“Get up. You gotta see this.”
I was woken up by my friend in the next hut and stepped into the crisp morning air. It was too early to wake up and too cold to sleep. Sunlight was starting to fill the giant valley and I was filled with wonder.
The entire Annupurna massif was before me. I could see the famous routes I had read about for years. The rockfalls and avalanches I heard yesterday were now visible scars on the landscape. I stared at the Dutch Rib route that was famously climbed by the all-female American team in 1978 (Wikipedia, 2022) and imagined their struggle up the route.
After about fifteen minutes of devouring the view, I realized my mouth was open and I had drool frozen to my face. I was experiencing awe. I snapped back into my body and starting taking some pictures that would not do the scene justice. I walked up to this higher perspective and took this shot of others experiencing their own version of awe:
I had been in Nepal for about four weeks and still hadn’t seen the Himalaya. I didn’t believe the beautiful post cards in the tourist shops. On the days walking up to Annupurna Base Camp, I kept searching above me for those famous views and the weather hid them from me. One afternoon, while traversing below Machupuchre, I looked up and saw a snowfield a mile above me and I thought “there they are, they do exist”.
Nepal has a way of putting you into a proper relationship with the Earth. When the foothills are taller than the Rocky Mountains, you feel like you are crawling across the landscape. The thousands of stairs you walk up and down, the size of the gorges, the weather, and the high passes all tell you that the mountain is indifferent to your success. In Nepal, you are in the presence of vastness that exceeds human understanding, inspiring awe.
Experiencing awe can help us reduce anxiety, become more altruistic, and increase selflessness. I just finished Transcend – The New Science of Self-Actualization (Kaufman, 2020), one of my favorite books in the past year, by Scott Barry Kaufman. The book dives into Maslow’s work in humanistic philosophy and psychology and our striving for transcendence. One of the chapters is called “Peak Experiences” – also known as “Mystical Experiences”, “Samadhi”, “Flow Experience”, and “Satori” which dives into the benefits of awe.
The book dispels the perception that peak experiences are rare. In fact, we all have experiences that are close to perfection. Maslow helped generalize the experience and differentiate them from religious experiences, as they had been prior described by William James. Maslow studied this phenomenologically with college students in his first research into peak experiences.
Maslow believed that peak experiences allow us to perceive reality more clearly, without filtering and bias. He also believed that peak experiences could cause long-lasting changes in neurobiology and psychology of the person experiencing them. Any person, during a peak experience, can exhibit characteristics of self-actualization – individuation, fulfillment, happiness. Self-actualized people just have a higher frequency of peak experiences.
The science of peak experiences is one of the most exciting areas of research in neuroscience and psychology. If you ask people if they have ever felt awe, almost everyone will say yes. Awe is the every-person’s way of experiencing peak experiences. James and Maslow brought awe into psychology as an important component to increasing life-satisfaction, a feeling of generosity, and a decrease in aggressive attitudes. There are new data on the neurobiological aspects correlating dispositional awe involving brain regions associated with attention, conscious self-regulation, cognitive control, and social emotion (Guan, et al., 2018), which aligns with and conceptually makes sense given the psychological benefits we already know about.
Awe in the Mundane
You don’t need to trek to high mountains to experience awe. A blade of grass will do. I remember as a child I used to lay on the grass and become absorbed by the soil, the blades, and the life. A tree will do. A dog, a painting, a song, a child playing, can each bring moments of awe that will have the following positive benefits:
- Awe can increase the feelings of connectedness with others and promote prosocial behaviors. (Piff et al., 2015, Stellar et al., 2018) – dispositional tendencies to experiencing awe predicted higher generosity in an economic game, increased ethical decision-making, and decreased feelings of entitlement. This is a really interesting and creative study. Even standing in a grove of trees can influence our follow-on behavior positively.
- Awe can reduce inflammation in the body by reducing cytokines (Stellar et al., 2015) – negative emotions are reliably associated with poorer health and positive emotions can play a role in better physical health. Experiences of awe were strong predictors of lower levels of proinflammatory cytokines regardless of personality and other health variables.
- Awe can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression (Shiota et al., 2007) – The relationship between awe and depression is still early, however, it conceptually makes sense. When the self temporarily disappears, so do the anxieties and depression associated. In peak experiences, there is a heightened sense of self-loss that is positive and healthy. Hypo-egoism increases sense of self, which is a paradox. You must have an ego in order to remove your ego.
Technology to induce Awe
There are numerous approaches that show promise in improving access to awe experiences including transcranial magnetic stimulation (tMS), transcranial direct current stimulation (tCDS), psychedelics, and virtual reality. There are ethical considerations in using technology to provide a dose of awe. Would we rather have autonomy instead of prescribed awe? Do the accessibility concerns override the autonomy concerns? These are good questions we will need to answer. A quick hit of transcendance was not worthwhile in Maslow’s opinion as it requires full integration to have a transformative effect. I understand that, however, maybe we can provide access to those who may not be physically able to experience the high mountains, the deep forests, the great reefs and other awe-inspiring natural experiences and enable full integration of the experience to realize the transformative effects.
To bring more awe into our lives, schedule it. I know I repeat this over and over, but it’s important. We say we want certain things in our lives like more time with our loved ones, more time doing the activities we enjoy, and more adventures and often we prioritize other things like work, administration, television, and video games. We are too tired at the end of the day for awe. Instead, prioritize awe-inspiring activities and realize more energy, purpose, and connection:
- Go to a concert
- Go to a museum and absorb art
- Go for a walk in nature
- Sit on your mat and meditate
- Listen to music and only listen to music
Take the Self Actualization Tests honestly and see where you are, make investments, and realize the benefits.
- Kaufman, S.B. (2020). Transcend: The new science of self-actualization. New York, NY: Tarcher Perigee.
- Yaden, D. B., Haidt, J., Hood, R. W., Vago, D. R., & Newberg, A. B. (2017). The Varieties of Self-Transcendent Experience. Review of General Psychology, 21(2), 143–160. https://doi.org/10.1037/gpr0000102.
- Guan Fang, Xiang Yanhui, Chen Outong, Wang Weixin, Chen Jun. (2018). Neural Basis of Dispositional Awe. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnbeh.2018.00209.
- Piff, P. K., Dietze, P., Feinberg, M., Stancato, D. M., & Keltner, D. (2015). Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(6), 883–899. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000018
- Shiota, M. N., Keltner, D., & Mossman, A. (2007). The nature of awe: Elicitors, appraisals, and effects on self-concept. Cognition and Emotion, 21(5), 944–963. https://doi.org/10.1080/02699930600923668
- Stellar, J. E., Gordon, A. M., Piff, P. K., Cordaro, D. T., Anderson, C. L., Bai, Y., … & Keltner, D. (2015). Self-transcendent emotions and their social functions: Compassion, gratitude, and awe bind us to others through prosociality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109(1), 83–103. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000018
- Stellar, J. E., John-Henderson, N., Anderson, C. L., Gordon, A. M., McNeil, G. D., & Keltner, D. (2015). Positive affect and markers of inflammation: discrete positive emotions predict lower levels of inflammatory cytokines. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 15(2), 129–133. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000033
- Stellar, J. E., Gordon, A., Anderson, C. L., Piff, P. K., McNeil, G. D., & Keltner, D. (2018). Awe and humility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 114(2), 258–269. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000109
- Wikipedia contributors. (2022, August 16). American Women’s Himalayan Expedition. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 16:11, April 5, 2023, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=American_Women%27s_Himalayan_Expedition&oldid=1104740022