What Happens Inside Your Body When You Feel Awed?

Table of Contents (click to expand)

When you feel awe, your body releases cytokines, which are pro-inflammatory proteins. Cytokines are important for the immune response, as well as inflammation, trauma and reproduction. Although they play a vital role, these proteins demand that the immune system to work harder and harder, which can cause prolonged inflammation. This may lead to heart disease, depression and diabetes.

Awesome. Just… awesome. Wow, that’s awesome!

These are some of the most commonly seen comments on a post or a photo on Facebook, Twitter or any other social media platform. It’s like we have some deep connection with the word ‘awesome’… we can’t stop ourselves from spilling it out all over the place. Maybe it’s simply a plain lack of a good vocabulary.

Assuming that it’s the former case, rather than a basic lack of other words to use, have you ever wondered why we feel awed by certain things?

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What Is Awe?

Oh, if one could explain awe with a perfect definition, then they would themselves be ‘awe-inspiring’ humans. Still, we do have a meaning for the word ‘awe’ that will help the conversation – “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.” That’s what awe means, according to a dictionary, at least.

Awe is what we feel when we encounter or experience something that is seemingly larger than life, that is far beyond the reach and understanding of an individual. Awe is inspired by something that makes us feel small or think beyond ourselves. It can also be something that makes us feel connected with something that is far bigger than ourselves. As abstract as the word is, the feelings that invoke ‘awe’ in humans is also hugely diverse.

Also Read: Why Do We Cry When We’re Extremely Happy?

What Happens When One Feels ‘Awed’?

Awe cannot be easily invoked in a human being artificially; it’s too complex of an emotion for that. This is why the concept of “awe” has puzzled and fascinated scientists, leading them to eagerly study this strange human emotion.

In a study carried out by psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt, published in the journal Cognition and Emotion in 2003, they were able to identify some key words and phrases that appeared repeatedly when subjects were made to watch certain awe-inspiring videos. Again, stimulating this process is not an easy one, as different people respond to different visual or auditory stimuli.

girl near cliff

The psychologists stated that “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.”

Also Read: Are We Born With Emotions Or Do We Learn Them Later?

Biological Effects

According to a study published in the journal Emotion, researchers say that feeling awed might make one feel healthier by reducing the levels of pro-inflammatory proteins known as cytokines.

Cytokines are important for the immune response, as well as inflammation, trauma and reproduction. Although they play a vital role, these proteins demand that the immune system to work harder and harder, which can cause prolonged inflammation. This may lead to heart disease, depression and diabetes. This explains why a person who is depressed feels less awed by things that might knock a broad smile onto their faces if they weren’t suffering from depression.

A study published in the journal Psychological Science claims that awe makes us prefer experience over materialistic gains. For example, if a person is in awe after seeing a vast stretch of mountains, they would be more likely to try out a thrill sport like bungee jumping (an experience), rather than buying a car (material possession).

Awe can help people feel that they have more time than they think they do, make them more generous, decrease aggressive attitudes and make them feel more satisfied with their lives.

In the mentioned study, researchers exposed students to short awe-inspiring videos and then gave them a questionnaire to fill out.

holding hands
Credits: Nataliia K/Shutterstock

An interesting fact that emerged was that students responded positively to questions related to the amount of time they have, as though they were optimistic that they had loads of time to get everything done in their lives. Also, after completing the questionnaire, students were found to even help others complete theirs! It shows that being in awe makes us more generous to others.

Why Does Awe Make Us More Generous?

This urge to give occurs because awe makes us feel small. Trust me, that’s a good thing, because when we feel small and look at others, our focus shifts from our own lives to the greater good of everything. This is what makes people help others; after being awed by something huge or vast, they are enveloped by the feeling that they are pretty small in the much larger idea of nature and existence.

girl standing on a cliff
Credits: Nomad_Soul/Shutterstock

In short, if you want to be happier and healthier, and also help others to better their lives, consider a trip to the nearest beach, hill, mountain, or star-filled field… basically, find anything that makes you open your eyes wide and whisper… “This is Awesome!”

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References (click to expand)
  1. Why Do We Feel Awe? - Greater Good Science Center. The University of California, Berkeley
  2. The Science of Awe | UC Psych - Psychology at Berkeley. The University of California, Berkeley
  3. Researchers explore the science of awe. CNN
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About the Author

Ashish is a Science graduate (Bachelor of Science) from Punjabi University (India). He spearheads the content and editorial wing of ScienceABC and manages its official Youtube channel. He’s a Harry Potter fan and tries, in vain, to use spells and charms (Accio! [insert object name]) in real life to get things done. He totally gets why JRR Tolkien would create, from scratch, a language spoken by elves, and tries to bring the same passion in everything he does. A big admirer of Richard Feynman and Nikola Tesla, he obsesses over how thoroughly science dictates every aspect of life… in this universe, at least.