Why Humans Feel Awestruck and Find Things Amazing
Once in a while something so extreme happens that it moves us emotionally. We find ourselves in awe of the experience, but what causes us to be awestruck?
I often think about what comes over us when we discover something amazing and unexpected. I also wonder what the reason is for having this feeling. I'll discuss these many questions you may also have:
- Why do we experience awe?
- Is there a biological advantage?
- How has being awestruck helped humans?
- Have humans evolved to feel awe for a reason?
- Do animals also feel a euphoric feelings of awe?
- Do we seek it? Do we strive for having that awesome feeling?
The Evolution of Feeling Awestruck
It makes us wonder about things with a curiosity that encourages us to investigate further.
Awe is an emotion that we experience when we see utter beauty or when we try to understand something that overwhelms our comprehension. Other overwhelming emotions are fear and anger, both of which have an evolutionary purpose.
As humans have evolved, fear has caused us to avoid dangerous situations, thereby assuring the continued evolution of humans. Anger has also been linked to evolution. Since it promotes an emotion that either gives one the strength to fight, or feeling the need to get away from a troubling situation.
Awe, on the other hand, has been puzzling to psychologists and other researchers. Is it necessary for evolution? Is it only an emotion known to humans, or do other animals experience awe as well?
In one study, it has been determined that the feeling of awe makes one feel smaller and more humble with respect to the overall world. It has been found that this causes one to be more inclined to share with others. This could be a way to help with the growth of society.1
Other animals also function on a social level to assure the ongoing survival of the species. However, it might be more of an instinct.
As for humans, we need to be awestruck to make us humble enough to engage with others. Over the past 50 years people are less willing to share in society's success as they become more self-focused. People are not finding opportunities to become awestruck lately.
The Pleasurable Feeling of Being Awestruck
We humans are struck with awe when we stumble upon something exceptional that's beyond our expectations—something that's extremely amazing. Awe gives us a great feeling of astonishment.
We are even struck with awe when we discover overwhelmingly unexpected results while researching something new.
I'm sure you've had the experience of staring up at the night sky and observing all the stars. Have you felt that euphoric feeling of awe as you thought about the vastness of the Universe? This sometimes brings a feeling a pleasure to the senses.
Does Everyone Feel Awe at Times?
Not all people have the ability to experience such a euphoric feeling. I've noticed that some people are totally oblivious to super enlightening and awesome experiences.
Once when I was hiking with some friends, I noticed a cloud that was shaped like a dog drifting across the sky. I pointed it out to someone and he just looked and said he didn't know what I was talking about. "That's a cloud. Not a dog!" he said to me.
Some people are actually unconscious of their environment. Nothing strikes them with awe. How sad.
Those of us who are open-minded, and like to seek out new discoveries, have a life filled with much more pleasurable experiences.
A study at Stanford University in 2012 found that the feeling of awe is clinically good for us. The study concluded that it expands our perception of time, it increases compassion and empathy, and it leaves us with a feeling of well-being.2
Does this mean that humans have evolved to have this feeling for some special reason? Is it a feeling that other animals simply don't require?
The Biological Advantage of Feeling Awestruck
The euphoric feeling of awe may have developed through human evolution to give us the ability to conquer the world. Besides just having the pleasure of these wonderful experiences, the ability to feel awe brings on something else: The desire to do research and to find answers to puzzling questions.
According to an article in the Smithsonian, the experience of being awestruck is unique to humans. It helps us conquer the planet. Jason Silva explains that awe evolved to give us the desire to do things that would lead to more productivity.3
I imagine that's why we humans have so much advancement in technology. The feeling of being awestruck does not seem to be a necessary trait in other animals. They simply survive on natural instincts.
Scientists Who Where Struck With Awe
Many great scientists have felt the ecstatic feeling of awe. This may have been the driving force that kept them active with their research despite numerous attempts to achieve success with something they were working on, or thinking about, for years.
Sir Isaac Newton (who lived from 1642 to 1727) was awestruck when he discovered the power of mathematical physics.
Landing the Discovery Rover on Mars required the use of mathematical physics. Without it, we couldn't do what we do today in the field of science, artificial intelligence, and even simulating real-life with animation in movies.
Albert Einstein (1879 to 1955) studied mathematical physics in Russia and used it to analyze phenomena in space and time. He was awed by the calculation that it takes about two hundred million years for our sun, along with our entire solar system, to completely revolve around our Milky Way galaxy.4
How Many Feelings of Awe Do We Have?
There are many feelings of awe. We may be amazed, astonished, astounded, flabbergasted, shocked, stunned, surprised, or stupefied.
We can be astonished by something extreme that just occurred and that we did not expect. This can cause us to have intense feelings of amazement.
There are times when we are not paying attention and something wonderful happens when we least expect it. That moment of discovery may even shock us if we are not prepared for it.
I remember once in college I thought I had failed a final exam in a course that I had put all my heart and soul into. But to my surprise, I passed with an A+. The feeling that came over me so so enormously filled with awe that I literally did a happy dance.
Awesome Feelings Based on Intelligence and Stupidity
We can be awestruck by both extremes: Intelligence or stupidity.
Were you ever struck with awe by something that was extremely profound from a technical or scientific point of view? Due to your intelligence, you were able to understand it enough to be awed by the experience.
On the other hand, were you ever stunned by something stupid someone said or the ridiculous way they behaved. Were you awed by it? That's the other extreme.
The Innocence of Awe
The feeling of awe has a quality of innocence to it too. This is clear when we observe how babies display signs of awe with almost everything they observe—because it's all new to them.
Anything that's new to us, as adults, may bring on a feeling of awe. However, as we get older, it requires much more intensity to have the same strong feelings. This is because nothing much is new to us anymore as we get older. We get so used to everything that if something is new, it's not that bewildering anymore.
As we age, we need more intense discoveries to bring on that feeling of awe. This is actually a good thing. It makes us seek new discoveries, build new dreams, and search out beyond our horizons—all because we are constantly striving for that next quick fix of feeling awestruck.
- Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner. (May 22, 2015). Why Do We Experience Awe? New York Times
- Juliana Breites (March 8, 2016). Four Awe-Inspiring Activities. Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley
- Colin Schultz. (July 31, 2012). How The Feeling We Call Awe Helped Humans Conquer the Planet. Smithsonian Magazine
- John Piper. (2011). Think. Carol Stream, IL: Crossway Publishing.
© 2012 Glenn Stok