Wandering into Wonder

Jessica Koehler, Ph.D.
5 min readMar 30, 2020

“Look at the moon,” I exclaimed.

As my family brushed off my profound excitement with their “Cool, Mom,” retorts, I began to wonder about wonder. What makes some people feel deeply moved by nature, art, and love?

What is awe?

Conceptualized as a sense of wonder, amazement, or fascination, awe is a complex emotion associated with deep and personal change. The experience of this multifaceted sensation is atypical, powerful, and memorable. People who experience awe are intensely moved and often propelled toward a feeling of self-transcendence-becoming aware they are one minor part of a larger whole.

Historically described and discussed by philosophers and spiritual leaders, awe was not a formal area of study within the field of psychology until 2003 when Keltner and Haidt wrote about this mysterious emotion. Awe appears to be a discrete emotion that encourages us to take in and process novel, complex information about our environment. Please see my previous post, Inspire Your Mind, for an in-depth description of awe.

Why do we experience awe?

The reasons we experience awe are still under investigation, but research suggests at least three evolutionarily adaptive reasons humans may experience awe:

1. Awe encourages us to feel connected to others by moving our focus outward. The shift in focus increases our prosocial behavior, which in turn likely increases our survival.

2. The experience of awe encourages creativity by requiring us to step into uncertainty and recalibrate our understanding of the world. Therefore, awe may be a key to spark innovation and human progress.

3. From a physiological perspective, the experience of awe improves immune function by decreasing cytokines in our bloodstream, helping us to reduce our stress levels.

What elicits awe?

According to Dachner and Keltner (2003), awe experiences are generally characterized by two phenomena: perceived vastness and need for accommodation.

Vastness refers to literally large phenomena, like the Grand Canyon. However, vastness can also be conceptualized as an encounter with someone who has immense prestige or learning of a complex idea, such as the…

Jessica Koehler, Ph.D.

Psychologist 🧠 | Writer ✍🏻 | Instructor 👩🏻‍💻