The Science of Awe

When I was very little, I asked my dad how long it would take to get from Earth to the Sun.

image4I was wondering because I was attempting to pay a visit via a well-timed leap off the swingset. After he initially shattered my travel plans with the reminder that, to avoid a fiery death, I’d have to go at night (which, unfortunately, was past my bedtime), he proceeded to shatter my fragile 4-year-old notion of the universe with the fact that the sun is 93 million miles away.

I was awe-struck. That’s eight light-minutes. That’s 120,000 trips to Gram and Pop’s house. Forget the smiling sunshine I’d fingerpainted that morning- we’re talking a Copernican-level perspective shift here.

Our own humble moon may be a mere 239,000 miles away, but from our Earthly vantage point, it’ll soon be in the perfect position to perform one of its most awe-inspiring tricks. Passing directly in front of our favorite star, it will drown out all stellar light save for an otherworldly halo of plasma called the corona, and send a circle of mid-day darkness gliding across the country.

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In light of this momentous occasion (or rather, in its shadow) let’s talk about what we’re all likely to be feeling here in Athens on August 21st: awe.

While scientists, like four-year-olds, are in a particularly lucky position to experience awe- their very job description involves chasing the edge of the unknown- the feeling itself, like any emotion, can be difficult to pin down empirically. Especially since one of its defining symptoms is an inability to describe the experience.

However, where words fall short, biochemistry speaks. A recent study compared levels of inflammatory cytokines (implicated in ailments like diabetes, heart disease, and depression) to positive emotions such as joy, pride, and contentment; while all these positive emotions correlated to lower cytokine levels, awe had the lowest readings of all.

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This anti-inflammatory link lends insight into wonder’s role in our emotional lives. While inflammation causes us to withdraw, awe “gets us out of our own heads” in situations that would normally overwhelm us.

Arresting moments have a way of captivating us even as they stop us in our tracks. This points to what awe expert Craig Anderson considers awe’s true purpose: sparking curiosity. With its strange combination of fear and fascination, a healthy sense of awe drives us to explore the unknown with a careful inquisitiveness- the perfect attitude to face a world filled with both danger and richness.

Another of implication of awe’s magnetizing influence is evident from most people’s first reaction to a spectacular sight: tugging frantically at the sleeve of their nearest neighbor.

“When people experience awe,” says psychologist Paul Piff, “they really want to share that experience with other people,” giving the feeling a “viral component.” After all, taking in a fireworks display, geeking out over a Star Wars trailer, or singing a song while floating in orbit just isn’t the same by yourself. Awe can bring even the shyest people out of their shells, gushing to their friends about a favorite superhero or passing around photos from a rare encounter with wildlife (or writing ASO posts).image1

Hundreds of studies have even unearthed a tendency for awe to foster altruism and generosity. Students gazing at a grove of towering eucalyptus trees, for example, were more likely to lend a hand to a passing stranger who’d spilled a box of pens than students staring at a relatively uninspiring brick wall. Swapping the eucalyptus forest for a giant T-Rex skeleton, other researchers found that the awe-inspired defined themselves in more “collectivist terms.” Even participants who watched a recorded segment of Planet Earth were more generous afterward than viewers of funny or neutral clips.

In other words, awe-inspiring moments don’t just make us feel insignificant or small– by overshadowing our own self-interest in the presence of a broader reality, they can become a powerful unifying force.

So may the coming eclipse be an opportunity to share an awesome moment with a whole community of fellow onlookers. We live in truly awe-inspiring times- and we don’t even have to wait until nighttime.

A Few Things Athens Finds Awesome:

“I love appreciating bird life because they bring curiosity, joy, and awe into everyday life. They call to mind one of my favorite passages of scripture, Matthew 6:25-27.” -Vivian Anderson

“The endless possibilities to quantify plants in imaging data lets me envision a world where no one is sad.” – Prof. Alex Bucksch

“[I feel awe] when I’m walking down the sidewalk and catch a glimpse of someone so radiant I become unaware of everything but that person. I can become so awestruck I have to actively keep myself from staring. It’s funny to think how a glimpse of a stranger can feel similar to that of a breathtaking landscape. Most people don’t realize just how incredibly beautiful they are.” – Samantha Ward

“I am experiencing a sense of awe when looking up into the starry sky on a clear summer night, or when I am outside as it gets dark and suddenly find myself surrounded by the blinking lights of fireflies.” – Prof. Kathrin Stanger-Hall

“To me, plants are some of the most wondrous things we share the natural world with. Plants will struggle under tremendous environmental stresses, surviving just long enough to produce a single viable seed. Tiny weeds clinging to life in the cracks in your sidewalk. Plants draping from the sides of mountains. Forests taller and older than you can fathom. Nature is full of these awe-inspiring images. I encourage everyone to go outside and make friends with the plants–you’ll never regret tuning in to the natural world.” – Kevin Tarner

“Desert stars, far from the city lights… I can never see enough stars!” – Prof. Douda Bensasson

“Every day, I am struck by the love of my family and friends and the kindness of strangers. I am in awe of the wonderful people I get to share my life with.” -Anonymous

“Even after years of doing this, seeing something new down the microscope still inspires awe for me. There is something almost magical about seeing something that no one else has ever seen.” – Prof. Michelle Momany

About the Author

Rosemary WillisRosemary Wills is an undergraduate at UGA majoring in Plant Biology and Science Education. When she’s not writing, coding, or spending time with family, she enjoys growing plants in her windowsill and crocheting science-related things. More from Rosemary Wills.