Studies show that astonishing experiences in nature can have life-changing benefits, and that even small everyday doses of time outdoors can have immediate impacts. Those are two of many revelations Outside contributing editor Florence Williams uncovered during her investigation into the latest research around awe. Informed by conversations with leading awe experts, Williams guides us through the emerging understanding of what awe does for us—and how being open-minded can better facilitate experiences of this singular emotion.
Michael Roberts: From Outside Magazine, this is the Outside Podcast.
If I had to place a bet on when during the course of a year the greatest number of people in the United States are feeling relaxed, or maybe even content, I'd put my money on late-July.
Kids are on summer break. People who are able to take vacations are taking them. It's a warm, ocean-breezy kickback time. I mean, this is why there's a snack brand that's literally called Late-July.
But here's what I think is really going on: we're just getting outside a lot more. To the beach. To the mountains. To a cabin on the lake. And that is what makes us feel so good.
But what's not so clear, and a lot more interesting, is the research that explains what's going on in our brains and bodies that leads to this elevated sense of health and happiness.
In recent years, scientists have been studying the power of awe, which seems to be a major factor. Last week, we brought you an interview with William Shatner looking at how his ride on a rocketship–a real one, not the Enterprise–had a profound impact on him.
Today, for part two of our investigation into awe with Outside contributing editor Florence Williams, we're diving deep into the science.
Producer Robbie Carver put this one together, and he couldn't resist kicking it off with the infamous Double Rainbow guy, who became a viral sensation back in 2010 when he posted a video on YouTube of his reaction to a remarkably colorful moment in the sky near Yosemite National Park. We've actually played this clip on the show before, about four years ago, but I told Robbie, ‘That's ok, I can always take more Double Rainbow guy.’
[Audio from YouTube clip]
Robbie Carver: Are you grinning right now? Perhaps there's a lump in your throat as you listen to this man having a near religious experience? Or maybe you even have a few tears in your eyes. If so, congratulations. You just learned that awe, that mind-blowing, jaw dropping emotion, can be contagious.
Florence Williams: In fact, we know it. We know it can be. And there are some new experiments coming out now that seem to indicate when we experience awe in the presence of someone else. Many pathways in our nervous systems kind of align. Our respiration might line up, our certain brainwave patterns might line up. And that may be, one of the ways through which we end up kind of feeling connected to each other. So I do actually recommend trying to experience awe with other people.
Robbie: These transference properties are just one of the amazing things that Florence uncovered in her research into the science of awe, a topic she first became interested in while writing her 2018 book, The Nature Fix.
Florence: But it wasn't until I went through my own kind of personal crisis, when I got divorced, actually, that I spoke to some scientists.
One in particular Dr. Paula Williams at the University of Utah, who convinced me that, when we seek beauty, we actually can learn to become more open to beauty and more open to experiencing awe, and that when that happens, it can make us more resilient. And when she told me that, I was like, oh, resilience. I need that. You know, I need everything. I need everything I, I can get to feel better about myself and my future.
So it became my project to become more open to experiencing awe.It suddenly seemed very urgent and very necessary.
Robbie: As Florence worked through the pain of her divorce with the help of experiences in stunning natural environments, her reporter mind began to take over.
Florence: As a journalist, I think my kind of interest meter went off because I had never heard that before. I had never heard that seeking beauty could actually change our lives. It suddenly felt like an important piece of information to get out there. You know, this is something that can help all of us, and we haven't really heard it before.
Robbie: But what is awe, really?
Most of us can point to an experience or two where we've been gobsmacked by the universe, or unexpectedly brought to tears by a performance, but how would you define the underlying emotion of that moment?
Well, if you're a scientist studying awe, you may describe it as "a perceptually vast experience that transcends our current frames of reference."
Florence: That's sort of a fancy way of saying it's an experience that blows our minds that in some ways challenges our notions of the world. So it, it challenges our kind of mental schema of the categories that we put things in.
We may see this giant glowing orb of orange, at sunset. And for a moment we're like, oh my God, this what? The sun is orange. You know? Because it's a little bit out of our normal experiences.
We don't always catch the sun doing that at sunset, and in that moment of questioning what we're seeing, sort of questioning the mystery, it seems like interesting things happen in our brain.
Robbie: It's pretty easy to accept that awe-inspiring moments are, well, awesome. But it's only been relatively recently that researchers have begun to look into what gazing at a towering waterfall or witnessing a breaching whale does to our mind and body, or why humans continually seek these moments out. So Florence decided to chase down the scientists who were exploring these questions.
Dacher Keltner: I'm Dacher Keltner. I'm a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, faculty Director of the Greater Good Science Center and author of the new book, Awe.
Florence: Dacher is considered one of the kind of founders of studying the emotion of awe. He has trained now, a legion of other great scholars who have continued to look at awe. I think, partly because it's just so damn interesting. All the studies that they do seem to indicate that people can have this profound shift in their physiology as well as in their emotional states.
Dr. Keltner: I scientifically have always been interested in the emotions that help us transcend the self, right? Like compassion and gratitude that have really interesting evolutionary mysteries associated with them. Neuroscientific mysteries. Cognitive science mysteries. What does an emotion like awe do to us?
Florence: It's such a unique emotion in terms of what it does to us physiologically. Can you describe that?
Dr. Keltner: What the science is starting to show, in the brain, the self relevant regions of the cortex shut down the default mode network. You're no longer egoistic in how you look at the world. Your vagus nerves is activated during experiences of awe, which helps you connect to other people.
You get these tears very often, which are about recognizing what brings people together. And then the goosebumps is this amazing response of the parasympathetic autonomic nervous system of leading to these little contractions around hair follicles that, subjectively, you're like getting these tingles up your back and your head and your scalp that say like, I am with other people.
Florence: Even, even our face changes, right?
Dr. Keltner: When you feel awe, like your mouth opens, your eyes widen, you, you look up, you kind of, and then you have this amazing vocalization of like, all right, Florence, give me your best awe vocalization.
Dr. Keltner: Well that's a good one. Right? And you know, and there are these vocalizations of like, whoa, wow, woo, that are like signaling ‘I am seeing something that's transcendent and beyond my understanding of the world.’
Robbie: Studies have shown that when we have those knock you on your butt type moments of awe–maybe observing the Northern Lights for the first time, or witnessing a beautiful act of bravery or sacrifice–those moments can have life changing impact. They can literally help us overcome trauma, quit an addiction, or fundamentally change our relationship to chronic pain.
Florence: There's this window of learning, almost like a window of opportunity that opens for a brief period of time.
And that's the window in which we're sort of reevaluating, everything, um, precipitated, you know, by this awe experience. And in that window we also have an opportunity to reevaluate ourselves. It's an opportunity to shift perspective. It's an opportunity to literally rewire the pathways in our brains, that may kind of repeat these narratives, that we internalize about who we are or what our failings are, or, how something that happened to us, has kind of, ruined us or impacted us in some way.
And in these mystical experiences, people are able to say, I am not what happened to me? I don't need to be afraid of this. I can choose, in some ways, a different future for myself. And it's really fascinating that these experiences can open that up.
Robbie: As it turns out, awe isn't just found when we step out of a tent and spot a shooting star. Where there's beauty, physically or conceptually, there can be awe.
Dr. Keltner and his colleagues at U.C. Berkeley gathered stories of awe from 26 different countries, and after cataloging them, found eight different pathways through which we can experience awe.
Dr. Keltner: The moral beauty of people, their kindness and courage, nature, collective effervescence, dance movement, and then you get to the cultural stuff of visual design, music, spirituality.
And then finally, big ideas in life and death, that, uh, we often are struck by big realizations about the world. So those eight wonders are really good pathways to finding how to experience this emotion of awe.
Robbie: But that's not to say that all the pathways to awe are equal. Some are more profound than others.
Dr. Keltner: The first source of awe that's most fundamental is the moral beauty of other people. You know, just around the world, the deepest universality to awe is like, man, somebody's kindness and courage moves you to this feeling of tears and chills and awe at moral beauty.
And the second is nature. Whether it's the tropics or the mountain peaks of Switzerland or the Sierras or a big desert, you know, in a part of Africa, or big trees or fungi or backpacking or gardening or looking at the stars, that was just this deep universal to our human experience of awe, is our reverence and love for the natural world is just deeply ingrained in this human emotion.
Robbie: As Dr. Keltner explains it, experiencing awe has powerful and holistic benefits.
Dr. Keltner: Ten minutes a day, you know, is about as good for your mind and body as anything. How? It reduces inflammation in the body, you know, so it's good for your immune system. It activates the vagus nerve, which is good for your cardiovascular system.
It's good for your basic digestive processes and other physiological parameters. So that's good for your body. And then, you know, it's good for your mind. It, it really just a 10 minutes of awe makes you feel more, less self-critical, less stressed, less physical pain, more time, more creative, more kind.
Just all the things we care about in the well being literature. These experiences of awe, you know, nature being paradigmatic, get us out of this self-obsessed mindset that's so prominent today.
Florence: Okay, so you're really convincing me that I need to go find 10 minutes a day.
Robbie: Ten minutes of Awe. Every day. That sounds, well, kind of hard actually. How often do we stumble upon a rainbow, or see the rays of the sun break through the clouds like it's a Bob Ross painting? Those moments aren't usually right outside our door.
But what researchers have found is that awe exists on a spectrum, what they termed the Awe Experience Scale. And while, yes, those bring-you-to-your-knees-in-tears experiences can fundamentally alter our sense of self for years, even the smallest doses of awe can have immediate effects on our well-being.
And what makes a moment awe-inspiring, it turns out, isn't necessarily how grand it is, but how open we are to noticing it.
Florence: What should I look for? What are the ingredients that make up an awe experience?
Dr. Keltner: I think there are really direct, almost contemplative approaches to awe that we've studied. Look to small things. Pan out and look at big things. Ask yourself questions when you're pursuing awe, be it with music or contemplation or, or nature or the like, be open to where it takes you. So I think there is this mindset to awe that we should be really cultivating as opposed to like, being goal driven and task driven and limited in time.
Florence: It sounds like what you're saying is that we can actually get better at seeking and finding awe.
Dr. Keltner: Yeah. I go to particular places outside. The more I go into the Sierras each summer with my daughter, the richer it gets. Right? The more I listen to a vein of classical music, the richer it gets. The more I find awe in the poetry of, of Walt Whitman, right? Or the writings of Virginia Woolf or whatever, the richer it gets. And that's one of the great qualities of awe. It just always, its mystery always propels us into more depth.
Florence: sometimes we think that the familiar will make us kind of jaded. But it sounds like you're saying you can go deeper into these same familiar places?
Dacher Keltner: Yeah. Yeah. And that's the beauty of awe. You know, and there is this law in the well being literature of hedonic adaptation that people write a lot about if I, Buy a pair of shoes and they give me a certain amount of pleasure. That pleasure will diminish over time. Right? You look at the shoes and after the fifth day, you're like, these are just shoes, and I love shoes, and they're great.
But these are, yeah, exactly. Oh, well, but not awe. You know, the sources of awe just keep growing a sense of meaning for us as we pursue them with greater depth.
Robbie: It seems like counterintuitive to me in a way. Like, you know, when we think of the idea of awe, it's this like getting smacked in the face by, by something just undefinably beautiful or horrific or whatever. But then there's this everyday quality to awe that you can seek out and that has like legitimate concrete benefit to your wellbeing and your life.
Florence: I think virtually every expert I spoke to is convinced that we really need a daily hit of awe, you know, to be kind of our best selves. To, uh, to, you know, to remind ourselves, that we're part of systems, and that we're, we're linked in this life together. So it was, it was a very, um, universal recommendation, you know, that we make an effort actually to go find something beautiful that we can sit with and appreciate and value, and feel gratitude for.
Robbie: It sounds like one of the things you discovered is there's a difference between just the nature fix as you, you know, you've coined it, and intentionally seeking awe within nature.
Florence: Yeah, I think that's right. I think so many of us tend to, you know, move through nature, with our own agenda and in this kind of consumer-oriented way. And I'm certainly guilty of this. You know, we go for our run, we go for our hike. You know, maybe we, are are doing this, um, you know, to clear our heads or to be somewhere pretty.
But it turns out that to experience awe, you kind of need to shut down your own kind of needs and your own frontal cortex that's telling you, yeah, I need to kind of, up my, my heart rate, you know, for the next 10 minutes. And I'm gonna, I'm gonna do it while I'm listening to this soundtrack. You know, it's not kind of a fully engaged or reciprocal way to, to be in nature.
And to, to really, I think appreciate awe, and, and you can't necessarily go looking for awe, you know, if you, if you go looking for it, then that's another item on your to-do list, which is in your prefrontal cortex.
It's more that you are kind of cultivating this, this just open-mindedness and open-hearted space where you're just attentive, you know, if you are actually paying attention to the bird song, paying attention to the patterns that you're seeing in the leaves or in the creek. Just, just being, present, right? That, that is what can open you up to having a more profound awe experience.
And, and there does seem to be a necessary ingredient, um, of not being so kind of ego driven, right? It's not really about you. Maybe it's more about this place, you know? And, and I think, I think we're just not very good at that. We're not very good at kind of turning our ego down, but this nature practice can really help us do that.
Robbie Carver: We’ll be right back.
Mitchell Coleman: Well, uh, right now we are in the Comanche Point region of Toone Ranch, uh, which is mostly annual grassland with scattered populations of salt bushes. So these gray greenish shrubs we're actually in one right now.
Robbie: Like any good journalist, Florence knew that to write a feature story about awe, she would need to pursue an awe-inspiring experience. And while we've learned that even pausing to take notice of a new leaf growing on your house plant can tickle your awe muscle, Florence was after something a bit more grand.
Florence: Well, I knew that there are these elements of the mystery, you know, in awe. And so because of that, I, I set out to find something I hadn't really experienced before. I wanted to give that sense of mystery a chance to operate.
So I had never seen a super bloom.
Robbie: A super bloom is a phenomenon that occurs when an extremely high proportion of wildflowers blossom all at once. After the very wet winter in California, the state was primed for an all-time superbloom. So Florence traveled to the Central Valley, which was exploding with colors.
Florence: We went out onto the Tejon Ranch, which is this incredible chunk of actually private land, but the public has access to it at various times. You know, it feels like a private wilderness because there aren't very many people back there. There aren't paved roads. It's just glorious because you, you get these like 360 views of now very green hills, with these incredible pulses and flashes and swaths of color.
Robbie Carver: With her were Tejon Ranch conservation overseer, Jaron Kramer, and Dr. Michael Amster, co-author of the book, The Power of Awe.
Florence: He's a medical doctor who's really interested in kind of the medicinal effects of experiencing awe.
Michael Amster: And here we are. We're driving on this ridgetop road with valleys on either side that go down several hundred feet. And as far as the, I can see there's mountain ridges that are snow capped in every direction. Extreme vastness.
Florence: We reached this ridge where we could see out, you know, in every direction. And we really didn't see any roads and we really didn't see any structures. So in some ways we felt like we were on this kind of ocean, you know, of grass.
Florence (field tape): Yeah, I, I feel like I'm standing in kind of some other world.
Like I'm on these pillows of green that stretch far in every direction. It's like some Dr. Seuss landscape or something.
Florence (interview): And so there was this, this sense of vastness of oh wow. You know, and we, I think we all kind of made some classic awe expressions where you're like, whoa, or wow. And, you know, maybe our, um, mouths kind of opened and our eyebrows kind of lifted, and you're like, holy cow, this is really incredible.
And then I think there was also this sense of stillness, you know, where our bodies feel like they're kind of stilling and slowing down in order to take this in to kind of have the space to take it in and understand it.
And then, you know, what you're left with is kind of this feeling of euphoria. You know, you're, you're, the chatter in your brain just stops, you know?
So in some ways it's like being in a deep, mindful state, but those mindful states are, they're hard to access, you know, without this kind of prompt of very impressive, whatever it is that you're confronting.
Dr. Amster: I notice how, like, how we all feel different, right? Like before we were down in the bottom of the valley, um, driving along the agricultural fields, there was definitely a sense of odd wonder and expanse there.
But, now we're up climbing and climbing to the top of this ridge top with a 360 view all around us of these vast landscapes of blowing green grasses and expansive clouds and distant snowing mountains. And I can tell that our physiologies have all shifted.
That's what awe does. It takes us to that state of really changing our perception of reality. We see things new and things become alive and things are filled with wonder and beauty and miraculous ways in which we see things differently in those moments of off that transports us to seeing the world in a new conscious present way that we never thought was possible.
Robbie: As Dr. Amster explains, there are two aspects to the experience of awe.
The first is perceptual vastness, which is that sense of being connected to the universe, to all life on our planet. A vastness of self.
Dr. Amster: So like right now we're talking and I'm looking out through the window and I'm looking at these grasses that are, that are blowing across the hillside from these really strong winds and the flowers that are moving in that dance. And I'm just feeling connected to the sense of all life on this planet and like where these winds come from and how the sun is fueling the growth of these beautiful grasses. Um, and the sense of vastness of everything that's connected in our, in our solar system and on this planet of all life.
Robbie: The second aspect is the idea of cognitive accommodation, in which our perception of reality shifts.
Dr. AmsterL: And when we have a sense of awe, we're experiencing wonder and amazement and the beauty and the richness of life in a way that, you know, brings us to a deeper sense of connection and pure presence and awareness.
And that's actually the research, uh, that myself and my colleague Jake Eagle, who's a psychotherapist, um, we study how we can cultivate a practice of accessing moments of awe in the ordinary times of our lives.
Robbie: So you, you were actually part of an awe study.
Florence: I was. I found out that, um, Dr. Michael Amster and his collaborator, a guy named Jake Eagle, who's a psychologist, were conducting a study.
Our task was to go out two or three times a day and just find something to focus our attention on, for, you know, just one or two or three breath cycles. And that was it. So, you know, you find something beautiful. Actually they use this acronym, A-W-E.
Dr. Amster: and we think of it as the training wheels of how to access awe in the ordinary and extraordinary moments.
Florence: And the A is, attend to something you know, that you value. And that, uh, is, seems beautiful.
Dr. Amster: So we could actually practice this together right now. And, um, you know, and have that, that that experience of awe.
And so right now, as we're looking out through these windows, we can bring our attention to something that we value, appreciate, or find amazing. And perhaps for the someone who's listening who doesn't have a view outside that they're looking at, you can even bring to mind someone, a memory of someone that, that brings you to that place of, of amazement, of beauty, of wonder that has touched your life.
And so you're bringing your full undivided attention to that experience right now. Letting go of any other thoughts.
Florence: The W is wait. So just be present with this object of beauty.
Dr. Amster: I think of it as almost marinating. We're really giving ourselves a gift of letting ourselves be fully present with this moment of just like really soaking it in. So we're looking at these beautiful hills and I'm just being in the waiting of the presence of these beautiful grasses that are blowing.
Florence Williams: And the E is exhale. So that's just a reminder to kind of, you know, sit with your breath while you're attending to this beautiful object.
Dr. Amster: So when we take a longer exhale out and you can actually make the sound, awe.
We stimulate our vagus nerve. It's in the bottom of your diaphragm, and we take that long exhale. We're stimulating our vagus nerve and that takes us to that, that state of rest of healing, of repair. It's that part of our autonomic nervous system that resets our physiology and our say of consciousness to one of expansion and rest and healing.
And then the E also stands for expansion. So we're intentionally letting this moment fill us up. We're creating that sense of vastness within ourselves. We're letting it expand.
Like in an instant you can go from that, that regular state of doing and striving and maybe worrying or reminiscing and being depressed of the past to instantaneously being in the present moment.
We're, we're only in the present moment when we're in awe. Yeah. Like we're nowhere else. We're fully here. We're not ruminating about the past, we're not worried about the future. It's like the ultimate antidote for, for anxiety and depression.
Robbie: The key, says Amster, is to find your moment of beauty. It could be a song that comes on your playlist, the way a glass catches light against the ceiling, the sound of rain on your roof, or a bird suspended on an updraft. Attend to the moment, wait with it, exhale your breath and expand your awareness.
What’s fascinating to learn is that even a minute of this a day, what Dr. Amster and others call “microdosing awe,” can have profound effects on your wellbeing.
Dr. Amster: And over 21 days we saw this incredible statistical significance of decrease, of anxiety, of depression, of loneliness, of chronic pain, of people's senses of burnout and stress, and cultivated a sense of wellness and health.
What makes this so powerful is that this practice can go anywhere you go. So you can have a moment of awe when you're driving your kids to school in the morning and you're at a red light. You can actually use that time of a red light to pause and to have a moment of awe, whether you're looking out at maybe the beauty of the sky or a bird flying by, or just being in awe of your children. You can have a moment of awe when checking out at the grocery store and connecting with strangers, or being in awe of all the different flavors of bubble gum that exist.
So what's beautiful is that awe is everywhere. It can be accessed in the ordinary moments of our lives, not just in the extraordinary, which makes awe free to everybody.
Robbie: Did you notice some of those changes for yourself when you did this?
Florence: I will say what I felt like the study did for me was it did help me cultivate, uh, an ability to find beauty fast.
So I did train my brain over a period of weeks so that even when the study en ended and I would go walk my dog around the block, you know, or go down to the, you know, banks of the Potomac River or something, I was, I, I was better at kind of tuning in to beauty.
Like I would pass the flower and I would be like, oh, that is a beautiful flower. I'm gonna take an extra moment. I'm just gonna take an extra tiny, tiny moment to just really appreciate that flower. And, I'm gonna stop what I'm thinking about for a minute and just enjoy that.
And, and that, that's like a really subtle shift. But, it's one that I think we have to make in order to quiet that kind of executive function part of our brain.
Dr. Amster: And when we microdose that multiple times throughout the day, what happens is we change our physiology on from a micro level to a macro level, and we then cultivate profound benefits in our physical and mental health that have long lasting and reaching benefits in terms of our resiliency and ability to cope with stress while at work or while raising children. All the different ups and downs that come with life, we can approach with a lot more resiliency and balance and a sense of wonder and beauty when we have cultivated that sense of awe that we can access it any time in any place.
Florence: These mysteries of life, if we are open to them and are sensitive to them, they can really shift our own psychology and our emotional state, in this kind of necessary and beautiful way. And that in fact, experiencing awe is something that we humans, you know, maybe kind of uniquely suited to do. It's a profoundly bonding emotion. It has often arisen through cultural practices in deep time, um, through singing and spiritual practice. And, you know, sitting around the fire and telling stories of courage. All these things have really served our species well.
And I think, you know, one of the things that that brings up for me is how deprived we are of that kind of daily hit of awe, you know, that our species maybe needs. And in fact, that deprivation may be one of the reasons, that we have so much conflict and so much kind of lack of fulfillment.
So many people don't have this kind of meaning and sense of community, uh, in their lives right now. And, and maybe it's because, you know what, we're no longer looking at the Milky Way every night. We're no longer seeing wildlife on a regular basis. We're no longer singing and dancing together by the fire.
So I think it becomes really necessary for us to think about other ways we can start to put awe back in our lives.
Michael Roberts: That's Outside contributing editor Florence Williams, speaking with producer Robbie Carver. Florence's feature story about the science of awe is in the July-August print issue of Outside Magazine.
Robbie Carver scripted and produced this episode, which was edited by me, Michael Roberts. Thanks to Florence for sharing recordings of her interviews with us.
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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, and have since expanded our show to offer a range of story formats, including reports from our correspondents in the field and interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and the outdoors.