Awe Is Good for Your Brain. Here’s How to Find It.
Scientists are focusing on the power of awe, and for good reason. Experiencing it is essential for our health. Our author hit the road during California’s superbloom to figure out how our mind and bodies are transformed when we’re blown away by nature.
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Michael Amster arrived at the Flying J truck stop in Lebec, California, carrying a loaf of homemade pumpkin bread. His orange puffer vibrated in the wind as he climbed into the Toyota Tacoma that would ferry us up into the foothills of the Tehachapi Mountains of the Central Valley. We buckled up. A wintry mix of rain and snow lashed the windshield. The bread wasn’t warm, but it was soft. “It’s gluten-free!” he announced.
I’d invited Amster here because I hoped we could experience some classic, mind-blowing awe, and I wanted him to explain exactly what was going on in our brains and bodies while we did. Amster is an MD and a coauthor of the recently published book The Power of Awe, and my challenge today was to find us some of that.
Awe isn’t something you can conjure at will, or at least I can’t. Of its many recognized sources—from works of art to religious experiences to heroic acts—I knew that nature was my surest bet.
I knew this because, yes, I like nature, but also because I’d recently strapped on VR goggles at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, where scientists tested my responses to various stimuli using what they referred to as an awe-experience scale. Moving through a virtual cathedral was surprisingly captivating. Then I was transported to a room with enticing fractal patterns on the wallpaper.
But I scored the most awe watching a dramatic sunset dipping over a lake. I’m not alone. In studies conducted around the world, nature tends to rank in the top two or three categories of awe triggers. About a quarter of the time we experience awe, it’s from being outside.
I also knew that a standard ingredient of an awe experience is that it defies expectations in some way. It rattles us out of the ordinary. After decades of living in beautiful places and reporting for magazines like this one, I’ve seen my share of breaching whales, vertiginous waterfalls, northern lights, calving glaciers, and bright red salmon mustering their last stores of energy to swim up sparkling rivers and spawn. What I hadn’t seen, ever, was a full-fledged California superbloom.