18 September 2015


Welcome back. I’ve been reading about research on the power of awe. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt a sense of awe, but this isn’t about me. It’s about two studies I thought were particularly interesting.
It’s hard to beat nature for
triggering awe. Take Heavenly
Lake in northwestern
China, 1982.

One suggests that positive emotions, especially feelings of awe, boost the body’s defense system, influencing health and life expectancy. 

The other study suggests that awe promotes “prosocial” behavior–actions intended to benefit one or more people other than oneself.

Awe Promotes Health 

To understand the relation with health, it helps to know about cytokines. These cell-signaling molecules support immune response by aiding cell to cell communication.

What’s key is that cytokines stimulate the movement of cells to sites of inflammation, infection and trauma. That’s good. But sustained high levels of cytokines are associated with poorer health as well as with type-2 diabetes and other disorders. As markers go, low cytokine levels signal good health.

Sometimes nature gets an assist, as
on my first evening at the Arecibo
Observatory, Puerto Rico, 1965.
For the study, collaborating researchers from the University of California-Berkeley and University of Pittsburgh took gum and cheek tissue samples (oral mucosal transudate) from over 200 participants on the day the participants reported experiencing positive emotions, such as amusement, awe, compassion, joy and love.

In a nut shell, they found that participants who experienced more positive emotions, especially awe, wonder and amazement, had the lowest levels of a specific pro-inflammatory cytokine, Interleukin 6.

And sometimes what humans built
is itself enough, as I found
walking through the ancient
ruins of Palmyra, Syria, 1983.
Awe Promotes Prosocial Behavior

For the second study, researchers from New York University, the University of Toronto and the University of California-Berkeley conducted five experiments. In the first, they had a nationally representative sample of 1519 participants complete questionnaires, which examined individual differences in morality and tendencies to experience seven positive emotions--amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, enthusiasm, love and pride.

Participants then played a game in which they were given 10 raffle tickets. They had to decide how many tickets, if any, they would share with another participant who had none. In one version of the game, the raffle drawing was for $10; in another, the drawing was for $500.

The experiment showed increased tendencies to experience awe and certain other emotions were significantly associated with generosity in both versions of the game. When the researchers accounted for overlap among positive emotions and demographic variables, they found awe was a statistically significant predictor of increased generosity in the $500 raffle though not in the $10 raffle. 
Music has charms to stir the feeling of
awe. Try
Fanfare for the Common Man.
This may not be the best video, but
Aaron Copland conducts:
(Photo cut from score at

In four follow-up experiments the researchers had groups of 75 to 254 participants take part in an activity (e.g., recall, watch a video or gaze at something in their environment), which was designed to elicit either awe, a neutral state or another reaction, such as pride or amusement. The participants then engaged in an activity designed to measure prosocial behaviors or tendencies.

Awe was significantly associated with prosocial behaviors in every experiment. Inducing awe caused participants to endorse more ethical decisions in one experiment, be more generous to a stranger in another experiment, and report more prosocial values in a third experiment. Inducing awe by having participants gaze up at a grove of towering trees in the fourth experiment led to increased helpfulness, greater ethicality and decreased entitlement. 

The elegance of an
equation can inspire awe.
Wrap Up  

The sense of awe may be fleeting and hard to describe. There are many stimuli and not everyone responds the same. Yet the studies suggest that awe serves an important social function by encouraging people to improve the welfare of others. And though awe diminishes the emphasis on one’s self, it may still contribute to improving one’s health and well-being. That’s awesome. Thanks for stopping by.


Background on cytokines: www.news-medical.net/health/What-are-Cytokines.aspx
Awe and health study in Emotion journal and article on study on Science Daily website:
Awe and behavior study in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and on first author’s website, and article on study on Medical Xpress website:

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