The science of awe

Northern Lights
The truly awesome sight of the Northern Lights

Back in my airline stewardess days, while working a night flight out of Anchorage, the captain invited me into the cockpit for a better view — actually my first view — of the Northern Lights. The display of brilliant color against the black sky was electrifying, tingling, awesome.

Really awesome!

The word awesome has become trivialized from overuse, its real meaning obscured.

Awe is a feeling of reverence. It’s dramatic. It’s a positive moment in time that transcends the ordinary, that connects you with something much larger than yourself.

My first glimpse of the Arizona desert — again from an airplane — elicited the same feeling. There, so far removed from my familiar Minnesota greenery, lay this vast expanse of sand and succulent plants, with mountains off in the distance. It was jaw dropping, even a little frightening … awesome!

And I tingled once again, recently, while holding the youngest member of my family, who was 9 months old, in my lap. His 5-year-old sister began waving her hands in his face. He loved it, and laughed and giggled.

It was a moment that seemed magical, almost transformational. I began thinking: How was I so lucky to be a part of these beautiful beloved children — to share their DNA? Their very existence is as awesome to me as any amazing vista I’ve ever seen.

Surely, awe is a good thing. It uplifts the soul.

Social scientists are studying awe. Can it improve our mental state? Can it have healing potential? Does it make us happier? Can it make us more cooperative? These are the questions being asked.

Studies suggest that levels of cytokines, a marker of inflammation that’s linked to depression, are reduced while experiencing awe, particularly while connecting with nature. The stress levels of veterans with PTSD dropped significantly after whitewater rafting on one of the Sierra Club’s Great Outdoors Lab wilderness trips.

Unlike other emotions, awe generates a stop-and-step-back feeling that helps us see things in a new way.

It boosts creativity: “Little me/Sitting in a tree/Contemplating thee,” is a poem I wrote about a boy I liked during my grade-school tree-climbing days — another of my awesome experiences, wherein I felt at one with the tree!

Not surprisingly, astronauts experience awe in the extreme. In what they call the “overview perspective,” they report a far-out state of oneness with humanity when looking back at Earth.

Awe shocks us into realizing how we’re such a small part of something much, much larger — how we must all collaborate to survive. This in turn can cause us to be nicer to one another, happier within ourselves.

And yes, it seems the jaw does drop when experiencing awe.

People also often raise their eyebrows, widen their eyes, open their mouths and breathe in, just as I did on Jan. 14 watching the Minnesota Vikings’ Stefon Diggs famously execute the Minneapolis Miracle!


Carol Hall lives in Woodbury. She’s a longtime freelance writer, a University of Minnesota graduate and a former Northwest Airlines stewardess. Send comments and questions to chall@mngoodage.com.