The Power of Awe


Philosopher Immanuel Kant famously remarked that two things filled him with awe and wonder: “the starry heaven above me and the moral law within me.” While some will understand this meaning, the nature of awe remains something of a mystery to most. “The field of emotion research is almost silent with respect to awe,” note psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt in a 2003 paper. “Few emotion theorists consider awe in their taxonomies, and those who do have done little to differentiate it from other states.”

The task of mapping awe is explored in a recent cover story for the Observer, a publication of the Association for Psychological Science. Keltner, a John Templeton Foundation grantee, and Haidt propose that awe is comprised of two distinct ingredients: an experience of vastness and the challenge of accommodating that experience into our scheme of things. As another study published by Keltner and two other Foundation grantees, Michelle “Lani” Shiota and Belinda Campos, has showed: awe is signaled not simply by smiling but by raised eyebrows, widened eyes, a dropped jaw, and visible inhalation.

The article charts the latest responses to several crucial questions. Is there an evolutionary purpose to awe? How might any such purpose be tested? Does awe assist in cognitive functioning? So far, emerging research suggests that the beneficial consequences of awe may even extend to our physical health. Awe-inducing stimuli could possibly offer a relatively low-cost, accessible tool for improving individual and societal wellbeing. “The potential power of awe, combined with the mystery of its mechanisms, may itself be a source of awe,” note Keltner and Haidt, “giving pleasure both to those who study it and to those who cultivate it in their lives.”