You feel awe when you come into contact with something that you perceive as grand or great – in a literal or figurative sense. For example, when you stand on a mountaintop with a beautiful view of the landscape; when you enter an enormous cathedral and marvel at the architecture and decorations; when you gaze at the clear night sky and feel tiny in comparison to the universe; or when you read a book about a groundbreaking scientific theory and try to grasp its implications.
The stimuli that elicit awe need to be ‘vast’ – that is, much greater than things you normally encounter, which can be in a physical sense (e.g., standing beneath the Eiffel tower), but also in its social implications (e.g., seeing millions of people marching for a cause), or in its representation (e.g., a grandiose symphony). The intensity of awe is usually higher when the stimulus is novel: if you pass the Eiffel tower every day, you may experience less awe than someone seeing it for the first time.
Awe is felt in response to a stimulus that cannot be accounted for by one’s current understanding of the world, and is thought to promote ‘cognitive accommodation’ by urging you to update your ‘schemas’* according to new information4 5. Thus, unlike other positive emotions that typically motivate people to rely more on heuristics, awe directs people away from heuristic approaches.
*Schemas are internal mental representations of the world, which we use to make sense of the world, helping us to quickly understand situations and find appropriate courses of action. Without schemas, every situation would be new to us, and we would have to figure out from scratch each time what to do or how to react. From time to time, these schemas need to be updated to better represent the world.
Awe also motivates you to ‘take in’ the stimulus by experiencing or learning more about it, and to ‘savor the moment’ and be less concerned with daily tasks, events, worries, and time. This way, it functions as an ‘antidote’ for the daily routine, and diverts one’s focus from oneself, stimulating prosocial behavior (even to a higher degree than compassion2).
In awe, your mouth and eyes open wide (but not as wide as when surprised), and you get goosebumps. Experiencing this emotion can make you feel small and insignificant (‘diminishment of the individual self and its concerns’2), or it can make you feel one with the others or with ‘the universe’. You tend to let yourself drift away or try to prolong the experience.
There are certain similarities between awe and admiration or inspiration. However, inspiration is more concerned with what you can do with the stimulus, as opposed to focusing on the stimulus itself; and when someone’s skill or achievement is much superior to your own, you may feel awe, as opposed to admiration.
Awe has a special place in organized religions: the buildings, locations (e.g., temples in beautiful landscape), and art are designed to elicit this emotion to facilitate the religious experience. It is also an important part of art and entertainment (e.g., large modern art installations, grandiose musical symphonies, blockbuster movies including scenes of large battles). Kant and Burke studied awe that was also elicited by vast negative things like horrors and famines, and dubbed it ‘the sublime’.