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Whether you get it from standing on the top of Mount Everest or watching a video about the size of the universe on SciShow Space, awe can be a powerful, transformative emotion.

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[INTRO ♪].

Maybe it was when you saw the Grand Canyon for the first time, or when you found yourself standing 20 centimeters from the whorls of Starry Night, or listening to the New York Philharmonic play the Star Wars theme. Maybe watching a Wakandan sunset.

No matter what causes it, being awestruck feels much the same. Your mouth drops open. Time stops.

You forget to breathe. Awe is one of the most powerful, transformative emotions we have, and it's a key part of how we develop our understanding of the world. But it turns out that connection goes both ways.

Because feeling awe might tell you a lot about the world, but the psychology of awe can tell you a lot about humans. Most psychologists agree that awe is a feeling that happens when something is so vast that it's hard to fit into your current way of thinking. “Vastness” in this context can be something that's just plain old big, like a redwood tree, but it can also mean something that's larger than yourself in all kinds of ways—a higher social standing, for example, or even just a concept. When you're confronted with this thing, it just … doesn't fit.

It's too much, too vast, in a way that makes it hard to even comprehend. And that's when you feel it: You are awestruck. This definition is pretty new, at least among psychologists.

Philosophers and poets have talked about awe for millennia, but psychologists didn't really start studying it until recently, partly because it's hard to find ways to inspire awe in a lab, no matter how amazing those automatic pipettes are. The field really kicked off in 2003, when a group of researchers published a study in Cognition & Emotion where they first proposed the idea of awe as a way of processing something that seems too vast to comprehend. They also came up with five so-called “flavors” that might affect our sense of awe: threat, beauty, ability, virtue, and a sense of the supernatural.

Including “threat” in that list might be surprising at first, because people don't talk about awe as a negative thing or a sign of a threat, but it can be. The word “awe” actually comes from Middle English words for fear, dread, and terror. Uh, yikes?

And good and bad awe are both part of the English language today. It's what the words “awesome” and “awful” have in common. Negative awe is the type of feeling you might get from looking at pictures of horrible destruction after a hurricane or an earthquake.

It's definitely not in the same category as sequoias and rainbows, but it's hard to wrap your head around in a similar way. But whether the feeling is positive or negative, the evolutionary roots of awe can tell you a lot about why we experience it in the first place. Like a lot of emotions, it all comes down to how social we are as a species.

In that 2003 paper about the “flavors” of awe, the researchers also proposed that the feeling evolved as a way for underlings to react to a powerful leader. That … might seem kind of unsettling these days, because we've seen fascism and we all know how that goes. But fear and submission in the face of powerful group members are actually common in lots of primates, and back in the day, it was the simplest way to avoid conflict.

And there are some heartwarming social benefits to awe, as well— it makes us treat each other better. One 2015 study on this involved a series of experiments with a total of nearly 2,000 participants. It found that when people thought about a time that they experienced awe, they tended to become more generous and selfless, and make more ethical decisions.

So awe would've had plenty of evolutionary advantages when it comes to cooperating as a group. But other researchers have proposed that the evolution of awe is more closely tied to intelligence. The idea is that you experience awe in situations where it's important to be acquiring information that you can use later.

It makes sense: if something is awe-inspiring because it doesn't fit with your understanding of the world, that's probably something that you should know more about if you wanna survive. The feeling of awe directs your attention away from yourself and toward your environment, so you can acquire more information about this new, possibly life-changing thing—whether it's positive or negative. So awe might have given us a social advantage or an intellectual advantage, or maybe some combination of both.

But no matter why the emotion evolved, we know that it's incredibly powerful— to the point that it can, like, totally hack your brain and body. For one thing, it can improve your physical health. It's been linked to lower levels of inflammation, which plays a role in all sorts of illnesses.

Awe can also change your perception of what's causing events to unfold. Studies have found that it makes people more likely to interpret a series of events as the consequence of something intentional, as opposed to random chance. It's all part of the search for an explanation for something your brain is struggling to comprehend, which could help us explain why religion is a thing.

Oh, and also awe can basically stop time. A 2011 study found that subjects who experienced awe were more likely to report feeling that time was “boundless” and like they had enough time to get things done. They were also more willing to volunteer their time to help others.

So altering our perception of time might be part of how awe leads to those social benefits. It's hard to know how or whether most of these effects apply to the negative type of awe, because there's much less research on it. But one study did find that negative feelings of awe didn't produce the same health benefits as positive awe did, so the effects don't seem to be exactly the same.

One thing is clear, though: these experiences, where something is so huge and incomprehensible that it makes you rethink your understanding of the world, are part of how we function as a species. Whether it's inspired by the Grand Canyon or a natural disaster, awe changes you—maybe more than you know. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych, and thank you to all of our patrons on Patreon for helping support this channel.

We are a community of humans who want to understand more about humans— specifically, the brain parts—and if that, to you, sounds like something that's cool, you can go to and subscribe. [OUTRO ♪].