physiology of awe

How to see clearly when your mind is dark

We must look at any given situation or problem from the front and from the back, from the sides, and from the top and the bottom, so from at least six different angles. This allows us to take a more complete and holistic view of reality, and if we do, our response will be more constructive.
– Dalai Lama XIV, 
The Book of Joy

When I was seventeen, as I was starting to gain some stability after several years of struggling with the emotional, psychological and familial turmoil of my mother’s death, surging and fluctuating hormones, and all the relational-social elements of that time of life, I declared that there would never be enough money in the world to pay me to repeat my teenage years. I saw clearly that the core of the struggle had been a complete absence of perspective. Everything I’d been dealing with was new to me. I had no prior experience to draw on to see it in the frame of the big picture – no knowing that I’ve been through this before. It’ll be okay in the end.

Perspective that enables us to ‘take a more complete and holistic view of reality’ can be hard won, and it can be even harder to access when we’re gripped by a strong negative emotion such as fear, anxiety, worry, grief, anger, doubt.

Our emotions colour how we see the world – we know this. We know it intellectually and we know it from experience. We know that if we change our emotion, we change our perspective. But when we’re in the depths of fear or anger or doubt, it can be impossible to see beyond that emotion. Even if we’re rational enough to know that changing our emotional perspective would allow us to see and think more clearly – and to make better decisions – it can feel impossible to break the hold of the negative emotion.

But there is a way. Awe. 

A flurry of recent research shows that this emotion of transcendence, of feeling part of something much larger than ourselves, is the one positive emotion that we are able to experience even when we’re consumed by a negative emotion.

What does this mean for those of us who pursue psychologically challenging activities in the mountains? It means that when our mental and physical view has contracted to a narrow tunnel, a moment of awe can pull us out of the tunnel and into spacious openness. There, we can see options that our contracted mental and physical vision didn’t allow us to see before, and we can make a (more) clear-headed decision. Put simply, a moment of awe gives us perspective.

The list of beneficial effects of experiencing awe, even just for a moment, is startling. These are just some:

– inspires energy

– encourages curiosity

– quiets the default mode network – the chattering voice in your head, or ‘monkey mind’

– calms the nervous system

– leaves you feeling more present and patient

– reduces inflammation

– improves cognitive processing

– improves well-being and mindfulness

– improves immune function

– reduces stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness, burnout, physical pain

– alleviates existential anxiety

– downregulates the sympathetic nervous system – fight-freeze-flight

– upregulates the parasympathetic nervous system – rest-digest

As experienced in your body and mind, it’s a beautiful sequence that goes like this:

negative emotion → awe → physical relaxation → mental relaxation → spaciousness, awareness, clear thinking

Dark thoughts close the mind.

Awe opens it.

In future articles I’ll explain the actual physiology of these effects, and I’ll provide a technique by which you can access awe when you need it.


Keltner, D. (2023). Awe: The new science of everyday wonder and how it can transform your life. Penguin. ISBN: 9781984879691, 1984879693.

Eagle, J. & Amster, M. (2023). The power of awe. Hatchette. ISBN: 9780306828997.

Dalai Lama XIV, Tutu, D., & Abrams, D. (2016). The book of joy: Lasting happiness in a changing world. Penguin Random House. ISBN: 9780399185069.

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