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Awestruck: How Awe Rewires Our Brains — and How We Can Find More of It in Our Everyday Lives

Ambling, Amazed

Take the quiet path through the jasmine
fields, in airs perfumed with saffron and oolong,
where the sheer sight of a single
white blossom awakens the mind
to something grander than itself in solitude.
The whole vast map of the universe
unfolds in this moment, and the sudden
realization of where you sit inside it, surrounded,
on all sides, by the circuits of the sublime.

— Matthew Kosinski

Each month we delve into a new story inspired by our scent of the month. This month, in honor of Isle of Jasmine's adventurous spirit and April's tradition of rambling, this month's Seasonal story explores the social and psychological power of awe and how we can actively invoke it in our daily routines.

There's nothing quite like the feeling one gets when encountering — really, directly encountering — the beauty of the natural world. Whether gazing upon the epic sweep of a roaring river out in the wilderness or happening upon a single butterfly floating down a city street, we often find ourselves in these moments suddenly transported beyond the everyday. It's a sensation that resists language itself — although current U.S. poet laureate Joy Harjo gets pretty close to perfectly capturing it in "Eagle Poem":

    "To pray you open your whole self
    To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
    To one whole voice that is you.
    Like eagle that Sunday morning
    Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky
    In wind, swept our hearts clean
    With sacred wings."1

This is the feeling of awe. Most if not all of us have experienced it before, but for many, it holds the status of an elusive treasure, something we glimpse only fleetingly on rare occasions. This is, perhaps, an inevitable outcome of the rhythms of modern life. Unlike our ancestors, who spent their days in intimate association with nature, we're often cooped up inside, juggling our personal and professional responsibilities, with little time or space to contemplate our wellsprings of wonder.

Photo by Qingbao Meng; Source: Unsplash

But here's the good news: It's not difficult to make awe a part of your everyday routine — and that has powerfully positive implications for the health of ourselves, our societies, and the planet we inhabit.

Understanding Awe

Awe is challenging to describe, but that hasn't stopped artists, scientists, and philosophers alike from trying to capture its essence. Some consider it a combination of pleasure and fear; others categorize awe as a different emotion, distinct from all the rest by virtue of its potent transcendental effects. Perhaps the most succinct definition comes to us from Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt, two psychology researchers who specialize in the study of awe: "the sensation of being in the presence of something vast that simultaneously transcends one's understanding of the world."2 On a similar, if somewhat more spiritual note, positive psychology proponent Paul Pearsall characterizes awe as an "overwhelming and bewildering sense of connection with a startling universe that is usually far beyond the narrow band of our consciousness."3

Awe is often closely associated and intertwined with the sublime, another slippery category of experience. But understanding sublimity can help us better understand awe, too.

Photo by Goutham Krishna; Source: Unsplash

In the words of philosopher Tsang Lap Chuen, the sublime is that which provokes "self-realization at the limit of our existence."4 In other words, sublime experiences intensify our awareness of our relationships with the world; they shine a light, if only momentarily, on both our individual existences and the ways in which those existences are shaped by the world we inhabit. This sense of encountering our psychological boundaries is encoded in the very etymology of the word: As a combination of the Latin words "sub" (meaning "up to") and "limen" (meaning "threshold"), "sublime" can be translated quite literally as "rising up to the threshold."5

One way to understand awe, then, is as the emotion we feel during these sublime experiences — the thrilling, frightening, but ultimately gratifying sensation of being at our limit. Because it pushes us outside our comfort zones, awe can feel destabilizing, like we're being mentally knocked off our feet. But from that disorientation, a stronger sense of communal interconnection often emerges.

If that sounds like wild speculation, consider the research of neuroscientists Tomohiro Ishizu and Semir Zeki. They found that when a person experiences the sublime, the brain regions associated with self-awareness are deactivated while the imaginative areas of the brain become more active. They interpret this to mean that, perhaps, when we feel awe, we have the opportunity to grow beyond the confines of our individualistic thinking; we feel like we're part of something bigger than ourselves.6

Photo by Matthew Meijer; Source: Unsplash

The Practical Applications of Being Amazed

Our personalities and thought patterns are deeply ingrained things. Changing them — even in positive ways, even when we want to — can be incredibly difficult. Yet by bringing us to the limits of ourselves and inspiring our imaginations, awe gives us an unparalleled opportunity to expand our ways of thinking.7 In particular, awe might help us turn our attention outward, to become more thoughtful about how we carry ourselves in the world.

“By bringing us to the limits of ourselves and inspiring our imaginations, awe gives us an unparalleled opportunity to expand our ways of thinking.”

Scientists have observed evidence of awe changing people's behaviors in this way. For example, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley conducted an experiment wherein participants were split into two groups. One group spent time observing a grove of eucalyptus trees, while the other looked at the facade of a building. Then, the researchers staged a minor accident in which a person passing by the participants dropped a handful of pens. The participants who spent time looking at the eucalyptus trees picked up more pens on average, which researchers believe points to a correlation between altruism and awe.8

Some theorize that humans may have evolved to experience awe because this emotion prompts such prosocial behavior. The survival of our species has long depended on our cooperation with one another. A sentiment that makes us feel more connected to our fellow humans would be a powerful tool in ensuring our success.9

The T. rex skeleton at U.C. Berkeley’s Museum of Paleontology has played an important role in awe research.; Source: Secret San Francisco

Another Berkeley study probed this theory by, once again, splitting participants into groups. One group spent time contemplating the skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex in the university's Museum of Paleontology, while the other looked at a nondescript hallway in the building. Then, participants were asked to define themselves with written "I am" statements. Those participants who spent time with the dinosaur skeleton were more likely to define themselves in collectivist terms, stressing their social identities over their individual egos.10

Awe may even play a role in keeping us physically healthy. According to one study, feelings of awe are correlated with lower levels of cytokines, which are proteins that regulate immune system activity. When these proteins are present in large numbers, they can cause chronic inflammation that contributes to conditions like autoimmune diseases and depression. In the study, participants who reported feeling more awe on a given day were more likely to have healthy cytokine levels.11

Photo by Daniel Gregoire; Source: Unsplash

The Origins of Awe

Awe contributes to healthy selves and societies, yet it seems remarkably hard to come by. But it doesn't have to be this way. If we know where to look for awe, we can seek it for ourselves — and we'll find it's not in short supply.

There is perhaps no more reliable source of awe than the natural world. In fact, encounters with the natural world shaped our understanding of awe itself. Our modern concept of the sublime can be traced back to three 18th-century English thinkers: Anthony Ashley-Cooper, John Dennis, and Joseph Addison. What did they have in common? All three took trips across the Alps around the same time, and all three were so moved by their experiences in the mountains that they felt compelled to explore further the alluring combination of beauty and danger provoked by the Alps. For his part, Addison wrote, "The Alps fill the mind with an agreeable kind of horror," which sums up sublimity in general: thrilling, terrifying, but ultimately pleasurable because it allows us to situate ourselves within the world rather than see ourselves as lords above it.12

The Alps, the highest mountain range in Europe, inspired formative writings on the sublime in the 18th century; Source: Wikipedia

Of course, these men did not invent the sublime. They merely helped shepherd the concept into the popular discourse. Perhaps the oldest text on the sublime is the appropriately titled On the Sublime, an anonymous treatise dating back to the first century C.E. Often attributed to Longinus, the text argues the natural world and art are the two chief sources of awe, as these things help us "[form] great conceptions" and imbue us with "vehement and inspired passion." For Longinus, the awe-inspiring qualities of nature and art were mutually dependent on one another: "For art is perfect when it seems to be nature, and nature hits the mark when she contains art hidden within her."13

The contemporary philosopher Jadranka Skorin-Kapov also sees art and nature as interconnected sources of awe — and, she argues, the awe they inspire may be the foundation of moral behavior itself. In The Intertwining of Aesthetics and Ethics: Exceeding of Expectations, Ecstasy, Sublimity, Skorin-Kapov argues that art and nature are arenas in which we often experience things that exceed our expectations. Such experiences produce in us a sense of wonder, which engenders a sense of respect for the world. That sense of respect, Skorin-Kapov says, motivates us to care for the people, plants, and animals with whom we share this world.14 Skorin-Kapov's theories may get a boost from the U.C. Berkeley research recounted earlier — and they're echoed by Joy Harjo's "Eagle Poem," which we quoted up top:

    "We see you, see ourselves and know
    That we must take the utmost care
    And kindness in all things."15

Photo by Matthew Schwartz; Source: Unsplash

Intentional Acts of Wonder

We know where to find awe, and that means we can invite it into our lives by creating our own personal rituals designed to invoke it. If we open ourselves up to the possibility of awe, and we intentionally put ourselves in the suitable physical and mental spaces to encounter that awe, we'll rediscover the wonder that suffuses our world.

That doesn't mean we need to embark on treks across the Alps, although journeys to new landscapes are certainly one way to commune with the sublime. Awe can be found in the quotidian, too. For example, you might start taking "awe walks" in your neighborhood. These are short strolls during which you intentionally choose to seek awe — and they really work. In one study, people who were told to "seek awe" before going out on a walk were more likely to have awe-inspiring moments than those not given the same prompt.16 Awe walks can happen anywhere: down your street, in the park, through a local art museum.

Photo by Willian Justen de Vasconcellos; Source: Unsplash

“The more often you're amazed, the more connected you'll feel to the world; the more connected you feel to the world, the more opportunities you'll find to be amazed.”

Closely related to the awe walk is the "microadventure." Popularized by author Alastair Humphreys, microadventures are shorter, simpler versions of more traditional adventures. They can be as simple as taking a different route to work or going for a bike ride instead of your typical run. The point is that, by breaking out of our routines, we give ourselves a chance to notice the world anew — and in doing so, we make ourselves more receptive to awe.17

Awe is, ultimately, a matter of attention. If you make it a habit to take notice of the world — to listen closely to a great record; to really stop and look at the new flowers poking through the spring soil — you'll start finding awe in all sorts of places. And that will create a virtuous cycle. The more often you're amazed, the more connected you'll feel to the world; the more connected you feel to the world, the more opportunities you'll find to be amazed.


— The Keap Team

P.S. If the seasons and this story inspired you to take more outdoor wanders this month, check out our April drinks recipe, Flora. In this classic White Negroni with a couple of tweaks, chamomile-infused gin joins French gentian liqueur and Alpine blanc vermouth for a batchable riff that you can take on all of your adventures this spring.

The Seasonal Series

We select a Seasonal Scent of the month to send to our candle subscribers. We use the opportunity to cover seasonal themes through the written word with a monthly article. For our subscribers, this is complemented by a limited edition zine, art print and matchbox in their monthly package.
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