Awe is so powerful it alters your sense of self, connects you with humanity and boosts your mind and body. And there's a surprising way to get more of it.
By Jo Marchant
HAVE you ever been stopped in your tracks by a stunning view, or gobsmacked by the vastness of the night sky? Have you been transported by soaring music, a grand scientific theory or a charismatic person? If so, you will understand US novelist John Steinbeck’s response to California’s giant redwood trees, which can soar more than a hundred metres towards the sky. “[They] leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always,” he wrote. “From them comes silence and awe.”
Philosophers and writers have long been fascinated by our response to the sublime, but until a few years ago, scientists had barely studied it. Now they are fast realising that Steinbeck was right about its profound effects. Feeling awestruck can dissolve our very sense of self, bringing a host of benefits from lowering stress and boosting creativity to making us nicer people.
Yet in the modern world, the value of the word awesome has plummeted – almost anything can now acquire the epithet. At the same time, we risk losing touch with the most potent sources of awe. The good news is that there are ways to inject more of it into our everyday lives. You needn’t be religious. All you need is an open mind – although a willingness to try psychedelic drugs may help.
But what exactly is awe and where does it come from? “It’s a subjective feeling rooted in the body,” according to psychologist and pioneering awe researcher Dacher Keltner at the University of California, Berkeley.