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The Power of Awe

When was the last time you felt awe? How often do you feel it? Why do you feel awe? You might ask what I mean by “awe” and that would be a good question. What “awe” is has in fact been the subject of intense study for decades and still is. I think most of us have felt moments of awe, but perhaps many of us have never taken the time to think about what these experiences mean and how they change us. What goes through our minds and bodies when we experience awe and how do we carry this experience into our lives and those around us?

Like most things in life, awe comes in many shades and colors. But there are certain ways it is described that come up consistently when people are asked to share their experiences with it. I can list some of these by taking you through a moment when I felt absolute awe. It came four years ago when I was lucky to be able to head to Antarctica. I spent a month working on an ongoing project studying the Adelie penguin at a place called Cape Crozier, right on the coast. Our field camp, a 30 minute hike uphill from the penguin colony, overlooks the sea and consists of Scott tents and “the hut”. Scott tents are made of double-walled yellow canvas fabric held up by rope and large metal poles bracing each other. We normally slept in these tents. The hut, where we cook and work, is a modest looking wooden structure that just so happens to have withstood 50+ years of some of the most extreme climate on the planet. One of the many reasons the climate is so extreme in Antarctica are the winds, which can blow fiercely and suddenly and last for several days. These winds, called katabatic winds, develop in the high elevation center of Antarctica which is covered by ice. The ice cools the air which then descends towards the coast, like the cold air pouring out of your freezer when you open it. As it travels through steep Antarctic canyons, the frigid air can compress and pick up speeds of well over 100mph.

The hut and three Scott tents overlooking the sea on a calm and cloudy day.

As expected, these winds came one day during my stay, hitting 104mph. For safety, we slept in the hut, but kept a close eye on the tents to make sure they were secure. We passed the time entering data, reading, and waiting for the winds to calm down a bit so we could don our cold weather gear and head outside to check that the tent ropes were still tied down. When the anemometer indicated speeds of 65mph, I put on my giant big red jacket, boots, gloves, and goggles and stepped outside.

The wind had been blowing for over a day. Earlier in the week a thick blanket of snow was laid down around us and this was now all roaring past the hut. Everywhere I looked snow was flying by and I could visually follow trails of blowing powder racing down the steep icy hill towards the rough and restless sea. The sound of the wind was relentless and pulsing. I had to lean forward and steady my footing against the loose gravel to progress towards my tent. The goggles kept my eyes protected and gave me a sort of tunnel vision. I felt safe, but the inexorable wind pressing against my body began to seed a bit of doubt - what if I, like the snow, was blown uncontrollably down the hill? What would be my fate if I was tossed into the icy ocean like a man overboard? I shook these thoughts away as the white and gray landscape blew past me. Then I looked up. What I saw was a beautifully calm and crystalline blue sky. The sun also floated above me, bright and warm like a floodlight. As I stared up, the sound of the wind fell away and the sun and sky seemed to look back at me. The disparity between what was happening around me on the ground and what I saw above me felt profound. I was fully absorbed, experiencing what felt like the true power of this planet, one that could literally knock you off your feet or fill you with tranquility and assuage all your fears. Fully submerged in this stark contrast, I felt like I was looking at the very face of Nature. In that moment time slowed down and I felt completely humbled. Then the brightness of the sun took on a burning harshness. I had to squint and the sound of the wind came rushing back into my consciousness. The message was clear: nature did not care, did not have emotions or guilt, did not care what my plans were. I was small and insignificant. Nature was an unrelenting force that gave me life but could take it away as it pleased. I was in awe.

The awesome view of the ocean and Ross ice shelf as viewed from the canvas doorway of a Scott tent.

In a study led by Paul J. Silva, the authors review the concept of awe where it is described as evoking feelings of wonder, connection, being consumed, humbled, and small. The study found that people who described themselves as being open to experiences also more consistently felt emotions connected to awe when presented with grand visual images of the natural world. This made me wonder about my own personal openness to awe. The intense experience I had in Antarctica was certainly something I had not felt very often. Was I somehow closing myself off to these experiences? A second study found strong connections between feelings of awe and a belief in “something bigger” manipulating the world, supernatural phenomenon, or finding non-randomness in random events. Perhaps this can be seen as just a way that we try to explain the unexplainable. But could that be it? Or could we, as humans, get something else from these experiences? Are there actually benefits? From my Antarctic experience, I felt a powerful connection with the natural world that has carried with me for years. This has provided me with a deeper appreciation for the world around me - both its power and its fragile and fleeting nature. I would certainly say the experience has benefitted me. In a study led by Melanie Rudd, they found that experiences “of awe bring people into the present moment, and being in the present moment underlies awe’s capacity to adjust time perception, influence decisions, and make life feel more satisfying than it would otherwise.” They found that awe reduced feelings of impatience and that people who experienced awe “were more willing to volunteer their time to help other people.” Pretty awesome, right?

The descriptions of awe in these studies reminded me of a book by Michael Pollan called “How to Change Your Mind”. In it Pollan explores how psychedelic drugs alter people's minds. He describes how psilocybin mushrooms and LSD can alter activity in regions of the brain called the “default mode network”. This network is thought to be related to how engaged we are with a specific activity or how engaged we are with our sense of self, our ego, and the social world around us. Through this pathway, psychedelic drugs have been described as having a profound impact on our sense of time, feelings of connection with others and the natural world, and our ideas of non-randomness in the world around us. Sound familiar? There is active research trying to understand if psychedelic drugs can help relieve debilitating depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and addiction. The results, so far, look very promising. Given the similarities in their effects, perhaps awe can be thought of as a self-induced balm akin to the potentially healing properties of psychedelics. One that doesn’t require you to ingest a bitter mushroom or paper tab laced with LSD. Perhaps there is a way we can cultivate feelings of openness and more easily let the natural world around us bring us awe. And in this way we can be more present in the moment, feel a deeper connection with the world, and grow our desire to help others. I'd say these are all things that we can agree we need more of.

Literature Cited

Pollan, M. (2019). How to change your mind: What the new science of psychedelics teaches us about consciousness, dying, addiction, depression, and transcendence. Penguin Books.

Rudd, M., Vohs, K. D., & Aaker, J. (2012). Awe expands people’s perception of time, alters decision making, and enhances well-being. Psychological science, 23(10), 1130-1136.

Silvia, P. J., Fayn, K., Nusbaum, E. C., & Beaty, R. E. (2015). Openness to experience and awe in response to nature and music: personality and profound aesthetic experiences. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 9(4), 376.

Valdesolo, P., & Graham, J. (2014). " Awe, uncertainty, and agency detection": Corrigendum.


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