What Makes Humans Awestruck?

Are humans the only species who get the euphoric feeling of awe?
Are humans the only species who are emotionally moved and struck with awe?
Are humans the only species who are emotionally moved and struck with awe? | Source

As I watch people and other animals, and I observe their behavior, I often think about what comes over them when they discover something amazing. I find it interesting to see how they react, or if they react at all.

The feeling that we call "awe" is obvious among humans. However, I wonder if other animals have any strong euphoric feelings of awe.

Human evolution may have enhanced this emotion to give us the ability to conquer the world. In this article I'll attempt to explain why and how being awestruck can be a biological advantage for humans.

There are times in our lives when something extreme happens that emotionally moves us. We find ourselves in awe of the experience. It makes us wonder about it with a curiosity that encourages us to investigate further.

Being Awestruck Creates Pleasurable Feelings

We humans are struck with awe when we stumble upon something exceptional that's beyond our expectations -- something that's extremely amazing. Awe is a great feeling of astonishment. We are emotionally moved and struck with awe when we discover overwhelmingly unexpected results while researching something new.

Think about the last time when you...

  • ...sat in awe, watching the stars?
  • ...observed the awesome beauty of a sunset?
  • ...discovered an awesome solution to a troublesome puzzle?
  • ...had a euphoric feeling after having achieved success?
  • ...been in awe of someone you admire.

Is this feeling unique to humans?

Not all people have the ability to experience such a euphoric feeling. I've noticed that some people are totally oblivious to super enlightening and awesome experiences.

Once when I was hiking with some friends, I noticed a cloud that was shaped like a dog running across the sky. I pointed it out to someone and he just looked and said he didn't know what I was talking about. "That's a cloud. Not a dog!" he said to me.

Some people are actually unconscious to their environment. Nothing strikes them with awe. How sad.

For those who are open-minded and who have a tendency to seek out new adventures and new discoveries, their life is filled with pleasurable experiences.

The fulfillment of these awesome feelings can actually make one feel better about their life. It can also have an effect of slowing down time because time is filled with so much more joy, the joy of the experience of awe.

A study at Stanford University found that the feeling of awe is clinically good for us. It expands our perception of time. It increases compassion and empathy. In addition, it leaves us with a feeling of well-being. [1]

Does this mean that humans have evolved to have this feeling for some special reason? Is it something that other animals simply don't require?

The Unique Biological Advantage to Humans

Besides these wonderful experiences, the ability to feel awe brings on something that may be unique to humans. That is -- the desire to do research and find answers to puzzling questions.

According to an article in the Smithsonian, the experience of being awestruck is unique to humans. It helps us conquer the planet. Jason Silva explains that awe evolved to give us the desire to do things that would lead to more productivity. [2]

I imagine that's why we humans have so much advancement in technology. The feeling of being awestruck does not seem to be a necessary trait in other animals. They simply survive on natural instincts.

Great Scientists Who Where Struck with Awe

Many great scientists who we know well have felt the ecstatic feeling of awe. This may very well have been the driving force that kept them in the game despite numerous attempts to achieve success with something they were working on, or thinking about, for years.

Sir Isaac Newton (who lived from 1642 to 1727) was awestruck when he discovered the power of mathematical physics. [3]

Landing the Discovery Rover on Mars required the use of mathematical physics. Without it, we couldn't do what we do today in the field of science, artificial intelligence, and even simulating real-life with animation in movies.

Albert Einstein (1879 to 1955) studied mathematical physics in Russia and used it to analyze phenomena in space and time. He was awed by the calculation that it takes about two hundred million years for our sun, along with our entire solar system, to completely revolve around our Milky Way galaxy. [4]

There are Many Extremes with the Feelings of Awe

There are many feelings of awe. We may be amazed, astonished, astounded, flabbergasted, shocked, stunned, surprised, or stupefied.

We can be astonished by something extreme that just occurred and that we did not expect. This can cause us to have intense feelings of amazement.

There are times when we are not paying attention and something wonderful happens when we least expect it. That moment of discovery may even shock us if we are not prepared for it.

I can remember a time when I knew for sure I were about to fail at something I put all my heart and sole into, but to my surprise I succeeded. The feeling that came over me can only be described as being absolutely awestruck.

The Intelligence and Stupidity of Awe

We can be awestruck from both extremes -- intelligence or stupidity. You might say you were stunned by something stupid someone said or the ridiculous way they behaved.

I am sure you were struck with awe, at one time or another, by something you may have learned that was extremely profound from a technical or scientific point of view.

Did observing how silly some people can be ever surprise you? That's awesome too. Well, maybe not that much, but it's the other extreme.

The Innocence of Awe

The feeling of awe has a quality of innocence. This becomes clear when we observe how babies display signs of awe with almost everything they observe, because it's all new to them.

Anything that's new to us, as adults, may bring on a feeling of awe. However, as we get older, it requires much more intensity to have the same strong feelings. This is because nothing much is new to us anymore. On the other hand, if something is new, it's not that bewildering anymore.

As we age, we need more intense discoveries to bring on that feeling of awe. This is a good thing. The thing makes us seek new discoveries, build new dreams, and search out beyond our horizons.


[1] Stanford University, 2012 Study, "Awe Expands the Perception of Time"

[2] Smithsonian Magazine, July 2012, "How The Feeling We Call Awe Helped Humans Conquer the Planet"

[3] Complex (Adaptive) Systems and Artificial General Intelligence by Richard Loosemore

[4] Think (Paperback ISBN-10: 1433523183), by John Piper, where he quotes Charles Misner's comments on Einstein.

© 2012 Glenn Stok

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What do you find awesome? 5 comments

NateB11 profile image

NateB11 4 years ago from California, United States of America

Yes, it is an intense feeling being totally there and having this feeling of newness and incredible energy. I also find it interesting this tendency for us to improve, make things better, to discover.

vespawoolf profile image

vespawoolf 3 years ago from Peru, South America

I love the feeling of awe! This is a good reminder to stop and smell the roses, as they say. It makes life worth living. : )

Glenn Stok profile image

Glenn Stok 3 years ago from Long Island, NY Author

vespawoolf - That's a very good understanding of this, to stop and smell the roses. We only have one life and it makes sense to make the best of it. Thanks for your comment.

Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 3 years ago from England

Hi Glenn, I totally understand what you mean by awe. I remember going to Kos in the Greek islands, and one day we were walking along the rocks overlooking one of the beaches. As we reached the headland, I looked down and saw the sea, sand and all the vista. I was totally awestruck. The view was amazing, the sea was a startling blue, I could see the bottom of the sea, and the colour was amazing, for one second I could have cried, it totally took my breath away, that was the first time I had been abroad for years and I had forgotten how awesome it was, nell

Glenn Stok profile image

Glenn Stok 3 years ago from Long Island, NY Author

Hi Nell - Wow! I have to say, that was an awesome description. You write so well, that you had me there with you. Thanks.

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