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Why Humans Get Awestruck

Updated on April 30, 2017
Glenn Stok profile image

Glenn Stok has studied fields of science, physics and philosophy, for over 40 years, since his college days with a Master of Science degree.

  • Is there a biological advantage to having the euphoric feeling of awe?
  • Does being awestruck enhance social engagement?
  • Is this feeling unique to humans?

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.

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.

Are humans the only species who are emotionally struck with awe?
Are humans the only species who are emotionally struck with awe? | Source

Why Do People Feel Awe?

Awe is an emotion that we experience when we see utter beauty or when we try to understand something that overwhelms our comprehension. Other overwhelming emotions are fear and anger, both of which have an evolutionary purpose.

As humans have evolved, fear has caused us to avoid dangerous situations, thereby assuring the continued evolution of humans. Anger has also been linked to evolution. Since it promotes an emotion that either gives one the strength to fight, or feeling the need to get away from a troubling situation.

Awe, on the other hand, has been puzzling to psychologists and other researchers. Is it necessary for evolution? Is it only an emotion known to humans, or do other animals experience awe as well?

In one study, it has been determined that the feeling of awe makes one feel smaller and more humble with respect to the overall world.[1] It has been found that this causes one to be more inclined to share with others. This can be a way to help with the growth of society as a whole, which seems to be a human trait.

Other animals also function on a social level to assure the ongoing survival of the species. However, it might be more of an instinct.

As for humans, we need to be awestruck to make us humble enough to engage with others. Over the past 50 years people are less willing to share in society's success as they become more self-focused. People are not finding opportunities to become awestruck lately.

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.

Try spending an evening outdoors looking up at the night sky and think about the universe as you observe all the stars. I’m sure you will get that euphoric feeling of awe.

Is the Feeling of Awe Inherent to All 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 in 2012 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.

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?

Awe Provides a Unique Biological Advantage to Humans

Human evolution may have enhanced the emotion of feeling awestruck 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.

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.

Well-Known 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.

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. [3]

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] Why Do We Experience Awe? - New York Times, May 2015

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

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

© 2012 Glenn Stok

What do you find awesome?

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    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 4 years ago from Long Island, NY

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

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 4 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 4 years ago from Long Island, NY

      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.

    • vespawoolf profile image

      vespawoolf 4 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. : )

    • NateB11 profile image

      Nathan Bernardo 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.