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LATEST DIALOGUES The Healing Power of Awe

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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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Shawn Radcliffe is a science writer, yoga instructor and creator of fiction and humor. He has written about science, health, meditation and yoga for, Men's Fitness, Greater Good and more. He also tackles the humorous implications of spirituality and science on his blog, Branáin - Ravenously Curious.

5 Responses to “The Healing Power of Awe”

  1. February 20, 2015 at 7:06 pm, Lars Lentz said:

    Great article – Thank you!

  2. February 21, 2015 at 1:30 pm, Janelle said:

    Appreciate the articulation of an effect of transcendence.

  3. February 22, 2015 at 2:17 am, Paul Anthony said:

    Ah, this is an awfully awesome article.

  4. February 23, 2015 at 8:03 pm, danilo said:

    what is awe?

  5. February 25, 2015 at 3:29 am, Andris Heks said:

    22.02.’15 Megalong, Australia

    He is from another world.
    A bodhisattva: a saintly being, who communes with divinity and who descends into this world to fill the hearts and minds of music lovers with the divine.

    While the ordinary person’s mind is jammed with thoughts, positive, negative or indifferent, his mind buzzes with music. Not just any music: symphonies and operas in their entirety, from beginning to end.

    But a composition does not merely live in his mind, rather in his whole being. For example, as an opera plays in his mind, it takes over his emotions; he virtual plays every
    instrument, mouths every word of every song in French, he croons as the bon
    vivan, heaves as the prima donna, is scornful and angry as the antagonist and
    he pirouettes with the ballet dancers. He simultaneously experiences the
    collective performance and each part that makes it up, ensuring that each part
    plays its role optimally to fit in with the others to reflect and bring into
    being the authentic one collective whole.

    How does the opera come to possess him?

    Through direct soul to soul transmission from the late composer’s living spirit. He attracts
    the genie from the composer’s spirit to enter, fill full and guide him. It does
    not just encompass the spirit of the entire opera, he also imbibes the the
    composer’s creative inspiration for it. He becomes the composer’s double as the
    opera incarnates in his soul, as if he himself was the composer and the bearer
    of the entire piece.

    He lives the opera in his dreams and in his wake hours. The singers and the orchestra are there to materialise the opera for the audience as its genie emerges from him
    through every performance.
    The orchestral pit is under the stage reaching back deeply. The musicians inhabit this
    underground colosseum from which Orpheus of the underworld will conjure up the
    music of heaven and hell.

    There is a cacophony of sounds as the musicians fine tune their instruments before the conductor arrives for the performance. Suddenly there is total silence and the conductor
    enters. He walks to the middle of the front of the orchestral pit, steps on his
    pedestal and turns towards the enthusiastically clapping audience. He has not even started, but he has already mesmerised the audience. They are full of anticipatory awe, already eating out of his hands, as it were. Next he turns his back on the high voltage audience to electrify his orchestra. He slowly scans their faces, establishing eye contact
    with everyone. From now on they are all his auxiliaries, organically connected
    to him through the breath and every sound that they will make. And he, like a
    spider weaving a perfect web from material released from within itself, begins
    to weave the web of the captivating opera from the ethereal magic emanating
    from his being, spellbinding everyone hearing it.

    He eyeballs the musician standing behind a huge drum at the back of the orchestral pit,
    extending his left index finger in his direction and when his arm is fully
    stretched, he whips the air forcefully with his conductor’s baton in his right
    hand and the drummer obliges, starting off the opera with a big bang…

    The old and suicidal Faust makes a deal with Mephisto that he can be young once again and live a life of unrestrained pleasures in return for surrendering his soul to
    the devil. But his amoral hedonism encouraged by Mephisto leads him to destroy
    the love of his life and his own peace of mind. He also kills his lover’s
    brother under Mephisto’s spell and against his own will. Eventually Mephisto
    succeeds in snuffing out the life of his innocent and long suffering lover, but
    he fails to gain possession of her soul.

    Rather, it ascends to the luminous heaven in the company of white angels. I can just about see the angels being released by the conductor’s genie hovering everywhere in
    the performance hall. And the heroine’s soul and the angels are joined in their
    ascent by everyone’s soul in the hall. We all rise to heaven, if only momentarily
    perhaps, but we know we made it there and that we would never be the same again.
    The supermundane reveals its presence in
    our mundane reality. We are purged of our destructive emotions and feel filled
    full with faith, hope and love.

    The conductor

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