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The Intersection of Science, Art, Music & Humanities

The Art & Science of Awe

Sunday, November 25, 2018

He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed. —Albert Einstein

What's awe got to do with it? Awe has everything to do with it!

It’s a fundamental part of being human—making our bodies and minds more receptive to new information, new experiences, and life’s deeper meaning.

​Scholarly researchers ​such as Michelle "Lani" Shiota, PhD, featured in today’s Sunday Morning Stop at the Intersection of Science, Art, Music, and Humanities video above, defines awe as the feeling we get in the presence of something far ​greater than ourselves that challenges our usual way of seeing the world. A great work of art, a breathtaking vista, a moving speech, the first ​scent of spring, a fabulous piece of music, the perfection of gently falling autumn leaves, the delicious smell of a ​tiny baby's head —these can all evoke absolute awe.

When was the last time something filled you with awe? Lucky little children are delightfully ​awestruck almost daily. Unfortunately, this experience tends to be rare in many adults; our attention gets focused on day-to-day responsibilities and mundane job tasks.

A growing body of scientific research now suggests that feeling the wonder of “awestruck” is also important for adults. ​

​Shiota suggests that central to the experience of awe is a sense of smallness, but not the kind associated with shame or self-doubt—rather, awe involves feeling interconnected with others and broadening our horizons.

Her research suggests that awe has numerous psychological benefits, including increased life satisfaction, a sense of time slowing down or standing still, and a greater desire to help others.

Another recent study found that people who experienced awe more frequently in their daily lives showed lower tissue levels of interleukin-6, a pro-inflammatory cytokine associated with heart disease risk. Remarkably, awe predicated lower levels of interleukin-6 than other positive emotions, including joy, contentment, and amusement.   

A sense of awe is suggested to help people cope better with stress by promoting curiosity and exploration, rather than withdrawal and isolation.

It’s not necessary to be in awe all of the time, but most of us would be happier and healthier if we dared to become awestruck by beauty and intellectual curiosity at least once a ​day.


Where do we find awe?

In science, art, music, nature, and flavors—for a start.

​More than 100 studies have shown that being in awe while in nature helps us ​cultivate greater openness, creativity, connection, generosity, and resilience.

In other words, we may take a hike for our physical fitness, but strong evidence suggests that exposure to nature impacts the brain. Viewing natural beauty (in the form of landscape paintings and video, at least) activates specific reward circuits in the brain, associated with dopamine release that give us a sense of purpose, joy, and the energy necessary to pursue our goals.

​John Muir once wrote about being in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California: “We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.” ​Clearly, ​Muir found nature’s awe-inspiring imagery a positive, emotive experience, as do many people.

​On the other hand, the "shock and awe" associated with war and practiced moral indifference to suffering ​is not a feeling of awe to strive for—in our opinion.

Nature induces awe, wonder, and reverence—all emotions known to have a variety of benefits, promoting everything from well-being and altruism to humility and health, therefore nature, national parks, state parks, and city parks open space must be protected from the greedy. 

The bottom line: "Forest bathe" every chance you get—even in a small ​neighborhood park, visit art and history museums frequently, listen to music every single day, be intellectually curious, watch the sun rise and set, never forget to watch weather as it moves ​over mountains—for those of you, like me and so many others in Colorado, who are lucky enough to have big peaks in our line of vision.​

Every fiber of your healthier, happier, and more positive being will thank you for it.

Ellen Troyer, with Spencer Thornton, MD, David Amess and the Biosyntrx staff