What Is the Experience of Awe and Why Does it Matter?

Why Awe Matters FinalI camp mostly for the stargazing. Everything else is important, of course. The campfire, the smoky bacon, the muddy coffee. Trees, fresh air, endless trails. All great. But what I look forward to most of all is slipping out of my tent on a dark, moonless night, finding a clearing in the trees, looking up at the sky, and realizing that light from a star that shot out a hundred thousand years ago is only just now hitting my retina.

That’s awe.

Awe is what John Muir felt when he came up over that ridge to see the Merced Valley laid out below on his first High Sierra excursion, or inched out along a narrow granite ledge behind Yosemite Falls to watch thousands of gallons tumble past his face every second.

Awe is what Oppenheimer conveyed in his response to seeing the first atom bomb—his creation—tested: “I remembered the line from the Hindu Scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.'”

Awe is what the first humans to reach Australia likely felt when they stumbled upon a fantastical world of 1000 pound flightless birds, 20 foot lizards, and 10 foot kangaroos.

Awe is what astronauts invariably report feeling upon seeing Earth from orbit.

We’ve all felt something similar. Describing the types of experiences that induce awe isn’t hard. What’s hard is describing the feeling itself. It’s almost beyond words.

Researchers Jonathan Haidt and Dacher Keltner have proposed a description, what they call the “prototype of awe” (PDF): perceived vastness and induced accommodation. But what does this mean?

Perceived vastness: For a stimulus to provoke awe, it must be vast, larger than life, and certainly larger than you. This can be true in a physical (Grand Canyon, skyscraper, monster wave) or metaphorical (piece of music, religious text, rousing speech, opening crawl of Star Wars) sense.

Induced accommodation: Because an awe stimulus is bigger than you and transcends your normal frame of reference, you must shift your worldview to accommodate the experience. Folks who report feeling awe use words like “earth-shattering” or “changed how I saw” or “I’d never realized” are coming to terms with induced accommodation. If you don’t come to terms with the new reality, it’s terrifying, so you’re compelled to integrate it.

My dogs probably love hiking more than I do, but they don’t stop at lookouts to take in the scenery. They don’t feel awe. Why do we? What’s all this about?

There are several possibilities as to why awe arose.

Haidt and Keitner suggest awe developed in humans to enable hierarchies. If low-status people were “in awe of” higher-status people, the latter could become leaders and maintain social cohesion. Faced with immense power (“vastness”), the lower-status people would need the capacity to accept lower status (“induced accommodation”) without causing strife.

According to another hypothesis, awe arose because it allowed humans to process and accommodate novel information and experiences. Organisms that can handle and integrate major disruptions to their world view are more likely to survive and adapt.

Or it could just be a necessary byproduct of higher cognition. Awe is part of being a big-brained talking ape.

Whatever the reason for its evolution, experiencing awe has several interesting effects on how we think, feel, and even heal.

Awe turns our attention outward, not inward

Astronauts looking at Earth from orbit frequently report a sense of kinship with their home planet. They truly want to protect it from environmental degradation, not just buy a Prius and make sure the recycling bin’s full every Sunday. Human foibles are rendered inconsequential (“we shouldn’t be killing and fighting”; “you’re small compared to everything else”) in the face of such vastness. A series of studies found that awe makes the self “smaller.”

Awe promotes generosity

In a recent UC Berkeley study, subjects standing in a grove of eucalyptus trees who experienced awe increased their prosocial behavior—they were more willing to give—and reduced their sense of entitlement.

Awe stretches time

Studies find that people exposed to awe-inducing stimuli feel less pressed for time (PDF). They grow more willing to donate time (but not money) to help others. Time scarcity, perceived or real, is a serious condition in the modern world that increases stress, limits our ability to focus on the present moment, and increases unhealthy behaviors (there’s no time to cook or go to the gym!). It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy where we spend so much energy fretting over the scarcity of time that we run out of time to do anything. Anything that reduces time scarcity will improve your quality of life. In my experience, the biggest moments of awe stop time altogether.

Awe improves your ability to parse arguments

In a 2010 study, researchers examined the effects of different mood states on a subject’s ability to discern good arguments from bad ones. Compared to amusement, anticipatory enthusiasm, and attachment love, awe reduced persuasion by weak arguments.

Time and time again, awe appears to reduce our sense of self, increase our connection to the world and its inhabitants, and expand time perception, if only for a few moments.

The coolest thing about this research is that it doesn’t take much to elicit awe. To study awe’s effect in people, the researchers aren’t taking their subjects to the Grand Canyon to take in the view, or big wave surfing, or scuba diving, or anything amazing. That’s too expensive. They’re showing them commercials for LCD TVs that feature waterfalls and astronauts, or having them stand in grove of eucalyptus trees on the Berkeley campus. And they’re still getting these results. Imagine the real thing.

You look into your infant child’s eyes, opening for the first time. The kid is defenseless, physically tiny, not at all imposing, and certainly not vast. But he does inspire awe. He’s the 50/50 genetic manifestation of you and your partner. And boy do you have to shift your reality to accommodate this new human.

Awe isn’t necessarily positive. Watching those jets crash into the Twin Towers certainly inspired awe, but also terror. You knew that everything was going to be different, that you were looking at history unfolding itself before you.

Awe doesn’t require trekking out to a national park. Small moments can work, too. They’re all around us. You just have to pay attention. In a future post, I’ll get specific with tips, tricks, and examples.

Let me know down below how often you experience awe.

Prefer listening to reading? Get an audio recording of this blog post, and subscribe to the Primal Blueprint Podcast on iTunes for instant access to all past, present and future episodes here.


About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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31 thoughts on “What Is the Experience of Awe and Why Does it Matter?”

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  1. How does an awe-inoculated person, who’s feeling small, humble, calm, eager to help – survive and thrive when faced with someone else, who has only a certainty if their own Righteousness,and a need to grab your resources or do whatever harm?

    Isn’t this why pacifism and “love” (as a phenom) have never survived as driving motivations?

    Serious answers welcome, I’m still trying to figure this stuff out. 🙂

    1. Because we’re adaptable. You can go from awed to protective in the blink of an eye. Being awe inoculated does not last when faced with a threat. I think the awe can sometimes trigger an even fiercer defense. When something inspires awe, you want to protect it from harm. Now just imagine what will happen when harm approaches.

    2. In that situation, you get out if you can. It’s lose/lose no matter what you do. Or if you can’t get out, you go into protection mode. I have heard it compared to falling out of your kayak in rapids. You just ball up and protect yourself. Much healthier just to get out. .

    3. Thought-provoking question – my greatest personal experiences with outright awe have also triggered my greatest moments of protectionism, for want of a better term. My all-time “greatest” moment of awe to date is not a pleasant experience at all – it was the loss of my brother on 9/11 – the shift in my reality/the world’s reality caused by that event/day initially inspired a fierce need to find my brother (as unrealistic as that was) and that need drove me to visit every hospital in NYC with not just my brother’s info but the info of anyone I learned of who was also missing. Within hours, I was suddenly working within a newly created network of complete strangers that were suddenly the most important people I could talk to – all of us siblings of the missing – all of us searching and pooling information and sharing resources – all of us linked via random meetings and internet boards. I did not fear for myself at all – my ‘self’ went away for awhile, but I felt deep responsibility for protecting my parents and my children and for my brother’s children. To be honest, when I really try to recall the intensity of feeling of those initial few days, my mind shy’s away a bit – I am shocked at the violence of feeling – the most violent and fierce and protective love I have ever experienced – very raw, very animal. I honestly think I would have killed in those moments if it was needed (and I say this shocked me because I am a pacifist by nature). So perhaps awe actually drives the need to protect that which inspired the awe (when positive) or that which is threatened by the awe (when negative?

  2. Wow, these posts really make me think. I don’t experience awe enough. It is mostly in nature. Watching a monarch caterpillar turn into a crysallis (in my kitchen) made me experience awe. It was truly a miracle. So did watching the butterfly emerge two weeks later. Starry skies in the early morning do it for me. But it definitely means detaching from technology…hard to do but a good thing. Thanks Mark!

  3. People who have a passion that keeps them curious, creative, and interested in the world are probably getting much higher doses of awe in much greater frequency. That has got to pay dividends over time in the areas you mentioned above.

  4. Seeing early morning sunlight filtering through the trees when I’m on my morning walk.

  5. Each Spring I’m in a perpetual state of awe for I don’t know how many weeks. It’s just so incredible that all those living things that looked very dead are awakening one by one. It’s really hard to describe.

  6. I love Awe. I experience it mostly in nature, leading me to half-jokingly tell people that nature is my religion.

  7. I think society is “awed out”….meaning there is limitless stuff we should in awe about, but it is now just so much… ho hum. Sort of like the movie or music industry. After years of constant bombardment….you become sort of numb to it….

  8. Hi Mark!

    Cool article. I experienced awe when my wife and I lived in Austin, TX. She took me on a surprise trip to Pedernales Falls State Park, which was an incredibly vast place that had been carved by water for probably millions of years.

    It was a surreal and AWEsome experience.

  9. I appreciate many things in the universe, but first I have to step down from the treadmill of my life and slow down enough to notice. The nest of robins in our front porch hanging basket this spring had us using the back door for the weeks it took to raise them. I am awed by the Milky Way, high overlooks, deep, clear springs, new babies, true love, etc.,etc.,etc.

  10. For me, the awe needs to encompass all of my senses. Looking at a picture of the Milky Way on my computer doesn’t do it, but standing in an empty pasture looking up at the Milky Way feeling the wind, hearing the natural night sounds, smelling all natural smells that never fails to induce awe. I think that might be why the pacifism movement struggles. To anger me you only need to engage my mind to awe me you must engage both my mind and body. Great post.

  11. There are pieces of music that put me in awe.

    I remember the first time I saw a banyan tree, and the first time I was in the ocean at night.

    My first thunderstorm in Florida (which terrified me), and my first tornado.

    There’s also a feeling that’s like a gentler neighbor of awe which I don’t know the name of, which I reserve for sunrises, and a certain particular golden light that happens about two hours before sunset.

  12. Thanks for addressing this. I get so sick of everybody claiming that everything is “awesome.” That word has lost all it’s power.

    Is that sandwich good? yes, it’s awesome. How do I look? awesome. Everything is awesome in our modern venacular. You what is awesome, Yosemite Falls, the great barrier reef. We have lost the meaning of that word, unfortunately.

  13. Fear’s oldest definition is, “reverential awe, as being in the presence of a god.”

    Our first gods were animals, like the big cats and woolly ungulates painted at Chauvet and Lascaux, paintings mythologist Joseph Campbell called, “the awakening of awe.”

  14. Just read in the paper yesterday that over 80% of the world’s population can’t see the Milky Way due to light pollution. Is it any wonder that the wonder quotient is lacking nowadays? I guess those folks will have to make due with Wonder bread…

  15. Thanks, Mark, I really liked this post. I need more awe in my life, but there is some, like watching sunsets over Cape Cod Bay. Or seeing the skyline of New York City from a distance. Or seeing a yellow-billed cuckoo in Central Park (on a bird walk).

  16. Yes to awe!

    Lately, I get a daily dose while swimming on my back in a freezing cold, glacier-fed lake…staring up at clouds, sky, surrounding mountains and a snow-topped glacial peak far in the distance.

    There’s something about the light here, in Nelson, BC, that fills my heart and makes me know that I am Home. The awe is one of reverence…and an expansive perspective that reaches far beyond this self.

  17. Nothing awes like nature, because, as Michaelangelo said, “The true work of art is but a shadow of divine perfection.” Starry skies are awesome. A grapefruit is awesome. Spring bursting forth is awesome. I, for one, praise the Creator.

  18. When I opened my e-mail this morning and began to read what Mark wrote, I was awed. Seriously. (But I am not going to follow you off any cliff, Mark!) I always appreciate your balanced views on topics that are important to healthful living, but this time I am in awe. I think I will go out and look for some more. Thanks for reminding me.

  19. I experience awe every time I get on my bike for a ride. Awe that my body is firing in just the right way to push the pedals in fluid motion. Awe as I zip through cars and houses and buildings and think about the incredible series of events that brought each of them into existence. Existence is awe inspiring! The fantastic feats of human creation almost as much!

  20. It’s the little things that inspire awe for me. I live in the coastal range mountains in Oregon, mere feet from a river that trickles musically in the summer and rages violently after winter storms. Standing on the river bank in the calm following a rainstorm – we get 14″ days here sometimes – I’m am horrified and fascinated by the power of the water gorging through the canyon across the road from my house. The knowledge that the hillside on the other side of the river could, at any time, give way and fall into the river, causing a temporary dam which would then burst and flood my downstream neighbors is frightening and awe-inspiring.

    But even closer-in, working in my garden, toiling against the relentless blackberry brambles and curly dock that constantly threaten to take back the land so hard-won for my tomatoes and kale, I am reminded that the smallest creatures inspire awe: earthworms tunneling and “doing their thing” break down the largest manure pile in a matter of months. Mama garter snake surprising me when I peel the tarp back from the pile of finished compost – she’s made her home there and loves the warmth. I love her mouse patrol! Even the barn swallows, who are so determined to build a nest on my front patio lamp every spring – the pair will fly in circles with nesting materials in their beaks, just waiting for me to go away and quit waving my broom at them so they can continue (and usually re-build!) their nesting.

    Yup, it’s all truly “awesome.”

  21. I feel a kind of humbled elation in nature quite often, & the birth of my twins was indeed awesome in every sense, but I distinctly remember two specific awe-inspiring moments: visiting the Hall of Biodiversity in the AMNH, where it felt like I was experiencing Darwin’s “endless forms most beautiful” all at once, both a visual & conceptual thrill, & visiting the Noh rainforest, where the huge trees & again, the astonishing variety of life forms made me weep with awe & joy. Remembering any of these moments can still bring tears to my eyes, even years later!