The emotion of awe fascinates as much as it confounds. Scientific and popular attention in awe is surging, yet awe remains one of the most commonly misunderstood psychological concepts in our culture. What exactly is “awe?”
Historically, awe refers to a complex blend of profound respect and fear, an understanding that continues to this day in many other cultures (for example, China). In the Western world, the verb “to awe” stems from the 13th century Old Norse word “agi,” which literally translates as “terror” or “fright.” These views of awe were heavily influenced by religious perspectives. In fact, awe is one of the most referenced concepts in the Judeo-Christian Bible, as I explore elsewhere. For instance, trying to understand the meaning of a key passage in the Bible’s first testament that typically references “the fear of the Lord,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heshel translated Psalm 111:10 as “the awe of God is the beginning of wisdom.” Another example of a religious conceptualization of awe is found in the theological classic, “The Idea of the Holy,” in which Rudolf Otto develops the idea of the “mysterium tremendum.” According to Otto, this experience consists of two intertwined components. One aspect is a sensation of trembling, which comes from a perception of being in the presence of something uncanny, overpowering, and vibrantly alive. Second, there is mystery, which typically leads a person to fascination, a general term used by Otto to refer more specifically to feelings of being astonished, thunderstruck, transfixed, or dumbfounded.
A new understanding of awe began in 1757 when Edmund Burke published “A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.” In addition to religious sources, Burke noted that awe can be evoked when hearing thunder, viewing art, and listening to a symphony. This led people to begin thinking of awe in broader – often more positive – terms.
Also relevant to this discussion is a distinction that occurred between the terms “awful” and “awesome.” To some, “awful” refers to a reaction in which one encounters a negative awe event or where a potentially awe-inspiring experience cannot be accommodated for some reason. In contrast, the word “awesome” originally referred to an experience where one has a positive awe encounter. However, as Steven Pinker notes in an interview for the Atlantic, people often are in search of superlatives to capture their most noteworthy or extraordinary experiences, and the word “awesome” has become one linguistic shortcut for doing so in this culture, ultimately leading this word to lose much of its meaning. Rabbi Heschel may have been on to something when he remarked that “the awareness of grandeur and the sublime is all but gone from the modern mind.”
In recent years, psychological scientists also have attempted to understand awe, leading to some intriguing studies and findings. In general, psychologists continue in the tradition of Burke, referencing awe as a mostly positive emotion. Research is now showing that awe has a universal display, but distinct physiology (for example, uniquely revealing “goosebumps”).
Like other psychological phenomena, it is been helpful for me to recognize that awe is best conceptualized as occurring along a continuum. That is, it seems necessary to distinguish the strongest kind of awe experiences that have the most power to transform individuals’ lives from awe experiences that are moderate in strength that include some (but not all) defining elements.
Reviewing the history and science of awe, it seems that the transformative experiences of awe:
- Overwhelm individuals with something so vast (in physical size, space, power, history, complexity of detail, virtue, knowledge, or skill) that it transcends their current knowledge or understanding of the world,
- Immerse individuals in the process of trying to accommodate what previously was known with what currently is being experienced,
- Involve feelings of smallness or humility in the presence of something greater,
- Result in a profound change in thinking or behavior, even in self-definition,
- Retain a vivid long-term memory of the event, and
- Occur very infrequently, maybe even only a few times in life.
Many of the best known awe experiences demonstrate these criteria. St. Paul’s reported incident of “seeing the light” on the road to Damascus is an example.
Milder awe experiences possess some of these characteristics, but they may be less intense, and some characteristics may not be exhibited at all. For instance, whereas transformative awe experiences may result in a change in self-definition, mild awe experiences may result in a temporarily newfound appreciation. The memory may not be as vivid or long-lasting. These milder experiences may occur more frequently, even daily.
One of the most significant differences between transformative awe experiences and mild awe experiences may have to do with the amount of surprise involved. This may make it more difficult to experiment with transformative awe because this kind of experience may not be as able to be planned. However, mild awe experiences intentionally may be cultivated or sought to a greater extent. Previous research has benefitted from this in that it seems to have manipulated milder awe. Examples include having research participants stare at a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, empathize with a literary character viewing Paris from the Eiffel Tower, view vast scenes of nature via video, and gaze at tall trees. To my knowledge, no scientific research has been able to arrange conditions to manipulate transformative awe. In my opinion, the closest manipulation has been when research participants have been asked to recall powerful awe experiences, but remembering an incident obviously is not the same as experiencing it.
If it is true that surprise is essential to transformative awe, there may be implications for enhancing the experience. For instance, if going on a vacation to a vast, but unknown location, it may be more powerful to travel without much foreknowledge. Watching videos about the destination beforehand may diminish the sense of surprise that enables a stronger experience of awe.
This conceptualization also encourages individuals to intentionally seek mild awe experiences. There may be a variety of ways to do this. Even something as simple as mindfully being in the presence of a body of water for 20 minutes can bring a whiff of awe into everyday life.
Despite all this, the emotion of awe remains elusive in some ways, and its definition should be considered an “open concept,” able to be refined as further thinking and research is conducted. Still, having a better understanding of what truly is awe-inspiring has the potential to enhance our awareness that, when something truly “awesome” occurs, it really is something for which to pause and be grateful.