The stunning effects of wind and flood erosion on the we all of Lower Antelope Canyon Page Arizona; woman's eye looking to the light.
Neal Pritchard/Stocksy; Eva Plevier/Stocksy
The stunning effects of wind and flood erosion on the we all of Lower Antelope Canyon Page Arizona; woman's eye looking to the light.
Lower Antelope Canyon, LeChee, Arizona (Photo: Neal Pritchard/Stocksy; Eva Plevier/Stocksy)
The Outside Guide to Awe

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.

The author with Dr. Michael Amster near California’s Central Valley
The author with Dr. Michael Amster near California’s Central Valley (Courtesy Florence Williams)

As it happened, an unusually wet winter on the West Coast was gearing up to ignite an explosion of wildflowers. In early April, the blooms were still largely confined to south-facing slopes and warmer pockets of Southern California.

Jaron Cramer, who oversees conservation lands on an enormous expanse of the Central Valley on Tejon Ranch, welcomed us to come check it out. He sat in the back seat, reaching for pumpkin bread, while Mitchell Coleman, the Tejon Ranch Conservancy’s chief scientist, took the wheel.

As we drove to the ranch, Cramer shared some stats. Tejon Ranch encompasses 422 square miles, all owned by a publicly traded corporation. Some of the valleys are slated for development, but 90 percent of the place is governed by conservation easements, which on occasion are accessible to the public.

Today we’d have this blooming private wilderness largely to ourselves. It was like being a kid in the novel From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, alone after hours in one of the greatest museums on earth.

The Tacoma rumbled to a spot the ranch map identified as Comanche Point, a set of rolling humps covered in gray-green shrubs and billowing, knee-high grasses. “This is my favorite part of the ranch,” said Coleman, who did his fieldwork here for a master’s project on saltbush seedlings. “It’s not a crowd-pleaser. But what I love about it is that, within the ordinary, there are many extraordinary things hidden. This is actually one of very few remnant stands of intact San Joaquin Desert. We have five plant species that only grow right here.

I appreciated his enthusiasm, but Coleman was correct. This wasn’t an eye-popper of a place, and I had an awe mission to attend to.

In studies 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.

We climbed back in and headed up a single-track dirt road, stopping when we crested a rise. We stepped out to take in the view. For a long moment, nobody said anything. The gray sky had given way to layers of white, tufty clouds through which rays of sun lit up a rolling ocean of bright green grasses stretching in every direction. Snow-covered mountains rose from the northern and eastern horizons. We were looking at a basin about one-third the size of Rhode Island. It was definitely a moment of… whoa.

I felt like I was actually drinking the air as slow, cool mouthfuls traveled deep into my lungs. Bursts of golden fiddle-necks speckled the greenery in a pointillist canvas.

“We’re all feeling different, right?” Amster said. “I can tell that our physiologies have shifted.” He looked out into the expanse. “This is where we get the vastness. I feel calmer. I’m tuning in to pay attention to what I’m seeing. I’m amazed by how much the landscape has changed. I’m trying to take it in. This is what we call cognitive accommodation, like I’m full of wonder that there’s snow up there and just on the other side is a desert filled with Joshua trees. How did it get so green over here?”

A few hundred yards farther up, the southern flank dropped off to a brilliant sloping field of blue spider lupine. Amster and I bounded down a trail, grinning ear to ear. Our shared response seemed to be to open our arms and slowly turn around. I love you this much, field of lupine! We posed for photos. Keeper shots were taken.

We headed downhill to the banks of Tejon Creek and a dazzling field of white popcorn flowers that Cramer calls the Milky Way. Plagiobothrys nothofulvus only blooms like this a few weeks of the year, several delicate wheels of white petals per stem. We walked through the meadow, each of us in our own reverie. With my gaze soft, it felt like satelliting through a galaxy; I could have been looking into infinity. For a moment, I forgot who and where I was.

Then infinity collapsed. It was time for lunch. We sat by the creek, listening to the water and the birds. Amster opened a plastic box to reveal a vegetable stir-fry. “Want some?” he asked. He asked how we were feeling. Pretty great, we agreed. We were in the moment. Our brains had subtly shifted their perception of time. “We’re changing our perception of reality,” he said, “for a moment.”

Some attribute the beginning of the study of awe to the Apollo 8 mission. In December 1968, three astronauts entered a small capsule—the vehicle for mankind’s first trip to the moon. (They orbited ten times but didn’t land.) Major William Anders glanced out the window in time to see his blue home planet rising above the stark lunar horizon. “Oh, my God,” he said. Then he took a photo.

Later called Earthrise, the image became one of the most famous photographs ever taken. Fifty years after Anders captured it, he said that the view of Earth changed his life, shaking his religious faith and underscoring his concern for the planet. “We set out to explore the moon,” he wrote about the experience, “and instead discovered the Earth.”

Dubbed the overview effect, the profound experiences shared by Anders and many astronauts helped usher in a wave of academic interest in transcendent events and their attendant emotion—notably, awe. Experimental psychologists tried to induce the emotion in laboratories, showing people pictures of earth taken from space, as well as videos of a flash mob performing the “Ode to Joy” movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, or Susan Boyle wowing the world when she sang on Britain’s Got Talent. (If you haven’t seen Boyle doing her thing, look it up; I dare you not to feel some tingles.)

For research purposes, subjects let scientists measure their goose bumps, supplied cortisol samples before and after whitewater rafting, performed tedious cognitive tasks, and were fitted with suction probes to measure something that’s called “awe face.”

Researchers pondered many aspects of awe, including why experiencing it caused some people to feel greater belonging or generosity. They speculated that awe may be the primary pathway through which therapeutic psychedelics help so many patients suffering from trauma, depression, anxiety, and addiction. They even asserted that experiencing awe may be the defining feature of our species.

For an emotion with so much riding on it, what seems surprising is that it took the academic world so long to take awe seriously.

“Science got into the awe game really late,” says Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, and the author of the new book Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life.

Keltner grew up in 1960s California, raised by progressive parents. All around him people were exploring Buddhism, experimenting with mind-altering drugs, and communing with nature. It was also the golden age of spaceflight. “I was raised in a historical period that was in some sense devoted to awe,” he says. “But it was a neuroscientific and cognitive mystery.”

In 2003, Keltner and the psychologist Jonathan Haidt published one of the first academic papers on the experience. In “Approaching Awe, a Moral, Spiritual, and Aesthetic Emotion,” the two scientists tried to pinpoint what exactly awe is. They combed through historical accounts by philosophers and mystics; what they arrived at was both eloquent and expansive.

“We said that awe is really an emotion you feel when you encounter something vast and mysterious that transcends your understanding of the world,” he says. The vastness part, he explains, doesn’t have to be literally vast, like a view from a mountaintop. It can be conceptually vast, like the anatomy of a bee or string theory or a late-night stoner realization that every mammal on earth must have a belly button.

In the two decades of research that followed, an even more remarkable conclusion emerged: that this state of mind could potentially alter us by unleashing feelings like humility, generosity, and a desire to reassess our lives. And sometimes even existential terror. Whether it’s cataclysmic or gentle, an awe experience could be an effective antidote to burnout, post-traumatic stress, heartbreak, and loneliness.

Awe has certainly been the defining emotion of the past half-decade of my life, which has been both joyous and difficult. I’ve been trying to understand it, trying to pursue it, forgetting to pursue it, coming back to it again—mostly as a way to find meaning and optimism in the wake of a divorce. At times I’ve become complacent about awe, and that’s a sorry state to be in, because isn’t experiencing awe a kind of hedge against stasis and malaise? Transcendent emotions are a bid for feeling alive, for remembering why we’re here in the first place. I was due for a refill. So, I would argue, are most of us.

“Awe can transform people and reorient their lives, goals, and values,” Keltner and Haidt wrote.

But awe science is incomplete. In fact, it’s just getting started.

Feeling that flowery rush
Feeling that flowery rush (Courtesy Florence Williams)

Reflecting on my passage through the galaxy of wildflowers, it’s hard to tell whether the sensation I was feeling was on par with sadness or amusement, or something more like an altered state. Recent neuroscience suggests it might be both. A heightened awe experience stimulates the vagus nerve, which calms us, and releases a pleasant rush of dopamine and oxytocin, increasing a sense of connection.

It also dramatically shifts which brain networks are firing up. Imaging studies show that awe reduces activation in our self-referential default-mode network. The findings help explain two significant features of a classic awe experience: a relatively diminished sense of self, and a tendency toward altruistic behavior.

One study analyzed seven million Twitter posts from the time of the 2017 solar eclipse. Compared with posts from outside the path of totality, posts from inside the path used more collective words like we, as well as language that evoked humility. In another study, tourists at an overlook in Yosemite National Park drew themselves 33 percent smaller on graph paper than tourists looking at Fisherman’s Wharf, a tourist destination in San Francisco. The Yosemite visitors’ signatures were also significantly smaller, and they reported feeling much more awe.

The findings echo centuries of poetry, mysticism, and philosophy. Ralph Waldo Emerson famously wrote: “In the woods … all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing.” Iris Murdoch described the helpful “unselfing” she experienced when she was surprised by a kestrel. Beforehand, she’d been ruminating over some perceived slight. After watching the bird, it was no longer a big deal.

We walked through the meadow, each in our own reverie. With my gaze soft, it felt like satelliting through a galaxy; I could have been looking into infinity. For a moment, I forgot where I was and who I was.

If many of us seek awe out of a craving for experiences that are authentic and mysterious, Amster approached it as a way to help his patients, many of whom suffered from chronic pain. Hoping to offer something besides pills and surgery, he began teaching mindfulness meditation. But he found that his patients had trouble keeping up with the practice. Even asking them to commit to ten minutes a day created, as he put it, an “adherence problem.”

Then, one morning, he was making pancakes for breakfast, something he’d done dozens of times before. But this time it was different. He watched as the liquid batter transformed into an airy solid. He found himself paying deep attention to it. “I had this orgasmic experience where I felt my whole body tingle and I got really excited,” he says. “I had an awe experience equal to being at the edge of the Grand Canyon.” But it only lasted a few seconds. He was, in effect, microdosing awe.

Partnering in 2020 with Keltner and psychotherapist Jake Eagle, Amster tapped health care workers for a three-week effort aimed at learning how to find daily awe in under a minute. Remarkably, the study showed that awe microdosing not only helped alleviate physical pain, it also reduced symptoms of depression by 35 percent and anxiety by 21 percent. The effects were similar to those from meditation, but the practice, said Amster, was easier and more accessible.

Amster is now among the vanguard of researchers attempting to medicalize awe for everyday use. Awe is no longer just a feeling, spontaneously generated by our environment; it’s a healing tool. It has the potential to be prescribed, cultivated, and meted out, with measurable results. And if the idea of cultivating awe seems like an oxymoron, that doesn’t bother Amster.

“We think of this as a medical intervention,” he says. “It’s equal to taking medication for anxiety or depression or doing psychotherapy. It’s not necessarily replacing those, but I think it can be used in tandem, or by people who just need some help. It’s a way of reconnecting to what is most vital and important in our lives.”

Why is experiencing awe so powerful when it comes to making us feel better? In 2015, Keltner’s lab did a study showing that people who’d recently experienced awe—but not other happy emotions—had lower circulating blood levels of interleukin-6, an inflammatory cytokine associated with pain, chronic illness, and depressive behaviors.

It’s hard to know whether people who feel healthier have the energy and curiosity to go find awe, or whether awe itself is bringing about a healthier physiology. Research suggests that it may work both ways: Awe can lead to healthy mental states, like wonder and social optimism, that are good for our cells. And awe can shock our nervous system into a state of stillness and calm that shifts our mood, at least for a while.

Like most drugs, awe works on a dose curve. Full-blown, mind-blowing, see-divinity-in-the-universe awe rocks about 60 percent of participants in psychedelic experiments at Johns Hopkins. They report life-changing behaviors, like kicking addiction, that last years after the experience. If awe is the reason, it’s probably because something more persistent than changes in inflammation markers or oxytocin levels is at work.

I learned about this from Paula Williams, a psychology professor at the University of Utah who I first stumbled across in 2017, after my marriage fell apart. Williams specializes in factors, such as sleep, that influence emotional resilience. Why do some people recover more easily from life’s setbacks?

I felt, rather desperately, like I needed to know. Lately, her lab has been looking at openness, a personality trait linked to curiosity, mental flexibility, and appreciating beauty. When Williams asked research subjects to recount stressful experiences, those who ranked high on being moved by beauty also seemed to find the most meaning and experience the most growth after difficult life events.

Wondering why, Williams pored over data from the National Institutes of Health’s Human Connectome Project, which beginning in 2012 imaged the brains of volunteers in an effort to map neural pathways. She noticed that people who reported being very awe-prone—specifically those who regularly got goose bumps while looking at art or reading poetry—showed unusual neural patterns in their brains.

“We saw an interesting connection between processing stimuli like art and parts of the brain associated with sensory and emotional memory,” she told me. “These are people who seem to feel emotionally connected to things outside of themselves.”

Not everyone experiences this type of response, but based on her research and data from psychedelic studies, Williams says that we can learn to become more open to beauty. I found the idea hopeful. Perhaps we can learn to get past our suffering by becoming more sensitive to beauty—to awe.

It reminded me of another set of observations, by the researcher Michelle Shiota at Arizona State University. Shiota is particularly interested in what Amster referred to, during our overlook in the Central Valley, as cognitive accommodation. Awe forces us to slow down and try to figure out what we are seeing. In these moments, our brains tend to be more open to new information, new explanations, new mysteries. Isn’t it possible, Shiota posits, that awe can help us craft a new story for ourselves about who we are, how we fit into this world, and who we want to be?

“It’s a window of learning,” she told me. Do we want to be someone who can quit smoking? Do we want to be someone who can let love into her heart again?

A field of spider lupine
A field of spider lupine (Courtesy Florence Williams)

Hearing all these theories, and seeing them in action, made me want more. So when Corina Godoy, a native-plant specialist with the Mojave Desert Land Trust, invited me on a hike into the desert near Joshua Tree, I said yes. That’s me being more open. Cultivating curiosity. Yes, yes, yes. Plus, another superbloom.

From a trailhead south of town, we headed up a dusty wash. It quickly became apparent that superbloom is a relative term. We did not arrive at dense carpets of orange poppies. We did walk among Joshua trees, their branch tips sprouting light-green buds. And there were plenty of flowers, their colors extravagant against the sandy-hued hillsides: yellow tickseed, desert golden poppies, pink wild hyacinth.

Godoy was ecstatic. She’d been working hard in the land trust’s nursery, cleaning native seeds and prepping germination beds. It had been some days since she’d gotten out.

“Oh, this is a purple mat,” she said, bending over a plant that displayed fuchsia blooms. “Last year they were very discreet. This time they’re quite showy!” As in most of California, parts of the Mojave had seen unusual amounts of rain in this third year of La Niña. Even the botanist was taken by surprise, stopping often along the desert floor.

“One color that you’ll commonly see out here is yellow, even some oranges, but the blues and purples, they hold a special place in my heart,” Godoy said. “They’re glowing. This is such a great year to see what’s in bloom. Even the lichen. It’s all too much!”

Godoy grew up in a small town not far from here. As a kid, she liked playing in the mud more than she liked looking at plants. While attending community college she interned at a botanical garden, and from there went on to Cal Poly Humboldt. She can also talk about desert tortoises and the hummingbird moths that pollinate wild chia. She’s still in her twenties, and she exuded a contagious wonder.

As we scrambled up a hillside for a closer look at a patch of lupine, Godoy said she didn’t have a lot of patience for tourists who flock to the superblooms. I felt a pang of defensiveness, but I was ready to hear her out.

“This sort of interaction that we have with plants can be very transactional,” she explained. “You’re here, you roll around in the flowers, you ask: Can I get a selfie from this? But we should interact with them respectfully, because the plants are trying to do their own work.” She pointed out that blooms like this were years in the making. The seeds have been lying there waiting for the right conditions. Trying not to get dried out. Trying not to get eaten by rats and ants.

“A lot goes into it,” she continued. “It’s not just a wet winter. It’s time, patience, maybe a little bit of luck, a little bit of plant prayer.”

I had to admit, I hadn’t really been thinking of this spectacle from the plant’s perspective. It suddenly seemed a totally reasonable thing to do. Most of these plants have been around a lot longer than humans have. The seeds that created this bloom were made in the past. They finally germinated during this precious wet year, but the whole thrust of the extravagant effort was to make seeds for a future bloom in an outrageous cycle of hope. Godoy and I were standing, accidentally, in the middle of a space-time continuum that had absolutely nothing to do with us. We humans just need to not screw it up.

Then it hit me: the risk of chasing awe, of making it about personal growth, is that you dilute its strongest power. Because improving ourselves really isn’t the point of awe at all. I’d been doing it wrong, and it had taken a 27-year-old human and a cluster of yellow tickseeds to help me realize it. The point is this: by listening, we find a small seam in the universe through which to feel ourselves entirely irrelevant.

Outside contributing editor Florence Williams is a bestselling author and the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2023 Pen/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Award for her most recent book Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey, about recovering from divorce. We’d follow her anywhere to find awe.

From July/August 2023 Lead Photo: Neal Pritchard/Stocksy; Eva Plevier/Stocksy

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