experience. Vastness may be implied by a stimulus, rather than physically inherent in the stimulus. For example, one may experience a sense of vastness in a mathematical equation, not because the equation is literally long, but because of the vast number of observed physical processes it is able to explain and predict. An individual may be vast in the sense of having great impact on others’ lives. What is critical is that the stimulus dramatically expands the observer’s usual frame of reference in some dimension or domain.”[24]

Edmund Burke was an early awe theorist. In his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), he called the “sublime… the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” and thought it was a sort of terror, evoked by stimuli that “excite the ideas of pain, and danger” somehow — either directly and obviously (a charging rhino) or through resemblance or association (a thunderous drum beat).[25] When sublime stimuli are actually painful or dangerous, the sensation they provoke is “simply terrible,” but when they are more remote or are just a semblance of danger “they may be, and they are, delightful.”[26] Among his other observations:

  • Anything deadly can be a source of awful terror, even if it isn’t tremendous. For example, a cobra is of middling size, but our knowledge that its strike is deadly is enough to strike terror into us.[27]
  • The more the danger is obscured, unaccustomed, or difficult to know, the more terrible it is (things seem more frightening in the dark).[28] “[T]here are reasons… why the obscure idea, when properly conveyed, should be more affecting than the clear. It is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration, and chiefly excites our passions. Knowledge and acquaintance make the most striking causes affect but little.… The ideas of eternity and infinity, are among the most affecting we have: and yet perhaps there is nothing of which we really understand so little, as of infinity and eternity.” … “hardly any thing can strike the mind with its greatness, which does not make some sort of approach towards infinity; which nothing can do whilst we are able to perceive its bounds…”[29] Sudden bright flashes of light or quick transitions between brightness and darkness can awe, in part because they both are ways of making it difficult to see.[30]
  • “I know of nothing sublime, which is not some modification of power.” We are more likely to be awed by something much more powerful than us that can have its way with us.[31]
  • “Privations” (e.g. “Vacuity, Darkness, Solitude, and Silence”) can add to awe.[32]
  • Burke agrees that “vastness” can be awesome, but he says this is in part a function of the dimension: Something x units long is not as awe-inspiring as something x units high, which in turn may be less awe-inspiring as looking down into a chasm x units deep. He further says that extremes of littleness can also trigger the sublime.[33]
  • “Infinity has a tendency to fill the mind with that sort of delightful horror, which is the most genuine effect and truest test of the sublime.” Burke extends this to anything which might-as-well-be infinite so far as our senses or minds can fathom.[34] For example, “[s]uccession and uniformity” appears to the mind as a sort of “artificial infinity” — imagine for example standing between two parallel mirrors and seeing the reflections of reflections.[35] He also mentions the stars as being “a sort of infinity” — they aren’t literally numberless (in our visual experience), but are so many and “lie in such apparent confusion, as makes it impossible on ordinary occasions to reckon them.”[36]
  • Things in-progress or that promise further development are more pleasingly awesome than finished, unchanging things.[37]
  • “Difficulty” can inspire awe (for example, the difficulty of lifting stones that one imagines upon viewing Stonehenge or the pyramids of Egypt; or of the amount of practice and talent involved in a difficult act of balance / juggling / etc.)[38]
  • “[S]ad and fuscous colours” (“dark and gloomy” landscapes, “the cloudy sky”) are more awesome than “soft or cheerful” ones (a green mountain, a blue sky).[39] I can imagine how much less awe-inspiring would be a colorized Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial, a Supreme Court building in tasteful tan with green accents, or a Vietnam memorial in red-white-and-blue.
  • “Excessive loudness alone is sufficient to overpower the soul, to suspend its action, and to fill it with terrour.”[40] Repeated pulses of sound can also do the trick, such as “the striking of a great clock”, repeated drum strokes, cannon fire.[41] The roars of animals are another awe-inducing sound.[42]
  • Sudden surprises can provoke awe: “In every thing sudden and unexpected, we are apt to start; that is, we have a perception of danger, and our nature rouses us to guard against it.”[41]
  • We can be awe-struck by things that are intermittent — things that we sense enough for them to be puzzling but not enough to allow us to become accustomed to them or to comprehend them — for example, shadows from a flickering lamp, or strange scratching in the attic.[44]
  • Excessively bitter or intolerably stinky things,[45] or pain itself, can summon awe. “[T]he sublime is an idea belonging to self-preservation; …it is therefore one of the most affecting we have; …its strongest emotion is an emotion of distress; …no pleasure from a positive cause belongs to it.”[46]

Some of these (e.g. the intermittent and eerie, the painful or stinky) do not strike me as being very awesome, and so I’m reminded that Burke was studying the sublime, which is not quite the same thing.

Burke contrasted our respect for the sublime with our respect for the beautiful, saying the sublime concerned painful things; the beautiful pleasant things (though in life these tend to blend rather than being entirely distinct).[47] But how can awe be attractive if it is source is terror and apprehension of pain? Well, sometimes pain can be pleasurable (for example, the pain associated with exercise).[48] And exercise of our terror instincts might also be good for us in a sort of fire-drill way. If the frightening thing does not turn out to be actually dangerous, “these emotions clear the parts, whether fine or gross, of a dangerous and troublesome incumbrance, [and so] they are capable of producing delight; not pleasure, but a sort of delightful horrour, a sort of tranquility tinged with terrour; which, as it belongs to self-preservation, is one of the strongest of all the passions. Its object is the sublime. Its highest degree I call astonishment; the subordinate degrees are awe, reverence, and respect…”[49]

More recent explorers of awe tend to discard Burke’s focus on the terrible and painful. William James (who, though, was examining “mystical moods”, not awe proper), added a few things to the awe-evoking list:[50]

  • epiphanies, or things in which we find great significance (e.g. lines of poetry, musical phrases, odors that bring back powerful memories)
  • deja vu
  • uncanny satori-like spasms that some people report in which, for example, “everything has a meaning” or there is an “obliteration of space, time, sensation, and the multitudinous factors of experience which seem to qualify what we are pleased to call our Self.”
  • intoxication — “Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands, unites, and says yes. It is in fact the great exciter of the Yes function in man. It brings its votary from the chill periphery of things to the radiant core. It makes him for the moment one with truth...”
  • “religious mysticism pure and simple” — “sudden realization of the immediate presence of God”
  • “its methodical cultivation as an element of the religious life” (for example yoga, the jhanas, sufi practices, orison/prayer). But note that these often seem to involve restricting sensory input and contemplating things in the imagination, or in their ideal rather than apparent natures (actual apparent things like the cross become at best symbols for what is awe-inspiring). On orison in particular, James writes: “The deliciousness of some of these states seems to be beyond anything known in ordinary consciousness. It evidently involves organic sensibilities, for it is spoken of as something too extreme to be borne, and as verging on bodily pain. But it is too subtle and piercing a delight for ordinary words to denote.”

James also noted: “Certain aspects of nature seem to have a peculiar power of awakening such mystical moods. Most of the striking cases which I have collected have occurred out of doors.”

The modern positive-psychology study of awe tends to follow the lead of a 2003 paper by Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt which proposed “vastness and accommodation” as “two features [that] form the heart of prototypical cases of awe.”[51] An awe-evoking stimulus “involves a need for accommodation, which may or may not be satisfied,” and its vastness often includes an element of power, along with possible “ ‘flavouring’ features” such as “threat, beauty, ability, virtue, [and the] supernatural”.

The authors compared awe with some similar emotions. Admiration (such as one might feel for a talented performer) or elevation (such as one might feel for a display of heroism or altruistic generosity) require something more to become awe. A sense of the uncanny (evoked, say, by a baffling magic trick or optical illusion) also isn’t quite vast enough to make the grade.

The authors proposed that awe had the original function of social regulation, but is now more characterized by its spandrels. “[W]e propose that primordial awe centers upon the emotional reaction of a subordinate to a powerful leader” and evolved to help humans behave in social hierarchies. “The capacity to experience awe in response to cues of social dominance then generalises to other stimuli, such as buildings, operas, or tornadoes, to the extent that these new stimuli have attributes associated with power.” Now, those kinds of experiences of awe are more commonplace: “Perhaps the most common experience of awe for contemporary Westerners in egalitarian societies is the response to natural and human-made objects.”

Charismatic leaders can still evoke awe, and this might in part be because how they inspire us to imagine a social world different from the one we thought we were inhabiting, to entertain new ideas of the possible. This can be benevolent (“I have a dream!”) or not (“you know, murder is good actually; have you ever really listened to Helter Skelter?”).[52]

Keltner later analyzed a collection of awe self-reports from a variety of cultures and created a catalog of varieties of stimuli that he calls “wonders” that tend most often to provoke awe:[53]

  1. “other people’s courage, kindness, strength, or overcoming” — a.k.a. “moral beauty”
  2. “collective effervescence” (a term he borrowed from Émile Durkheim), as happens in, for example, ceremonies, celebrations, or raves; synchronous movement with others (dancing, doing “the wave”) is another variety of this
  3. “nature”
  4. “music”
  5. “visual design” (art, sculpture, architecture, machinery)
  6. “spiritual and religious awe”
  7. “life [e.g. birth] and death”
  8. “epiphanies”
  9. also, an “other” category into which about 5% of reports fell

Some authors prefer to separate out the moral-beauty variety of awe (caused by “unexpected acts of human goodness, kindness, and compassion”) into a separate emotion — “elevation” — that is the opposite extreme from “social disgust”.[54]

I may be a weird outlier here, but for what it’s worth I’ve found that I can sometimes trip over (or perhaps brute-force) an experience of awe through sustained contemplation of some unresolved philosophical problem (e.g. why is there something rather than nothing?, the mind-body problem, fundamental metaphysics or epistemology, the meaning of it all).[55]

What good is awe?

Is awe, the emotion, good for us?

Well, for one thing it can be immediately pleasurable and rewarding. People will go out of their way to visit natural or architectural wonders or performances of skill in part because they are seeking out the experience of awe. Not all awe is pleasurable, though, as already noted. Sometimes it is terrifying or unsettling. Even terrifying awe, though, can be pleasurable to people of certain tastes (similar to how some people like skydiving).

But there have also been many claims for the benefits of awe that go beyond these immediate and transient pleasures.

I am a little put off by some of the enthusiastic awe boosterism in books like Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, and Awakening to Awe: Personal Stories of Profound Transformation, which unsurprisingly adopt the hyperbole we’re used to seeing in the modern self-help genre. The first of these, for example, asserts that “it is hard to imagine a single thing you can do that is better for your body and mind than finding awe outdoors” because it “leads to the reduced likelihood of cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, diabetes, depression, anxiety, and cancer… reduces asthma in children… leads to reductions in everyday aches and pains, allergies, vertigo, and eczema.”[56] The author of the second one says “psychology must begin with awe” and wants to center awe in “a comprehensive psychology” that amounts to “a science of humanity”, and he proposes sweeping changes to society (“Awe-based education”, “Awe-based work”, and “Awe-based democracy”) accordingly.[57]

So there’s some possibly excessive hype in this field. But let’s sift.

Experimental evidence

Awe is not an easy thing to run scientific tests on. It is difficult to reliably induce in an experimental setting.

Most papers I read that try to measure effects of awe use some lukewarm proxy for awe like watching an impressive video about natural wonders or asking the subject to recall a memory of a time when they were awed (using some neutral video or memory as a control).

There is also something called “dispositional awe”, which measures awe-proneness by asking people how much they think statements like “I often feel awe” apply to themselves.[58]

Such studies have found, for example:

  • Awe-primed subjects were less persuaded by weak logical arguments than people in a control condition. The researchers theorized that awe induces “systematic processing” of information (in contrast to “heuristic-based processing”) and that this explains how weaker arguments failed to get as much traction in the minds of the awe-primed.[59]
  • Awe-primed subjects felt that “time is more plentiful and expansive”, reported less impatience and more willingness to volunteer time prosocially, “prefer[red] experiential goods over material ones”, and “view[ed] their lives as more satisfying.”[60]
  • Awe-primed “religious and spiritual” subjects were more likely “to endorse a spiritual (Tibet) but not a hedonistic (Haiti) travel destination” and “to express, respectively, feelings of oneness with (a) others in general and (b) friends.”[61]
  • Subjects with high dispositional awe tended to be more generous in dictator games.[62]
  • Awe-primed subjects were also more generous in dictator games, rated themselves as more small-self (“a relative diminishment of the individual self and its interests vis-à-vis something perceived to be more vast and powerful than oneself”), gave more prosocial/ethical responses to hypothetical scenario descriptions, and responded more helpfully in a staged real-life scenario (an experimenter dropping a bunch of pens, ostensibly by accident). The authors of this study believe it shows that the inducement of a diminished sense of self by awe is how awe indirectly causes the prosocial inclinations.[62]
  • One study looked at the correlation between dispositional awe and Interleukin 6 levels (a biological marker of inflammation), comparing this with other positive emotions. It found “that awe… was the strongest predictor of lower levels of proinflammatory cytokines. [And t]hese effects held when controlling for relevant personality and health variables.”[63]
  • Awe-primed subjects gave less-aggressive responses to hypothetical scenarios, reported “higher levels of a sense of small self”, were less prone to assigning another person more-hurtful tasks and reported less aggressive motivations when doing such task assignments, and revealed less trait aggression in an implicit-association test.[64]
  • Awe-primed subjects allocated hypothetical lottery winnings more generously and prosocially (e.g. to others). They were also more likely to report that they would exhibit helping behavior in hypothetical scenarios.[65]
  • Awe-priming “led to lower ideological conviction”, “led to a reduction in perceived polarization”, and “led to a reduction in desired social distance” from others with different ideological views (e.g. would the subject be okay having an ideological foe as a neighbor).[66]

Not all of these things are unambiguously good effects (is it necessarily better to have a plentiful and expansive perception of time, to endorse a spiritual travel destination, or to have a “small self”?), but they do suggest some possible benefits.

Theorized benefits

There are other possible benefits of awe that have been proposed based on awe’s demonstrable effects or definitional components, but that have less direct experimental support. For example:

  • Awe may improve us by giving us an opportunity to stretch our minds beyond their usual bounds and to admit new hypotheses for consideration.[67]
  • Because awe by definition (by some definitions anyway) includes an eagerness to engage with the awe-inspiring stimulus and to accommodate it into one’s worldview, it seems that experiencing awe should encourage attention and focus, relative to being jaded & bored.
  • Since awe tends to reduce a person’s focus on themselves as an individual, and to instead to focus on what people confront in common, this might potentially encourage social cooperation. If you look on your neighbor from the perspective of “we’re all in this big cosmic conundrum together” you’re perhaps more likely to treat them as a comrade than as a competitor.[68]
  • If awe inspires people to try to accommodate an unexpected reality into their worldviews, it could be useful in science education: Present children with some physical phenomenon that defies naïve/common-sense physics, and use the awe this provokes as a way of inspiring the children to absorb a more mature explanation.[69]
  • Awe “is associated with a profile of elevated vagal tone, reduced sympathetic arousal, increased oxytocin release, and reduced inflammation—all processes known to benefit mental and physical health,” says one paper, which strongly implies, but stops short of actually demonstrating, positive effect on health; instead hedging by saying “experiences of awe will likely benefit mental and physical health.”[70]
  • Since “[a]n amplified focus on the self has been found to be associated with a variety of mental-health struggles…” while “awe diminishes self-focus,” perhaps awe may be of benefit in some cases of mental health problems.[70]
  • The authors of one paper posit that awe is the common underlying factor that explains why things like exposure to nature, participation in religion, festival dancing, and psychedelics have shown mental and physical health benefits such as better recovery from trauma: “awe ‘repairs’ ”.[71]

Paul Pearsall also tries to argue for the non-instrumental value of awe in a flourishing life. According to him, we have a choice between a languishing life that is “more a state of chronic doing than engaged being… mistaking a busy life for a meaningful one… [with] unacknowledged quiet despair… going through the motions without a lot of any kind of emotion” and a flourishing life “characterized by frequently being in awe.” Languishers “have busy bodies but anesthetized souls… constantly feeling on the go but seldom feeling moved.” They accept awe only if it is pleasant, and even then only as “a brief high that has little lasting impact.” They aim at monotonic “happiness” and so they shun “intense feelings” that “includ[e] the good, the bad, and the ugly things that life brings.” Flourishers, by contrast, are the “deep, reflective ones who intensely engage… and try to understand,” and they welcome the unsettling challenges of awe even when this does not immediately bring “the happiness languishers keep seeking.”[72]

What bad is awe?

Though Paul Pearsall tried to make the case for a life of awe being better than a life of hedonism, he also admitted that “[a] life of awe isn’t one for the faint of heart or for a hardened heart, because it is stressful, and it often breaks our heart as much as it fills it with joy.” He says that “[b]ecause awe causes our cognitive map to constantly change, we end up feeling lost much of the time.” Awe does not necessarily culminate in an “a-ha!” moment but can burden us with enduring “mystery, arousal, confusion.” An awe-filled life means being emotionally vulnerable, and requires patience & tolerance since full understanding always eludes us. Awe doesn’t comfort, reassure, or uplift us but troubles & humbles us; it can cause nausea, fear, and confusion, and can be difficult to communicate to others. Awe “doesn’t necessarily always feel good, and isn’t always good for us physically in the short run. It stresses every part of the body and mind, right down to the gut…”[73]

Someone who is awe-struck may be described as “brought up short” or “dumbfounded” — the awesome thing interrupts them, grabs their attention, distracts them from their duties.

William James noted that spiritual raptures in particular can be disabling in some people, making them helpless and stupefied. Although in other people such experiences may also contribute to “indomitable spirit and energy” that can “render the soul more energetic in the lines which their inspiration favors,” such energy “could be reckoned an advantage only in case the inspiration were a true one.”[50] Awe can lead to irrational extremes of zeal (zealotry), as if the only sensible response to an out-of-bounds input were an outrageous output.

While awe provokes a “need for accommodation” in which you try to shoehorn the awe-provoking stimulus into your worldview, it does not guarantee that you will do this well. When awe threatens your epistemological foundations, you may be tempted to grasp at straws to find some way of propping things up again. Studies suggest “that awe increases both supernatural belief… and intentional-pattern perception” (e.g. finding spurious meanings in random sequences of digits) for example. “Experiences of awe decreased tolerance for uncertainty, which, in turn, increased the tendency to believe in nonhuman agents and to perceive human agency in random events.”[74]

We may also respond to a delicious experience of awe by wallowing in the mystery rather than by trying to understand. Eliezer Yudkowsky considered some of the way these antipatterns of awe play out in his essay “The Sacred Mundane”.

A common failure mode of awe is to be baffled by something tremendous and then immediately to turn to someone in charge for an explanation. Ideologies and religions capitalize on awe in order to impress their followers that they have the answers. If awe has discombobulated your worldview, you shouldn’t be surprised to find that some ready-made dogmatic way of picking up the pieces and prematurely dismissing the mystery is ready, inviting you to its short-cut. Part of the con job of the powerful is to project an image of being “vast” in some way (on a stage high above everyone or in an office on the top floor, spectacularly lit and amplified, dressed in the uniform of God’s ambassador, etc.) and to encourage deference as a response.

If we become mentally bankrupt, we fall into the hands of receivers — in this case, those who would use awe to control us and the world. They’re the ones who offer to complete awe’s cycle by doing its hardest part for us. They offer to do — or to already have done — all of our thinking for us…[75]

The virtue associated with awe

I suggested that the virtue associated with awe has two main components:

  1. Openness to (or maybe “welcoming of” or “seeking out”) experiences of awe.
  2. Skill in processing those experiences so as to get the most value from them.

Such a virtue allows you to have the peak experiences the emotion of awe offers, along with their fringe benefits, and to use those experiences to hone your understanding and to stoke your curiosity.

Openness to awe

“As one gets older one has a greater power through reason to provide an explanation; and this explanation blunts the sledge-hammer force of the blow. I think this is true, because though I still have the peculiarity that I receive these sudden shocks, they are now always welcome; after the first surprise, I always feel instantly that they are particularly valuable. And so I go on to suppose that the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer.” ―Virginia Woolf[76]

The virtue of awe is less about an acute, surprising encounter with the awesome, and more about a chronic appreciation of or connection to the sublime. You are not always in awe, but you know awe’s address if you want to visit, and you put out the welcome mat if it wants to visit you.

Being open to awe means not being so afraid of the anxiety of its challenge that you flinch and turn away and try to ignore it. It also means not being jaded, not reaching for the first mundane description you can think of, but continuing to wring the awe to the last drop. It means being curious and willing to patiently remain in perplexity as long as it takes, rather than being so uncomfortable with the uncanny that you credulously adopt the first comforting story that promises to assimilate it back into what you knew all along.

A: Woah, that’s a full rainbow. All the way. Oh my god. That’s so intense. It’s so bright and vivid. It’s so beautiful. What does it mean?

J: That’s just photons from the sun reflecting off the inside of water droplets and being refracted through the water on different paths depending on their frequencies on their return trip in our direction. We learned about that in elementary school.


A: So you’re saying that photons somehow have a consistent angle of incidence to walls made of wobbly assemblages of water molecules interfacing with a gas, as though they were smooth surfaces at the scale of the photon, such that the photons reliably follow the same path upon reflection?

J: Now that you mention it, that is a little strange.

But being open to awe is also not unambiguously a good sign: If you are awe-prone, this could mean that you are in the habit of boldly seeking out data that challenge your worldview and that you are careful to “notice your confusion” — but it could also mean that your worldview is so naïve or fantastic that reality is frequently dissenting from it in ways that really ought not to surprise you so much.[77]

So we need also the second facet of the virtue associated with awe:

Skillfully working with awe

“This data point is clearly an erroneous outlier.”

We have the choice of either “accommodating” the awe experience, by “creating new ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving”, or “assimilating” it by trying to ignore or explain away the parts of it that don’t fit with our current habits and understanding.[78] To skillfully work with awe is to resist the temptation to retreat from how reality really confronts us — to not pretend reality is in fact as manageable as we’d prefer it to be, when it is stubbornly not cooperating.

Kirk J. Schneider identified a sort of inhale/exhale process for working with awe:[79]

  • appreciation: Pause and allow yourself the time to be awed. Notice your confusion, sure, but mostly notice what it is you’re confused about. Take it in, in all its awe-fullness. Don’t turn away from it.
  • discernment: Try to understand. Figure out where the awe-full stimulus is butting up uncomfortably against your preconceptions. Consider new hypotheses that might more consistently contain what you have learned. Try one or more on for size and see where they take you.

Part of what I drew out of Schneider’s book (though this is my own paraphrase/interpretation) is that each of us has a set of partially-overlapping, partially-nested self-images that each come to the forefront on different occasions. One of them centers around our social personae: who am I to other people, what is my status and role in society, how do I describe myself to others? Another centers around our day-to-day tasks and needs: what am I competent at, how can I get my needs met, where are my immediate vulnerabilities, what makes me happy and content? But there is also a self that encompasses both of these but also takes in our lifetime-scale existential conundrum: what am I doing here, what is it all about, what are the stakes ultimately, how do I cope with my mortality?

While that last self is a more encompassing, larger self-image, it emerges against a much larger (universal, eternal) backdrop than the other two, so it feels much smaller. This more encompassing self can be neglected because of the persistent pressure from the demands of life to concentrate on the first two (those two are also what traditional psychology concentrates on). Also, because the questions this more encompassing self asks tend to confront us with our insignificance and our limitations, we may be tempted to retreat into the other two so we can feel that we have some clue what we’re on about and some power to do something about it. Awe has a way of jolting your self-image into that absolutely more expansive and yet relatively infinitesimal self-image. Someone who works skillfully with awe sees such a jolt as an opportunity rather than an interruption.

It seems to me that in some cases we butt up against something awesome that, because it is uncompressible (in the sense I considered earlier), will always rupture any conceptual cage we try to put it in. So long as we try to continue to believe “oh yes, that thing; I understand that” when what we’re really doing is trying unsuccessfully to compress it down to something that fits in our minds, we’ll be awed again and again, but will just keep spinning in a wardrobe full of equally poorly-fitting conceptualizations. In such cases, we get diminishing returns from trying to use awe to further hone our understanding. At some point we have to learn instead to add a humility-rider to our concept: “Oh yes, that thing; I’ve come to a sort of understanding about that, but I know now that it’s oversimplified and incomplete and an unreliable guide to reality. It keeps surprising me and teaching me new things.”

Awe has some similarity to aesthetic appreciation, and to reverence. Similar or synonymous virtues or emotions go by the names loftiness, wonder, and elevation.

Openness to and appreciation of awe are aided by attention and focus. The process of working with awe well includes the virtues of curiosity, rationality, and surrender (in the sense of: “if this is true, let me believe this is true”).

Vices that interfere with the virtue associated with awe include cynicism, being jaded, being unmoved, indifference, pride, arrogance, small-mindedness, and world-weariness. Some virtues that are potentially in tension with it include equanimity and sobriety.

Humility in particular seems to be both aided by awe and to come to the aid of processing awe well. The Litany of Tarski and Litany of Gendlin are among our reminders to be humble about our ideas when they are contradicted by reality. Humility in this context includes a combination of “a more realistic, secure, and open view of the self” (in particular being less prone to “positive illusions about the self”) and “greater acknowledgment of the value and contribution of others and outside forces” (or just dumb luck) to one’s fate. The “self-diminishment” that results from awe appears to enhance humility, both in the awed person’s self-image and in how they appear to others.[80]

Aspects of awe are also correlated with certain personality traits. For example, the “Need for Cognitive Closure” is a measure of how much people “are uncomfortable with ambiguity, prefer continuity in their surroundings and in what is expected of them, and dislike situations that do not have a ‘correct’ answer or response.” People who have high Need for Cognitive Closure scores tend to report feeling less awe.[24] People who score high on the Tellegen absorption scale, which measures “imaginative involvement and the tendency to become mentally absorbed in everyday activities” report “higher feelings of awe”[81] The Five Factor personality model component “Openness to Experience” is also a good predictor of the experience of awe.[82]

How to develop the virtue associated with awe

Now for the main course: what are some practical things you can do to improve the way you work with awe, in the service of a more flourishing life?

Seek out awe-provoking stimuli

“Watch the stars in their courses and imagine yourself running alongside them. Think constantly on the changes of the elements into each other, for such thoughts wash away the dust of earthly life.” —Marcus Aurelius[83]

You can try to become more awe-prone by putting yourself into situations where awe is more likely to erupt. Make it more likely that you will encounter something vast and challenging by breaking your routine, taking paths you don’t normally take, exposing yourself to new ideas, and visiting the extremes of the planet and a diverse variety of cultures, etc. Examine the lists of awe-provoking stimuli in the “What typically prompts awe?” section above, to see if you can invite more of that into your life.

For example: Take an “awe walk”

A 2022 paper described an experiment in which subjects were asked to take weekly, 15-minute-long, moderately-paced walks, alone, in an outdoor setting, and without using phones (except for taking at least three selfie photos, which were shared with the experimenters).[84] The subjects were randomly assigned to two groups: One (the “awe-walkers”) was “also told that ‘with the right outlook, awe can be found almost anywhere, but it is most likely to occur in places that involve two key features: physical vastness and novelty.’ They were asked to tap into their sense of wonder and to go somewhere new each week, if possible.” The control group was not given that extra instruction.

The awe-walkers tended to take selfies that (compared with controls) contained more of the surroundings and less of the self, and this was more pronounced as the experiment went on (this helped to verify that the small-self symptom of awe was indeed being evoked in the experimental group). They also reported increases in positive and prosocial emotions, decreases in sadness and fear, and their selfies tended to have more intense smiles (as rated by independent observers who were blind to the group assignments) as the experiment progressed — more so than the control group who took non-awe-focused walks.

For example: Take drugs

Psychedelic drugs in particular are notorious promoters of “wow.”[85] The awe they summon can be of both the terrific and terrifying varieties.

The “Good Friday Experiment” was a milestone of first generation psychedelic research. In it, twenty divinity graduate students were assigned to two groups: half were given a large dose of niacin to mimic the side-effects of a psychoactive drug, the other half were given a psychedelic found in magic mushrooms: psilocybin. Some of those in the experimental group experienced anxiety, and one went temporarily around the bend and had to be sedated. However, in a 14-month followup, most of those in the experimental group reported that they had found the experience to be among the most positive and meaningful spiritual experiences of their lives.

A more recent attempt at replication and extension of those findings, under a more rigorous experimental protocol, found that “you can safely and fairly reliably occasion what’s called a primary mystical experience that may lead to positive changes in a person” by means of psilocybin, although “[e]ven… where we greatly controlled conditions to minimize adverse effects, about a third of subjects reported significant fear, with some also reporting transient feelings of paranoia.”

In the study, more than 60 percent of subjects described the effects of psilocybin in ways that met criteria for a “full mystical experience” as measured by established psychological scales. One third said the experience was the single most spiritually significant of their lifetimes; and more than two-thirds rated it among their five most meaningful and spiritually significant. [Study leader Roland] Griffiths says subjects liken it to the importance of the birth of their first child or the death of a parent.[86]

It could be argued that there is an important difference between being awed by some tremendous aspect of reality and being awed by some hallucinogenic phantom summoned up out of a cauldron of boiling neurotransmitters. What is awe-inspiring about psychedelic insights is notoriously effervescent. It’s possible that such drugs somehow wirehead the “this is awesome” evaluator, without actually being something legitimately awe-inspiring. William James wrote of his experiments with nitrous oxide:

Depth beyond depth of truth seems revealed to the inhaler. This truth fades out, however, or escapes, at the moment of coming to; and if any words remain over in which it seemed to clothe itself, they prove to be the veriest nonsense. Nevertheless, the sense of a profound meaning having been there persists; and I know more than one person who is persuaded that in the nitrous oxide trance we have a genuine metaphysical revelation.[87]

I tend to side with the philosophers who remind us that the whole of our phenomenal experience consists of hallucinogenic phantoms summoned up out of a cauldron of boiling neurotransmitters, and I think that’s pretty awe-inspiring itself. James again:

One conclusion was forced upon my mind at that time, and my impression of its truth has ever since remained unshaken. It is that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question,—for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. Yet they may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.[50]

For example: Attend a spectacle

Cathedrals, with their towering ceilings, tall stained-glass windows, imposing altars, booming pipe organs, and so forth, suggest “awe spoken here.” Rock concerts have their own apparatus of awe: flash pots, fog machines, walls-of-sound, huge video projections. Sporting events, fireworks displays, raves, marathons, circuses, pilgrimages, carnivals, parades, festivals, circuses, operas, protest marches, bombardments, Las Vegas spectaculars… these and other such events seemed designed in part to be occasions for awe. If there’s one in your neighborhood, maybe you could wring some awe out of it.

Consider it as a task of psychological repair

“At the back of our brains… [is] a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life [is] to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man sitting in a chair might suddenly understand that he [is] actually alive, and be happy.” ―G.K. Chesterton[88]

Psychologist Kirk J. Schneider sees the process of becoming more skillful with awe as a sort of trauma-repair. “The everyday discovery of awe is… also a rediscovery” because “we are bathed in awe-based possibilities; if only we could but recognize them. Yet… it somehow manages to elude many of us… It somehow gets shuttered away, compartmentalized, or forgotten; it becomes a relic of childhood, a reverie, or a special event.”[89]

Children tend to start off with a great deal of natural awe, which makes a lot of sense: they’re thrown into a tremendously weird situation in which just about everything is brand new and resists simple systematization. But somehow in the process of becoming adults we often seem to get mired in ennui and triviality. Is it possible that we’ve learned all there is to care about and that it turned out not to be that interesting after all? Schneider thinks not. He thinks instead that “we lost our fundamental relationship to mystery” as the result of “psychological trauma–both individual and collective—that gives rise to defenses… against the terror of radical mystery.”[90]

To form a culture like ours… predicated on the avoidance of disarray, we need to cultivate intricate defenses against mystery, and to acquire sophisticated strategies that enable us to skirt the complexities of being. Hence, much of our speech is geared not to acknowledge our humility before life, but our control, coordination, and management of life.[91]

When these “complexities of being” interfere, and break down our defenses (for example, by means of “an incomprehensible loss, ailment, or disruption”) we often “turn toward a fix (e.g. a leader, a religion, or a drug) for our salvation” because we have lost our talent for awe, which offers the alternative “path of inner (and outer) transformation, healing, and recovery.”[91]

But if we have been psychologically malformed in this way, we can yet recover “[a]n Awe-Based Life philosophy [which] is distinguished by what I call enchanted agnosticism (taking mystery seriously), the fluid centre (recognizing our place between our creaturliness and our godliness) and faith in the inscrutable (finding hope, trust in the vast unknown).”[90] One way to do this is via a form of “depth therapy” which is “a sustained encounter with the most intimate regions of experience. [Such as:] Who am I? What really matters? and How can I live what really matters.”[92]

Be open to the negative as well

Being wedded to optimism and positive thinking can hamper awe because worldview-surprises can surprise on the down side as much as on the up side. Part of what it means to be in awe of, for example, a tornado, is to be in awe of its destructive, dangerous, menacing aspects.[93] “Mystery implies anxiety, but it also implies poignancy, depth, and possibility.”[94]

Kirk J. Schneider’s “conditions that favor awe-based awakening”

In his book Awakening to Awe, Schneider lists the following “conditions that favor awe-based awakening”:[95]

  • A basic capacity to subsist
  • The time to reflect
  • A capacity to slow down
  • A capacity to savor the moment
  • A focus on what one loves
  • A capacity to see the big picture
  • An openness to the mystery of life and being
  • An appreciation for the fact of life
  • An appreciation of pain as a sometime teacher
  • An appreciation of balance (e.g. between one’s fragility and resiliency)
  • Contemplative time alone
  • Contemplative time in natural or non-distracting settings
  • Contemplative time with close friends or companions
  • In-depth therapy or meditation
  • An ability to stay present to and accept the evolving nature of conflict (e.g. to know that “this too shall pass”)
  • An ability to stay present to and accept the evolving nature of life
  • An ability to give oneself over–discerningly–to the ultimately unknowable
  • An ability to trust in the ultimately unknowable

Try on some lenses

Schneider also suggests that you can become more awe-prone by “trying on” different ways of contextualizing situations — what he calls “lenses”:[96]

  • “The Lens of Transience” — life is brief, this moment will pass away, all things are ephemeral, in the midst of life we are in death, et cetera
  • “The Lens of Unknowing” — the allure of the mysterious and enigmatic
  • “The Lens of Surprise” — “being open to surprise… can also enable spontaneity, novelty, and reform” so be prepared to meet the unexpected, to suddenly pivot, to roll with the punches
  • “The Lens of Vastness” — such as you might expect to wear when approaching the Grand Canyon or a book about galaxy evolution
  • “The Lens of Intricacy” — the feeling of vertigo that comes from descending into the Mandelbrot fractal (maybe?): learning more detail, replacing one’s simple understanding with more complex realities
  • “The Lens of Sentiment” — “[t]he experience of emotion and of being profoundly moved”
  • “The Lens of Solitude” — “a state of aliveness, attentiveness, and absorption” that “can clear a space for what really matters”

On absorption in particular, the same researchers who noted that people who score high on the Tellegen absorption scale report higher feelings of awe also discovered that they could promote awe by means of absorption: “when participants [in their study] were instructed to get absorbed in a video, this resulted in stronger feelings of awe, compared to when participants were watching the video with an analytical mindset.”[81]

Practice finding awe in the ordinary

“The most fortunate are those who have a wonderful capacity to appreciate again and again, freshly and naively, the basic goods of life, with awe, pleasure, wonder and even ecstasy.” ―Abraham Maslow[97]

Many authors stressed that with deliberate practice, it is possible to find awe in your ordinary day-to-day experience, and that this is a good thing to cultivate. Eliezer Yudkowsky stressed, for example, that “[y]our choice is either:”[98]

  • Decide that things are allowed to be unmagical, knowable, scientifically explicable, in a word, real, and yet still worth caring about;
  • Or go about the rest of your life suffering from existential ennui that is unresolvable.

If the only way you can be awed by something is for it to be something that surprises you from outside of your expected experience, then your expected experience is doomed to be mundane. But that’s not necessary. You can instead develop “the capacity to be moved” which is “the maximal capacity to be impacted by experiences — to pause and to feel and to ponder… to be impacted by the entire range of human experience, and not merely those aspects which are dramatic or ready-at-hand.”[99]

This puts quite a different complexion on the bizarre habit indulged by those strange folk called scientists, wherein they suddenly become fascinated by pocket lint or bird droppings or rainbows, or some other ordinary thing which world-weary and sophisticated folk would never give a second glance.[98]


It seems that awe has some likely benefits, both directly as one of those experiences that makes life worth living, and indirectly in that (for example) it can help us to mature intellectually. It also appears likely that we can learn and practice how to integrate awe more successfully into our lives.

  1. ^

    Albert Einstein (1934) The World As I See It  p. 242

  2. ^

    Drawing on, for example: 

    Paul Pearsall (2007) Awe: the delights and dangers of our eleventh emotion [“defining characteristic is… [temporary] ego death, meaning dissolution of the sense of self, replaced by a feeling of total immersion in, and connection with, something much more vast and meaningful.” … “the humbling experience of our own lack of imagination in the face of a prodigious stimulus.” … “awe always inspires people to try to deal with something big and baffling” … “Awe is a sacred hunch, an overwhelming emotion that indicates that something within us is sensing something about the world that our brain has yet to discover.” … “the emotion we feel when we sense that there are things about life we don’t, and might never, know but that we’re supposed to keep trying to understand anyway… It… suddenly draws our deepest and most intense attention to just how infinitely, complexly, aggravatingly, often terribly perplexing life is.”]

    Kirk J. Schneider (2009) Awakening to Awe: Personal Stories of Profound Transformation [“Awe is a significant life experience that combines the following holistic dimensions: the humility and wonder, thrill and anxiety of living; the capacity to be moved; and contact with the bigger picture of existence.” … “awe can be characterized as two distinct yet overlapping modes of consciousness–the mode of wonder (e.g., allure, fascination, and adventure) and the mode of unsettlement (e.g., anxiety, apprehension, and puzzlement).”]

    David B. Yaden, Scott Barry Kaufman, Elizabeth Hyde, Alice Chirico, Andrea Gaggioli, Jia Wei Zhang & Dacher Keltner (2018) “The development of the Awe Experience Scale (AWE-S): A multifactorial measure for a complex emotion” The Journal of Positive Psychology [“the perception of vastness and the need to mentally attempt to accommodate this vastness into existing mental schemas.”]

    J.E. Stellar, A. Gordon, C.L. Anderson, P.K. Piff, G.D. McNeil, & D. Keltner (2018) “Awe and humility” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology [“Awe is the feeling of wonder and amazement at being in the presence of something vast that transcends one’s current understanding.”]

    Dacher Keltner (2023) Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life Penguin Press [“Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world.”]

  3. ^

    Pearsall (2007) p. 18.

  4. ^

    Pearsall (2007) pp. 107–109

  5. ^

    Pearsall (2007) pp. 10–12

  6. ^

    Pearsall (2007) p. 49

  7. ^

    Pearsall (2007) pp. 112–113

  8. ^

    William James (1902) The Variety of Religious Experience, lectures ⅩⅥ & ⅩⅦ: Mysticism; James also discusses some common features of these experiences, which include “optimism, and… monism”, “vastness, and… rest [as opposed to unrest]”, “reconciling, unifying”, and “they appeal to the yes-function.”

  9. ^

    Pearsall (2007) p. 50

  10. ^

    Pearsall (2007) pp. 78–79

  11. ^

    Pearsall (2007) pp. 34–36 [“a sense of vastness that far exceeds our prior imagination and general explanatory system” … “anticipatory fear beyond surprise… sometimes elevated to the level of dread” … “a severe challenge to our ‘mental set’ ”]

    Edmund Burke (1757) A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful… Ⅱ.1 [“The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment: and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horrour.”]

  12. ^

    David B. Yaden, Scott Barry Kaufman, Elizabeth Hyde, Alice Chirico, Andrea Gaggioli, Jia Wei Zhang & Dacher Keltner (2018) “The development of the Awe Experience Scale (AWE-S): A multifactorial measure for a complex emotion” The Journal of Positive Psychology (2018) [“need for accommodation… [which] involves changes to existing mental schemas in order to mentally process and integrate an experience”]

    Pearsall (2007) pp. 34–36 [“often accompanied by a sense of, or intensified search for… God, the gods, unimaginable enormity, ‘something more,’ or a ‘Higher Power.’ ” “…often results in more searching and deeper understanding rather than a sense of closure.”]

  13. ^

    Yaden et al. (2018) [“temporarily alter[ing] time perception”]

  14. ^

    Yaden et al. (2018) [“diminish[ing], or reduc[ing] the salience of, certain aspects of the self”]

    Keltner (2023) pp. 32–37

    Pearsall (2007) pp. 34–36 [“an experience of a diminished sense of self”]

  15. ^

    Yaden et al. (2018) [“feelings of connection to other people and the environment”];

    Pearsall (2007) pp. 34–36 [intensified “need to connect not only with what inspired awe but… more loving, caring, protective relationships with others and the world in general.”]

  16. ^

    Pearsall (2007) pp. 25–26 [Awe is “our maximum state of full and total observation” in which we are “more fully aware”]

  17. ^

    Yaden et al. (2018) [“freezing”, “ ‘goosebumps’ and chills”, “widened eyes and a dropped jaw”]

    Keltner (2023) pp. 45–58

    Pearsall (2007) pp. 34–36 [“distinguishing physiological changes, including goose bumps, chills, shuttering [sic.], gasping (with the feeling of having the breath ‘taken away’), gaping mouth, raising of upper eyelids and eyebrows, deeply wrinkled brow, increase in heartbeat and/or a feeling of skipped beats, and a sense of warmth and openness spreading out from the center of the chest.”]

  18. ^

    William McDougall (1920) An Introduction to Social Psychology pp. 129–130 [“We approach… slowly, with a certain hesitation; we are humbled by its presence, and… we become shy, like a child in the face of an adult stranger; we have the impulse to shrink together, to be still, and to avoid attracting his attention; that is to say, the instinct of submission, of self-abasement, is excited, with its corresponding emotion of negative self-feeling, by the perception that we are in the presence of a superior power.”]

  19. ^

    Kirk J. Schneider (2004) Rediscovery of Awe: Splendor, Mystery, and the Fluid Center of Life

  20. ^

    Keltner (2023) pp. 53–55

  21. ^

    Abraham Maslow (1964) Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences pp. 59–68

    Dacher Keltner & Jonathan Haidt (2003) “Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion” Cognition & Emotion p. 302

  22. ^

    Pearsall (2007) pp. 176–194 [awe is typically followed by twelve sorts of “elations”: “amusement”, “fascination”, “compassion”, “contentment”, “gratitude”, “hope”, “serenity”, “joy”, “love”, “pride”, “zeal”, “sexual desire” (or conflation of awe & orgasm)]

  23. ^

    Yaden et al. (2018)

  24. ^

    Michelle N. Shiota, Dacher Keltner, & Amanda Mossman (2007) “The nature of awe: Elicitors, appraisals, and effects on self-concept” Cognition and Emotion

  25. ^

    Edmund Burke (1757) Ⅳ.3,8+ [Not only actually dangerous things “but many things from which we cannot probably apprehend any danger, have a similar effect, because they operate in a similar manner.”]

  26. ^

    Burke (1757) Ⅰ.7

  27. ^

    Burke (1757) Ⅱ.2

  28. ^

    Burke (1757) Ⅱ.3

  29. ^

    Burke (1757) Ⅱ.4

  30. ^

    Burke (1757) Ⅱ.14

  31. ^

    Burke (1757) Ⅱ.5

  32. ^

    Burke (1757) Ⅱ.6

  33. ^

    Burke (1757) Ⅱ.7

  34. ^

    Burke (1757) Ⅱ.8

  35. ^

    Burke (1757) Ⅱ.9

  36. ^

    Burke (1757) Ⅱ.13

  37. ^

    Burke (1757) Ⅱ.11

  38. ^

    Burke (1757) Ⅱ.12

  39. ^

    Burke (1757) Ⅱ.16

  40. ^

    Burke (1757) Ⅱ.17

  41. ^

    Burke (1757) Ⅱ.18

  42. ^

    Burke (1757) Ⅱ.20

  43. ^

    Burke (1757) Ⅱ.18

  44. ^

    Burke (1757) Ⅱ.19

  45. ^

    Burke (1757) Ⅱ.21

  46. ^

    Burke (1757) Ⅱ.22

  47. ^

    Burke (1757) Ⅲ.27

  48. ^

    Burke (1757) Ⅳ.6

  49. ^

    Burke (1757) Ⅳ.7

  50. ^

    James (1902)

  51. ^

    Keltner & Haidt (2003)

  52. ^

    Max Weber “The Nature and Impact of Charisma” Economy and Society (1978 English edition, volume Ⅱ) p. 1117 [“charisma, in its most potent forms, disrupts rational rule as well as tradition altogether and overturns all notions of sanctity. Instead of reverence for customs that are ancient and hence sacred, it enforces the inner subjection to the unprecedented and absolutely unique and therefore Divine.”]

    Keltner & Haidt (2003)

  53. ^

    Keltner (2023) pp. 10–18

  54. ^

    Jonathan Haidt (2000) “The Positive Emotion of Elevation” Prevention & Treatment

  55. ^

    Schneider (2009) p. 19 does note that “awe brings an element of thrill–even anxiety–to the contemplative process.”

  56. ^

    Keltner (2023) p. 128

  57. ^

    Kirk J. Schneider (2004) Rediscovery of Awe: Splendor, Mystery, and the Fluid Center of Life pp. 3, 8

    Kirk J. Schneider (2008) “Rediscovering Awe: A New Front in Humanistic Psychology, Psychotherapy, and Society” Canadian Journal of Counselling [in awe-based democracy, for example, “highly skilled depth-experimental therapists” would supplement the processes of e.g. legislatures with e.g. “small-group encounters of 2–5 legislators, where deliberations of moral import would go beyond the usual rhetorical level to a level of personal and intimate exchange”]

  58. ^

    Stellar, et al. (2018) [“I often feel awe”, “I see beauty all around me”, “I feel wonder almost every day”, “I have many opportunities to see the beauty of nature”, “I often look for patterns in objects around me”, “I seek out experiences that challenge my understanding”]

  59. ^

    Vladas Griskevicius, Michelle N. Shiota, & Samantha L. Neufeld (2010) “Influence of Different Positive Emotions on Persuasion Processing: A Functional Evolutionary Approach” Emotion

  60. ^

    M. Rudd, K.D. Vohs, & J. Aaker (2012). Awe expands people’s perception of time, alters decision making, and enhances well-being. Psychological Science

  61. ^

    P. Van Cappellen, & V. Saroglou (2012) “Awe activates religious and spiritual feelings and behavioral intentions” Psychology of Religion and Spirituality

  62. ^

    P.K. Piff, P. Dietze, M. Feinberg, D.M. Stancato, D. Keltner (2015) “Awe, the Small Self, and Prosocial Behavior” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

  63. ^

    Jennifer E. Stellar, Neha John-Henderson, Craig L. Anderson, Amie M. Gordon, Galen D. McNeil, & Dacher Keltner (2015) “Positive Affect and Markers of Inflammation: Discrete Positive Emotions Predict Lower Levels of Inflammatory Cytokines” Emotion

  64. ^

    Y. Yang, Z. Yang, T. Bao, Y. Liu, & H.-A. Passmore (2016) “Elicited awe decreases aggression” Journal of Pacific Rim Psychology

  65. ^

    C. Prade, & V. Saroglou (2016) “Awe’s effects on generosity and helping” The Journal of Positive Psychology

  66. ^
  67. ^

    Pearsall (2007) p. 120

  68. ^

    Schneider (2009) p. 173

  69. ^

    P. Valdesolo, A. Shtulman, & A.S. Baron (2017). “Science is awe-some: The emotional antecedents of science learning” Emotion Review

  70. ^

    Maria Monroy & Dacher Keltner (2023) “Awe as a Pathway to Mental and Physical Health” Perspectives on Psychological Science

  71. ^

    Monroy & Keltner (2023)

    On exposure to nature specifically, see also Jia Wei Zhang, Paul K. Piff, Ravi Iyer, Spassena Koleva, & Dacher Keltner (2014) “An occasion for unselfing: Beautiful nature leads to prosociality” Journal of Environmental Psychology

  72. ^

    Pearsall (2007) pp. xviii, 8, 146 + chapter 6

  73. ^

    Pearsall (2007) pp. 20–22, 27–28, 62–63, 148–149

  74. ^

    P. Valdesolo, & J. Graham (2014). “Awe, uncertainty, and agency detection” Psychological Science

  75. ^

    Pearsall (2007) p. 218

  76. ^

    Virginia Woolf “A Sketch of the Past” (1939)

  77. ^

    See also Eliezer Yudkowsky: “Beware the Unsurprised”

  78. ^

    Pearsall (2007) pp. 34–36

    Shiota, Keltner, & Mossman (2007) [“The process of assimilation involves interpreting present stimuli as additional cases of existing schemas. By contrast, in the process of accommodation, attention is focused on deviations of the present stimulus from existing schemas, and schemas are updated or created anew to take these deviations into account… Based upon this distinction, assimilation has been described as ‘knowledge-driven’ information processing, and accommodation as ‘stimulus-driven’ processing…”]

  79. ^

    Schneider (2004) pp. 8–9 [though this analysis was meant by the author to apply to the field of psychology in particular, it seems more generally applicable]

  80. ^

    Stellar, et al. (2018) [“participants who reported frequent and intense experiences of awe were judged to be more humble by their friends”]

  81. ^

    M. van Elk, A. Karinen, E. Specker, E. Stamkou, & M. Baas (2016) “ ‘Standing in awe’: The effects of awe on body perception and the relation with absorption” Collabra

  82. ^

    P.J. Silvia, K. Fayn, E.C. Nusbaum, & R.E. Beaty (2015) “Openness to experience and awe in response to nature and music: Personality and profound aesthetic experiences” Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts

  83. ^

    Marcus Aurelius, Meditations Ⅶ.47

  84. ^

    Virginia E. Sturm, et al. (2022) “Big Smile, Small Self: Awe Walks Promote Prosocial Positive Emotions in Older Adults” Emotion; subjects were predominantly white, educated, elderly, and female.

    See also Keltner (2023) pp. 105–107

  85. ^

    I’ll include marijuana as a psychedelic for this purpose. I did a text search of Fitz Hugh Ludlow’s The Hasheesh Eater (1857) and found 117 mentions of “sublime”, “sublimity”, “awe”, “wonderful”, “wondrous” and related words. For example: “In the presence of that first sublime revelation of the soul’s own time, and her capacity for an infinite life, I stood trembling with breathless awe. Till I die, that moment of unveiling will stand in clear relief from all the rest of my existence. I hold it still in unimpaired remembrance as one of the unutterable sanctities of my being.”

  86. ^
  87. ^

    James (1902)

    James reported several of the insights he brought back from the nitrous world “which to the sober reader seem meaningless drivel, but which at the moment of transcribing were fused in the fire of infinite rationality” in his Subjective Effects of Nitrous Oxide (1882) which included things like “Oh my God, oh God; oh God!” and “What’s nausea but a kind of -usea?” He said: “The most coherent and articulate sentence which came was this: There are no differences but differences of degree between different degrees of difference and no difference.” Still, he concluded that there was some inkling of a coherent intuitive monism trying to shine through these cracks.

  88. ^

    G.K. Chesterton (1936) “How to Be a Lunatic” (Autobiography, ch. Ⅳ)

  89. ^

    Schneider (2009) p. 151

  90. ^

    Schneider (2008)

  91. ^

    Schneider (2009) p. 8

  92. ^

    Schneider (2004) p. 133

  93. ^

    Pearsall (2007) pp. 65, 161

  94. ^

    Schneider (2004) p. 161

  95. ^

    Schneider (2009) pp. xii–xiii

  96. ^

    Schneider (2009) pp. 153–170

  97. ^

    Abraham Maslow (1970) Motivation and Personality

  98. ^

    Eliezer Yudkowsky (2008) “Joy in the Merely Real”

  99. ^

    Schneider (2004) p. 147

New Comment
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Do you think there are many similar threads between shock value, surprisal, and awe? Like, are there many common threads - both neurologically and sociologically?

Totalitarian societies use "awe" as a tool of control.

Did awe evolve from "something more primitive" into the complex emotion it is today? What is the simplest animal species that can feel something akin to awe? Jane Goodall wrote that even chimpanzees can feel "awe" from a waterfall, and some cetacean experts have mentioned that whales/elephants can pause at events humans might react with awe to.

Infinities are a way to inspire awe -

(Max tegmarck multiverse theory is another way)


[The biggest moment of awe I ever felt in my life was when the Thiel Fellowship got announced for the first time. It just... shocked... every sense of my policy network... every sense of "what actions/life paths are worth following".. as it shocked the entire world... and I was shocked/impressed that it was possible that people could follow such life paths].

(I mean, feelings of "a whole new world" that come all at once also inspire awe..)


[As someone whose mental space was constantly consumed by having to impress gatekeepers, the Thiel Fellowship's announcement produced awe in the most cathartic way]