The Biological Advantages of Being Awestruck

There are some things in life are so complicated and abstract that they’re awesome. Eternity, cosmic significance, and the infinite universe are just a few of these awesome, convoluted concepts that have kept us fascinated and confused since the beginning of human consciousness. Focusing on subjects’ reactions to such awe-inspiring concepts, recent research from Stanford University on the biological and psychological significance of awe indicates that the emotion of awe has distinct sociobiological benefits.

“Awe,” defined in this study as “the emotion that arises when one encounters something so strikingly vast that it provokes a need to update one’s mental schemas,” causes people to feel altruistic, less impatient, less materialistic, more satisfied with life, and surprisingly, like they have more time available [1]. In their results, the researchers Melanie Rudd, Kathleen D. Vohs, and Jennifer Aaker report that:

Experiences of awe bring people into the present moment, which underlies
awe’s capacity to adjust time perception, influence decisions, and make life feel more satisfying than it would otherwise. [2]

In the short video “The Biological Advantage of Being Awestruck” (featured below), Jason Silva enthusiastically discusses the physical benefits of the experience of awe, as well as the phenomena that trigger our sense of wonderment. Citing research from prominent psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, Silva explains the evolutionary benefits of the human capability to be awestruck: When a person is in awe of something, we are driven by a series of neurochemical reactions (that create the emotion of awe) that make us feel we have “cosmic significance,” and therefore work harder to persist surviving. “In other words”, Silva explains, “awe has helped us survive.”

Drawing from the Stanford researchers’ discoveries about awe’s impact on time perception, Silva posits that awe helps humans recognize the vastness of time and space, therefore further motivating our survival. He says that a single image from the Hubble telescope captures an enormous quantity of time and space, yet a human can perceive the image in milliseconds through a comparably infinitesimal channel: the optic nerve. From there, the physiological and psychological faculties of perception evoke the emotion of awe. This biological and philosophical juxtaposition of such oppositely extreme quantities is enough to leave me awestruck.


[1] Awe expands the perception of time, Stanford University
[2] Study: Awe-Inspiring Experiences Change Our Perception of Time, The Atlantic

Images via
Jason Silva, Youtube

  • LawsonENglish

    “Wonder is enlightenment on the level of the intellect” -Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in response to a private demo of magic by Doug Henning.

  • Jeffrey Willius

    Just wondering… if awe’s the emotion we experience in the presence of immensity, what do we call that of experiencing something no less amazing, no less wondrous, but very small? I see that too with wonder, but perhaps someone has a better word for it…

    • Blake J. Graham

      That would still be considered awe, because often the sense of wonderment comes from finding such incredible depths in something so small. It causes the same perceptional expansion.

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