Everyday Awe and Its Effects on Our Brains

Awe is a powerful force for bringing people together — and it’s not just for special occasions.

Author: Barbara Palmer       

track star Allyson Felix speaks at Convening Leaders '23

Witnessing or hearing stories of courage, kindness, and strength in others — such as Olympic athlete and CL23 speaker Allyson Felix’s advocacy of contract protections for pregnant athletes — are most likely to elicit awe from people, researchers say. (Whatever Media Group)

The social glue created by awe-inducing experiences is something that event professionals seem to grasp intuitively — and there’s a growing body of evidence that explains why that’s so. Convene wrote in 2016 about research by psychology professors Dacher Keltner and Paul Piff that showed that awe strengthens connections between people and motivates us to act in collaborative ways — the very things, we pointed out, that conferences seek to facilitate.

When you think of what produces awe, you may imagine something visually spectacular, like the image of hundreds of illuminated lanterns floating into the night sky that we used to illustrate our story. That qualifies, but the good news for event organizers is that awe isn’t confined to extravagant performances or breathtaking natural settings. “We can find awe anywhere,” writes Keltner, founder of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied the emotion for three decades. In his recently published book, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, Keltner shares what he and his colleagues have learned about the sources of awe, and how it affects our brains, individually and collectively.

Dacher Keltner headshot

Dacher Keltner

This Is Your Brain on Awe

Awe expands our thinking by reducing the activation of our default mode network, a region in our brain that is active when we process information from an egocentric point of view, Keltner writes. While experiencing awe, the parts of our brains that are associated with our ego, such as self-criticism, anxiety, and depression, “quiet down,” and we shift, Keltner explains, “from a competitive dog-eat-dog mindset to perceive that we are part of networks of more interdependent, collaborating individuals.”

Just the act of gathering together sets the stage for “collective effervescence,” a term that was coined by the 19th-centry French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who described it as “a sort of electricity generated by closeness.” The modern term is “physiological synchrony” — when we are together, our physiological bodies and our emotions align, Keltner writes. As we move and feel together, he adds, “we shift from an egocentric view seeing the world through our eyes only, to a shared attention.” This “convergence in mind leads to goodwill, cooperation, and a transformed sense of self as part of a community.” Collective effervescence is common at concerts, sporting events, and rituals like graduations, but it doesn’t need a big crowd, Keltner writes. It takes just a handful of people “to stir collective awe,” and can be initiated by something as simple as walking together.

What Activates Awe?

When Keltner and his colleagues surveyed 2,600 people from around the world, asking them to describe where they found awe, they uncovered eight main sources, including music, nature, art and visual design, collective effervescence, spiritual or religious experiences, epiphanies, and stories of life or death.

But what was most likely to elicit awe, the researchers found, was the actions of other people — witnessing or hearing stories of courage, kindness, and strength in others. Hearing about such “moral beauty,” as Keltner termed it, led to the release of oxytocin, a hormone linked to warm, fuzzy feelings, which activates the vagus nerve and can lower stress levels, he writes.

There are myriad examples of such stories to be found at conferences and meetings, but I thought of a recent one: Olympian Allyson Felix, who spoke at PCMA Convening Leaders 23 about her decision to use her high profile to advocate for the right to contract protection for pregnant athletes. Felix had nothing to gain from going public, and the thought made her extremely uncomfortable, she said. “I’m a people pleaser,” Felix said, “I don’t want to cause any problems, but I just had this moment where I was not going to let my [infant] daughter go through the same thing. I was so terrified. But my brother told me something when I was going through this. He said: ‘You can use your voice even if it shakes.’” I felt a bit of shared electricity in the room as Felix said those words, and conversations with others and seeing Felix’s quote on social media confirmed for me that it wasn’t just my imagination.

What is, Keltner asks in the book, the unifying purpose of awe? His answer, in part: “Awe integrates us into the systems of life — communities, collectives, the natural environment, and forms of culture … and our mind’s efforts to make sense of all its webs of ideas. The epiphany of awe is that its experience connects our individual selves with the vast forces of life.”

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor at Convene.

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