Research that takes your breath away: The impact of awe

Music or a painting that catches your breath and makes you see the world in a new way. Looking up at the vast red cliffs of Zion, across the depths of the Grand Canyon or skyward at the galaxy on a clear night. These experiences can make people feel awe, or an overwhelming feeling of wonder.

Michelle “Lani” Shiota, associate professor in the Arizona State University Department of Psychology, studies awe and how it and other positive emotions affect cognition and behavior. She was recently named a 2018 Fellow of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

More than happy

Psychologists consider emotions to be fundamental necessities for human survival. Much research on emotions in social psychology deals with negative emotions, such as anger, sadness, disgust and fear. While these emotions are unpleasant to experience, they are important to understand because they can help people avoid threats or danger.

When experienced too often or in inappropriate situations, negative emotions can lead to problems that might require treatment. Because positive emotions occur when things are going well and generally do not underlie mental health problems, Shiota said they have not been a big focus of psychology research until recently. The field of positive psychology is about 20 years old, which is relatively new for a scientific discipline.

“Positive psychology seeks to enrich the human experience by understanding our strengths and the mechanisms of the mind that produce what is best in us,” Shiota said.

Before positive psychology, scientists who studied emotions lumped all positive emotions into a single category labeled “happiness” or “joy.” Shiota recently showed that positive emotions such as love, enthusiasm, pride, amusement and awe are distinct, differing from each other in important ways. Shiota and other positive psychology researchers have shown these emotions differ in terms of body physiological responses, facial expressions and the effects on how people process information and make decisions.

The Gucci handbag of emotions: Awe is not an emotional luxury

Of all the positive emotions she studies, Shiota said awe is the most undervalued by researchers, and by society at large.

Lani Shiota
Michelle “Lani” Shiota

“Awe is often thought of as the Gucci handbag of emotions,” Shiota said. “It’s nice if you can afford one, but that handbag is not something people actually need. I think this perception reflects a profound error in how we value the different benefits that emotion can provide.”

People can experience awe when confronted with a vast natural landscape, like Zion or the Grand Canyon, or when listening to extraordinary, complex music. People might also feel awe when witnessing an extraordinary act by another person or while viewing art that changes how they see the world. The emotion of awe is likely specific to humans, but is not specific to one culture. Across the world, different cultures create and honor awe-evoking places like Notre Dame in Paris or the ancient pyramids of Egypt.

When people feel awe, their mind clears and their attention becomes focused on the extraordinary thing evoking this emotion. These effects can be thought of as a temporary form of mindfulness. Usually mindfulness requires extensive training and effort, but Shiota suggested that awe-induced mindfulness happens automatically.

Experiencing awe can dampen the body’s stress response and can change how people process information. An awe-evoking scene or experience is one that is profoundly unexpected, and not already contained within someone’s knowledge about the world. Shiota said this violation of expectations seems to promote the intake of information in a relatively unbiased way.

“When we feel awe, we are less influenced by our expectations. We generally have a tendency to see what we expect to see, but awe can let us focus on collecting information about what is actually there,” she said.

To elicit the emotion of awe in her lab, Shiota shows participants videos and photographs of extraordinary natural phenomena. She also asks participants to remember their personal experiences with awe and uses guided imagery instructions to help people envision a new awe-inducing experience. Shiota compares these participants to other groups who experienced other positive emotions or neutral emotions during the experiment. She can then test how awe affects a participant’s memory and response to stress. Shiota has also looked at how awe impacts whether people are convinced by different persuasive arguments.

Shiota keeps finding that awe looks quite different from other positive emotions such as enthusiasm, contentment and pride. She is currently working to understand whether awe could be useful in promoting better health behaviors and mental well-being or in improving education.

Influence of the arts

Shiota studied at the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford University prior to coming to ASU. Before she decided to pursue a research career in social psychology, she studied the arts. Shiota attended a Los Angeles area high school that specializes in the performing arts, and she majored in drama while also studying singing and dance.

“My love of the arts and the influence of my early experience with the arts informed my career path,” she said. “My deep engagement with the arts taught me about emotions, the soul and the complexity of the human experience.”

In graduate school, Shiota decided to merge her love of the arts and academics by pursuing her interest in how emotions could predict and influence people’s behaviors.

She currently runs the Shiota Psychophysiology Laboratory for Affective Testing in the Department of Psychology. Shiota also teaches dance at a local studio, sings in a blues band and is an avid hiker.

Written by Kimberlee D’Ardenne