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What goosebumps, tears and grief can teach us about being awestruck

Psychologist Dacher Keltner on quantifying the indescribable experience of awe

By
Dacher Keltner
Photo illustration by Mark Riechers/Midjourney. Original image by Steve Paulson (TTBOOK)

You know that feeling of being at a concert when everyone’s singing together, and you suddenly feel euphoric? Or looking over the edge of a canyon and getting goosebumps? Or standing among giant, ancient trees and feeling that your own life is just a tiny blip in the world?

These are all experiences of awe — wonderful and often overwhelming. And you might be surprised to learn there’s actually a science to the feeling.

Dacher Keltner is the University of California, Berkeley psychologist who pioneered this science nearly 20 years ago. His new book, “Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life,” lays out his findings. Speaking to “To The Best Of Our Knowledge,” Keltner says awe is a unique experience, distinct from all other emotions, and it can make us feel better in a lot of ways.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Steve Paulson: In your book, you say you’ve taught hundreds of thousands of people around the world about happiness. For a long time, you’ve wondered if there’s a secret to happiness, and you now believe it comes down to awe. That’s a pretty sweeping thing to say.

Dacher Keltner: Yeah. There are many secrets to happiness, and it really depends on who you are and what your cultural background is. But we live in a particular cultural moment. I think there is a search for meaning and purpose right now in young people.

You think about the climate crises and the pandemic, a 30 percent rise in depression and anxiety around the world. This calls for a new view of happiness. And happiness is always evolving historically. So I say awe is the emotion of our times.

People are very narrowly focused on matters of materialism and the self. We have these issues of loneliness and the breakdown of community, and awe is an antidote to a lot of those conditions.

SP: You have a definition of awe. It’s “the emotion we experience when we encounter vast mysteries we don’t understand.” There’s a lot to unpack there. First, you’re saying it’s an emotional experience. It’s not something you reason your way toward. It just kind of overcomes you, right?

DK: Yeah. That’s an important part of that definition. Emotions are different than more purely cognitive states of mind. Emotions are brief states of mind that have bodily processes involved below the brainstem — your cardiovascular system, your immune system and the like.

Awe, by its very nature, is also mysterious. To arrive at that definition, I read a lot of the literature on mystical experiences, where there’s a rich attempt to define awe. I read philosophers — in particular, Edmund Burke, who at the age of 27, in the 1750s, published a book on the sublime. He said what’s sublime — which is what produces awe — is powerful and obscure. So in my translation, it’s vast. It’s big in size. It’s big in time. When you stand near an old oak tree that’s 150 or 200 years old, you’re like, “Wow, this was around when my great-grandparents were around.”

What I call mystery is that your current way of perceiving reality can’t make sense of it. For example, there’s a whole literature on extraordinary spiritual experiences. A lot of Americans have had them — like, you feel the presence of somebody who’s passed away. And it transcends your understanding of the world.

SP: I think we all have an intuitive understanding of awe. We know it when we feel it. But it’s not at all obvious that there would be a science of awe, or even that it would be worth studying. You founded this science nearly 20 years ago. What were you trying to figure out?

DK: People have been writing about awe for thousands of years in accounts of mystical experiences and spiritual journaling, and a lot of great philosophers have really grappled with the sublime. But there wasn’t a science of awe. When I started this science, people were like, “How would you ever measure the ineffable, what you can’t put into words?”

Well, you could put it to words. You can ask people, “Do you feel awe and wonderstruck?” You can measure tears. People often tear up during awe. There’s work on goosebumps, which is one of two kinds of chills — the rush of tingles in your back that make you feel electric. We have made a lot of progress in mapping this emotion.

SP: It sounds like awe is a very positive experience that does all kinds of good work for us.

DK: It does such good work for the human being. It reduces daily stress for older people. It makes them feel less pain. It makes you feel less lonely, and you have a greater sense of community. It tends to quiet down the default mode network, which is in the self-critical, self-focused regions of the brain. So it is really good news for our lives.

SP: What is the connection between awe and wonder? Those words are often used interchangeably, but aren’t they actually different?

DK: In the philosophical tradition, wonder is more of a knowledge state. You’re less in the realm of the body and more in the realm of the prefrontal cortex and reason.

SP: So you’re trying to figure something out. You’re walking along the beach and you notice some weird shell and it’s like, “Wow.” But then there’s this next step of thinking, “Huh, how did that shell ever evolve?” So that second experience would be wonder?

DK: Exactly right. You’re like, “What is that shell? What species would produce that?” And then your mind gets to work and starts to form hypotheses and consult other knowledge domains and imagine alternatives to reality. Like if you have a supernatural experience and then you’re like, “How do I make sense of that?”

Mark Twain dreamed that his brother would die, and then two weeks later, his brother died in the way that he dreamed. And he’s left to wonder, what framework would help explain that dream?

SP: So if I had to guess where the most common experiences of awe come from, I’d say it’s being in nature — standing above a canyon, watching a whale rise out of the water, seeing a beautiful sunset. But you say the most universal experience of awe is actually witnessing moral beauty.

DK: Yeah. It caught us totally off guard. And this is why we do science, right? We gathered our stories from 26 countries as diverse as India, Mexico, China, parts of Africa and the U.S. Then we classified the stories, and the most common one is moral beauty.

It’s a few different things. Acts of kindness, especially strangers being kind to each other out in the streets. Also courage, when you put your life on the line for other people. And then overcoming obstacles and self-sacrifice, which have some element of virtue in them that benefits other people. It astonished us that just this ordinary goodness of humans is really what gives us the chills.

SP: I’m curious about where all of this comes from for you, personally. Is there anything about your background or how you grew up that made you want to study awe?

DK: Rachel Carson wrote an incredible essay about how to teach your child about wonder, where she says just go out in mysterious places, don’t name things and let experience happen and get wild and observe nature. And that was my life. I had two counterculture parents. My mom taught awe. She taught Virginia Woolf and consciousness and Romantic poetry and William Blake, and my dad painted like Goya — just wild stuff. They took me to art museums as a kid. Then I got obsessed with dinosaurs. And we did the wildest camping trips — driving a VW bus straight into the Rockies and not knowing where you’re going to land.

I grew up in Laurel Canyon in the Hollywood Hills, which in 1968 had tons of historic music — Joni Mitchell, The Byrds, Frank Zappa, the Mamas and Papas, The Doors. You could feel it. And the political times — the assassination of Martin Luther King and the protests. I truly believe those experiences opened me up. And the interesting thing for me was that I was always predisposed to science. So here I was raised by these wild parents, and then I was like, “Yeah, but can you prove that?” So I was meant to do this work.

SP: You write about the death of your younger brother, Rolf. I know you were very close growing up and then later in life. And my sense is that dealing with this tragic loss is part of this personal story for your understanding of awe.

DK: Oh, yeah. My brother Rolf was my guide to awe. Nearly every consequential awe moment in my life was with him — be it backpacking in the Sierras or going to concerts or traveling in Mexico. He then got colon cancer, which is a horrifying disease. And on the night he passed away, we went up to his house in the foothills of the Sierras. We were all around him -— my mom, dad, daughters, his family — touching him and saying things to him. And it just started to become this sublime moment of feeling his breathing change and seeing his face change.

You know, I’m a scientist. Before that experience, I really felt like if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist, which was naive. And watching him pass, I just felt there was a soul in him that was moving elsewhere, spatially and temporally. I was awestruck, truly.

A lot of people in our research, across the world, say watching people die is one of the major sources of awe. It’s this big mystery. It’s vast. It’s astonishing and mind-blowing.

But then I entered into a very complicated psychological space in grief. I really had trouble making sense of things, not sleeping, and wound up. And I had to go find awe — in listening to new kinds of music, hiking in the mountains and reading people like Walt Whitman who helped me think about life. So it really became the catalyst for writing this book. And it also taught me a lot about awe.

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