The Art & Science of Awe

By Elise Proulx

What led Dacher Keltner, renowned UC Berkeley psychology professor and director of the university’s Greater Good Science Center, to focus on the little-studied emotion of awe?

This feeling we get in the presence of something vast “was so tightly connected to things that have changed my life—the Sierras, art, great music, radically different cultures—and it was a scientific unknown,” Keltner says.

As he wrote 11 years ago in a seminal paper on the subject in the journal Cognition and Emotion, “Awe is felt about diverse events and objects, from waterfalls to childbirth to scenes of devastation… Fleeting and rare, experiences of awe can change the course of a life in profound and permanent ways.”

Keltner is now reaching the end of an unprecedented three-year project focused on awe. And the research that has emerged shows a multitude of psychological and physical benefits: increased happiness and curiosity; lower narcissism; a boost in altruistic tendencies; and less inflammation, which can help boost life expectancy.

And the work also dispels a current misconception: That awe is a religious emotion. “Awe is part of religious practice,” says Keltner. “But our studies find that most awe experiences are tied to our relationship to nature, art, and the goodness of other people.”

The culmination of Keltner’s “Project Awe” is a day-long conference to be held on the UC Berkeley campus (and also via live webcast) on June 4 on The Art and Science of Awe.

The day will bring together researchers in the emerging field—including Keltner, Arizona State professor Michelle “Lani” Shiota, and Project Awe team member Craig Anderson—alongside practitioners: artists, educators, and creators including Shots of Awe creator Jason Silva, former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass, Grammy Award-nominated musician Wu Man, folk musician Melanie DeMore, and experts from the Exploratorium, NASA, the Sierra Club, the Bay Lights & more.

In the meantime, Keltner says you can encourage your own sense of awe by getting out in nature, hearing inspiring speakers, creating your own sense of ritual (especially within families), and sharing music. For more science-based tips on how to get your awe flowing, see the Greater Good Science Center’s article Four Awe-Inspiring Activities.

Elise Proulx is the marketing director for the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. She's been a writer and editor for multiple newspapers, news sites, and magazines.


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This article appears in: 2016 Catalyst, Issue 8: Inspiring Women