The Healing Power of Awe

By Shawn Radcliffe

image: Alexey Trofimov

Standing before the walls of an ancient temple, walking in the quiet shadow of a snow-covered mountain, and bathing in the transcendent sounds of religious music can all fill you with a sense of wonder. But according to new research, these moments of awe may also boost your mental and physical health.

In a study published January 19 in the journal Emotion, researchers found that positive emotions—especially the awe that comes with a deep connection to art, nature or spirituality—are linked to lower levels of inflammation-producing cytokines.

“That awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggests that the things we do to experience these emotions – a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art – has a direct influence upon health and life expectancy,” said UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, a co-author of the study, in a press release.

Cytokines play an important role in the body’s immune system, stimulating it to fight disease, infection and injuries. But high levels of cytokines over a long period are linked to disorders such as heart disease, type-2 diabetes and clinical depression. Eating well, exercising and getting enough sleep can all boost the body’s immune system, but the new study found that emotions are also a powerful tool for promoting good health.

Researchers believe that cytokines may boost mood by blocking other chemicals in the brain — such as serotonin and dopamine — which are also involved in regulating sleep and memory. But these effects could be a two-way street, with lower levels of cytokines and positive emotions both influencing the other. Yet researchers see awe as a way to move beyond your limited physical and mental existence toward something more.

“Awe is associated with curiosity and a desire to explore, suggesting antithetical behavioral responses to those found during inflammation, where individuals typically withdraw from others in their environment,” said Jennifer Stellar, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toronto and lead author of the study, which she conducted while at UC Berkeley.


He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.”
~ Albert Einstein

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