Awe is an awfully complex emotion, conjuring feelings of reverence that can range from wonder to dread. It's a blend of fear and surprise, according to some definitions, although it often feels like more than the sum of those parts.
"Awe is an overwhelming and bewildering sense of connection with a startling universe that is usually far beyond the narrow band of our consciousness," as the late neuropsychologist Paul Pearsall once described it.
"In the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear is a little-studied emotion — awe," according to a 2003 study. "Awe is felt about diverse events and objects, from waterfalls to childbirth to scenes of devastation. Awe is central to the experience of religion, politics, nature and art. Fleeting and rare, experiences of awe can change the course of a life in profound and permanent ways."
Is that good or bad? It can be either, a new study suggests, depending not only on what causes the awe, but also how your perspective affects the way you see it.
Awe things considered
Awe has been linked to some significant health benefits, like lower levels of pro-inflammatory proteins known as cytokines. These proteins help rally immune cells around an injury or infection, but they can be harmful when they accumulate at high levels for too long, raising the risk of inflammation that promotes ailments such as heart disease, Alzheimer's, arthritis and other autoimmune conditions. Research has also found higher levels of certain cytokines in people suffering from depression.
The relationship between awe and health remains hazy, but as researchers wrote in a 2015 study, "awe is associated with curiosity and a desire to explore, suggesting antithetical behavioral responses to those found during inflammation, where individuals typically withdraw from others in their environment."
Yet the experiences that inspire awe — gazing down from a mountain, for example, or meditating about the meaning of life — can have remarkably different effects on different people. A vista that invigorates some observers might make others feel anxious, and according to the new study, the difference may be less about how we see the scenery itself than how we see ourselves.
Published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the study divided people into two groups based on their tendency for "self-distancing" or "self-immersing," psychological terms for perspectives that can influence our perception.
To be self-immersed is to see an experience "through your own eyes," the study's authors explain, framing it primarily in terms of your own first-person perspective. Self-distancing, on the other hand, involves taking a broader, less personal view, almost as if you're watching yourself as a bystander. They may not be mutually exclusive, but people often have a reflexive tendency for one or the other.
"We found that spontaneous self-distancing predicted whether awe benefited or had a negative effect on people," says co-author Mark Seery, a psychology professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, in a statement about the study.
It's a small self after all
A key feature of awe is the awareness of something literally or figuratively huge — like a mountain range, the Milky Way or a metaphysical idea — that makes us feel small by comparison. This leads to a feeling of "small self," the researchers write, essentially shrinking our abstract self-image. But while this can humble us, it often does so in a reassuring way, helping us put our problems in perspective and remember that we're part of something larger than ourselves.
"Creating that sense of 'small self' is to feel small relative to some awe-inspiring thing, whether it's the idea of a divinity or a natural landscape," Seery says. "I feel small, albeit connected to humanity."
Most research on awe has focused on positive effects like stress relief or altruism, but Seery and his colleagues were curious if this "small self" can also alter our perception in less helpful ways, such as making our problems seem even larger than before.
"We wanted to understand how that feeling of smallness affects someone facing their own stressful situation," Seery says. "If I feel small, then whatever I have to deal with may seem all the more overwhelming. That was our starting point. And it hadn't been previously explored."
Everything is awesome
To explore it, the researchers recruited 182 subjects and tested each person's tendency to spontaneously self-distance or self-immerse. The subjects were then shown either an "awe-inducing" nature video or a "neutral" documentary about small marine animals. Later, they were asked to write and perform a two-minute speech about a setback or obstacle they've experienced in their lives.
The study tested their reactions with the biopsychosocial model of challenge and threat, which uses cardiovascular data to quantify a person's psychological experience during a potentially stressful performance, like giving a speech. This revealed the subjects' responses to stress — heart rate, blood pumped per minute and the flow of blood into blood vessels — without interrupting them as they spoke.
A "challenge" response refers to a positive view that casts a stressor as manageable, and involves dilated arteries that help the heart pump more blood through the body. A "threat" response, on the other hand, is a negative state that makes a stressor seem unmanageable, and that hinders blood flow by constricting arteries.
The study's results suggest perspective can play a significant role in the way we process awe. Among people who tend to adopt a self-distancing outlook, watching the awe-inspiring nature video led to a challenge response during the subsequent speech, the researchers report, more than watching the neutral documentary did. And in the self-immersing group, a threat response was more likely from people who'd watched the awe-inspiring video than the neutral alternative.
"To maximally benefit from awe when facing subsequent stressors," Seery says, "we may need to take a step back from ourselves before we take it all in."
Since this is still relatively uncharted territory, more research will be needed to clarify how perspective, awe and stress interact. For now, however, these findings are at least a helpful reminder that a broad view can be beneficial — whether you're taking in awesome scenery or just thinking about your place in the universe.