Have you ever felt an inexplicable joy while watching a waterfall, a pure astonishment while watching the night sky or shed a tear as you listen to a beautiful melody? Chances are, you might have felt this mysterious feeling called “awe”.
Although psychologists only started studying it properly in the early 2000s, this complex emotion has been noticed and referenced for centuries – it can be compared with Edmund Burke’s idea of the sublime, Joseph Campbell notion of apotheosis, Abraham Maslow’s peak experiences and Sigmund Freud’s concept of oceanic feelings.
Awe is very often described as “an experience of such perceptual expansion and vastness that you’re forced to reconfigure your mental models of the world to assimilate it”. When you feel such an experience, so vast in number, size, beauty, complexity, intensity, etc – you have to expand your mind in order to be able to integrate this new information you perceived.
The ultimate awe experience is probably the phenomenon called “overview effect”. Many astronauts reported a strong feeling of bliss, timelessness, and connectedness when they saw the Earth from space.
Seeing this tiny blue sphere floating in the black void transformed their perspectives on life. After returning from space, NASA astronaut Ron Garan explained what he thought we would all feel if we could have the same, astonishing view: “Your definition of the word ‘home’ would rapidly expand to encompass the planet in its entirety, and for the first time, you might fully understand what it means to be one human family”.
Nowadays many of us live trapped in our own mental habits. Over stimulation – the repetition of the same kind of stimuli over and over again – makes our brain function in autopilot, performing the most various tasks without us needing to be fully engaged in them. When this happens, it means we’re already confined to our comfort zone and rarely stepping outside of it. Like Jason Silva says, we become stuck in the “I’ve been there, I’ve done that” mindset, where nothing seems to impress us, nothing seems to turn us on – “we have eyes yet see not, ears that hear not and hearts that neither feel nor understand”. This self-made prison creates a state of permanent numbness and decreases our ability to feel wonder.
We all want to have realizations and epiphanies who shake us a little bit, that awaken and encourage us to live our lives with purpose and passion, so how can we avoid this boring and limiting state of mind? I would say we need to be brave enough to let our old self die so that something new can be born. We have to surrender and put ourselves vulnerable. As Robert Moore brilliantly said: “If you cannot submit, you cannot die. If you cannot die, you cannot be reborn”.
It is no secret that these kind of experiences might be highly destabilizing since they expose us to something that is far beyond our usual conceptual frameworks. But when we surrender and finally let ourselves be cracked open, the light will be able to get in, letting us transcend into an ecstasy feeling.
Contemplating an awe-inspiring waterfall in one of our roadtrips to the Azores Islands.
The awe experience is not merely a speculative matter. In the last decade, it has been a subject of academic research. In a very refreshing study, the lead author Melanie Rudd of Stanford University concluded that experiencing awe might influence the way we perceive time. As you can imagine, this could have many interesting repercussions in the human experience. In the three experiments that were performed, it was shown that the participants who experienced awe, relative to other emotions:
- Felt they had more time available
- Were less impatient
- Were more willing to volunteer their time to help other people
- Strongly preferred experiences over material products;
- Experienced greater life satisfaction.
It is believed that these results derive from awe’s ability to alter the subjective experience of time. It manages to bring people into the present moment, something that adjusts their time perception, thus influencing the way one feels and makes decisions.
Although there are several factors that lead to our different ways of experiencing awe, such as personality, religion and culture, there seem to be many similar psychological benefits resulting from this event. Let us share with you the main ones:
- The “small self” feeling
- Positive mood and well-being
- Decreased materialism
- Increased levels of kindness and generosity
If we can get all of these wonderful psychological effects, imagine how society would change if a large number of people were exposed to this kind of experience… Not all of us will have the opportunity to see the Earth from space, but there are so many experiences within our reach that can have a similar effect on our brains – simply by being aware. When we contemplate a breathtaking natural landscape, when we stare at a 10-thousand year rock painting or when we perceive a mesmerizing fractal pattern of a flower, we can experience a feeling of great vastness inside of us that will most probably contribute positively to our perception of life itself.
This is just the tip of an iceberg we are very much looking forward to explore!