Why Do Humans Feel Awestruck? The Biological Advantage
That Human Experience
That euphoric feeling of awe is like getting a quick fix of emotion! We strive for it. But there's more behind the reason for having those experiences, as I'll explain.
What Is the Definition of Awe
Awe is the feeling of experiencing something tremendous that is beyond our common perception or expectations.
We are struck with awe when we stumble upon something exceptional that's incredibly amazing. It gives us a great feeling of astonishment.
Awe is an emotion that we experience when we see utter beauty or try to understand something that overwhelms our comprehension. We need to be awestruck to make us humble enough to engage with others.
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? That sometimes brings a feeling of pleasure to the senses.
What Types of Things Can Be Awe Inspiring?
Anything unusual or magnificent can strike us with intense feelings and emotions. 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. That can cause us to have intense feelings of amazement.
- When we are not paying attention, and something unusual happens that we don't expect.
- We are even struck with awe when we find overwhelming results while researching something new. It makes us wonder about things with a curiosity that encourages us to investigate further.
How Did Humans Evolve to Feel Awe?
As humans have evolved, fear has caused us to avoid dangerous situations, thereby assuring humans' continued evolution.
Anger has also been linked to evolution. 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 concerning the overall world. That causes people to be more inclined to share with others. That 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.
Does this mean that humans have evolved to have this feeling for some particular reason? Is it a feeling that other animals don't require?
What Is the Biological Advantage of Feeling Awestruck?
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, increases compassion and empathy, and leaves us with a feeling of well-being.2
The euphoric sense 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 merely survive on natural instincts.
How Have Awesome Experiences Changed the World?
Many great scientists have felt the ecstatic feeling of awe. That 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, or 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 revolve around our Milky Way galaxy entirely.4
Are There Extremes to Awesome Feelings?
An awesome feeling can have two extremes, from glee to dreadful. In the late 16th century, it meant “filled with awe” to represent the extreme feeling of surprise and envy. It also was derived from an Old English word, “egeful,” which meant “dreadful.” 5
Mind-blowing astonishing feelings can be the result of intelligence or innocence. It can even be due to observing stupidity.
Were you ever struck with awe by something incredibly 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.
The feeling of awe has a quality of innocence to it too. We see that by how babies display signs of wonder with almost everything they observe because it's all new to them.
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.
Do We Lose the Ability to Feel Awe as We Grow Older?
Not all people have the ability to experience such a euphoric feeling. I've noticed that some people are oblivious to awesome experiences.
I'll give you an example. Once when I was hiking with some friends, I noticed a cloud shaped like a dog drifting across the sky. I pointed it out to someone, and he said he didn't know what I was talking about. "That's a cloud, not a dog!" he said to me.
Some people are not aware of their surroundings. Nothing strikes them with awe. How sad that is. Those of us who are open-minded, and seek new discoveries, have a life filled with much more pleasurable experiences.
However, as we get older, it requires much more intensity to have the same strong feelings. That is because nothing much is new to us anymore. We get so used to everything that very few things are bewildering anymore.
As we age, we need more profound discoveries to bring on that feeling of awe. But that is what keeps us alive and willing to see more of what the future holds.
Awesome feelings make us seek new experiences, build new dreams, and search out beyond our horizons—all because we are continually 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.
- Etymology and Definition of Awe. Wikipedia
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Glenn Stok