Awe - Dacher Keltner

Awe - Dacher Keltner

📚 Book

The transformative power of everyday wonder

Title: Awe. The transformative power of everyday wonder
Author: Dacher Keltner
Year: 2023

In a nutshell

  • Definition: “Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world.” (7)
  • Finding awe in everyday experiences is the key to happiness
  • Effects of awe: feeling of 'small self' that contributes to prosocial behaviour, stress reduction (less inflammation!)
  • Various sources of awe, triggered in different ways depending on culture/context, often similarly expressed physically (dampening of activity in brain's Default Mode Network, tingling, 'woah')

A great example of awe is the 'Double Rainbow Guy' (51M views!):


Definition & Sources of Awe

“Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world.” (7)

The content of awe and what triggers it varies by culture and context.

Eight wonders of life aka sources of awe:

  • Moral beauty (eg courage)
  • Collective effervescence
  • Nature
  • Music
  • Visual design
  • Spirituality and religion
  • Life and death
  • Epiphany

Study shows people experienced awe 2-3 times per week:

“Everyday awe. Great thinkers, from Walt Whitman to Rachel Carson to Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, remind us to become aware of how much of life can bring us awe. It is a deep conviction in many Indigenous philosophies from around the world that so much of the life that surrounds us is sacred. Our daily diary findings suggest that these great minds and cultures were onto something: the wonders of life are so often nearby.” (26)

Awe transforms how we see the world

In three ways:

  • Something larger than self
  • Wonder
  • Saintly tendencies

Something larger than self:

“our individual self gives way to the boundary-dissolving sense of something larger.” (31)

The default self, part of who you are, helps you achieve your goals. It makes you feel important distinct, in control.

But too much focus on it can lead to anxiety, rumination and depression.

Being in awe leads to a ‘small self’.

Being in awe leads to shared identity.

Being in awe opens our minds to the forces beyond our control shaping our lives, and having humility for that.

In our brains, awe leads to reduced activation of the Default Mode Network (DMN):

  • Positive form of awe increased connections between DMN and cingulate cortex involved in our sense of reward.
  • Negative/fear-based awe increased connections between DMN and amygdala.

Other experiences such as meditation, prayer and psilocybin also reduced activity of DMN.

State of openness, questioning, curiosity.

Leads to more rigorous thinking, and seeing interconnections.

Saintly tendencies:
Awe expands our circle of care. Studies show people who felt awe are more giving.

Awe is the antidote for the self’s striving for competitive advantage.

Awe reduces inflammation

Inflammation from chronic stress is also driven by social factors: loneliness, rejection, shame, threat.

“Awe, by contrast, heightens our awareness of being part of a community, of feeling embraced and supported by others. Feeling awe, we place the stresses of life within larger contexts.” (118)

Study shows that awe (not other positive emotions) predicts lower levels of inflammation.

“Our bodies respond to healthy doses of awe-inspiring nature like we respond to a delicious and nutritious meal, a good sleep, a quenching drink of water, or an uplifting gathering with friends or family: we feel nourished, strengthened, empowered, and alive.” (128)
“The reasons why rafting might benefit us are many: the endorphin high of physical exertion, recreating with others, enjoying a breather from life's hardships, the sights and scents of trees and sounds of the river. In more fine-grained analyses we found that it was awe that brought about the mind-body benefits of being out-doors.” (131)

Awe and art

How our brain responds to art:

  • perception of visual patterns (from retina to visual cortex)
  • link to our ideas about objects
  • stirring our body/emotions
  • ascribing meaning to the piece of art (prefrontal cortex)
“Visual art can provoke us to reimagine reality” (172)

Beauty is different from awe:

  • Beauty is pleasant in recognition of the familiar.
  • Awe is powerful in exposure to the mysterious.

Awe makes us aware of how connected we are

“The shared experience of mystical awe transforms our individual selves in ways that make for stronger groups. For example, empirical studies involving thousands of participants find that feeling a sense of spiritual engagement is associated with increased well-being, a reduced likelihood of depression, and greater life expectancy. And greater humility, collaboration, sacrifice, and kindness that spread through groups.” (210)

Mystical awe is also at the heart of psychedelic experiences, involving the dampening of the DMN.

Awe ultimately points to systems: from the interconnected nature of collective effervescence, being in tune with music, feeling part of the web of nature etc.

“Awe enables us to see the systems underlying the wonders of life and locate ourselves in relation to them” (246)
“awe shifts our minds from a more reductionistic mode of seeing things in terms of separateness and independence to a view of phenomena as interrelating and dependent.” (248)
“The epiphany of awe is that its experience connects our individual selves with the vast forces of life. In awe we understand we are part of many things that are much larger than the self.” (250)