physiology of awe,  techniques and tools

Why experience awe — and how?

Find the impossible in the simple. — Beau Lotto

What is the motivation to make the effort to experience awe at a moment of pain or darkness? What is the motivation to surrender dwelling in the pain or darkness and elevate your mind and mood? Especially when you know that the elevation is guaranteed?

Imagine if you could create increased order and harmony in your body and brain so that your whole system functions near optimally. This psychophysiological state is called coherence, and awe puts us there.

When we are in coherence, our nervous system and heart-brain dynamics have increased harmony and synchronization. Coherence gives us optimal energy utility and self-regulation. Coherence is a ‘calm, balanced, yet energized and responsive state that is conducive to everyday functioning and interaction, including the performance of tasks requiring mental acuity, focus, problem-solving, and decision-making, as well as physical activity and coordination.’ (1)

Why use awe to put body and brain in a state of optimal functioning via coherence? Because awe is the only positive emotion that we are able to experience when we are in the grips of a negative emotion or state such as fear, anger, pain, sleep deprivation. And because the mountain environment gives us absurdly easy access to awe.

How do you find awe when you need to? Try this.

Find the impossible in the simple. What is right in front of you that is perfectly ordinary and yet extra-ordinary?

The rock. The ice. The snow.

In the white granite in front of my eyes were particles of clear quartz, silvery muscovite and jet black tourmaline. My attention floated to them; they emphasised my insignificance – emphasised the fact that I was fragile, warm-blooded and living, clinging to the side of this steep, inhospitable world. (2)

Look more closely. Breathe. Think about this rock, this sliver of ice, this patch of snow. How did it get here? How did it form in exactly this way? Inhale. Look at the patterns in the rock or ice or snow. Aren’t they extraordinary? Isn’t it extraordinary that it this rock or ice or snow is even here at all?

Exhale as you consider the extraordinariness of the rock or ice or snow.

What do you feel now?

Has your respiration slowed? How is your heart rate? The clenching in your mind – has that released? Do you now see more options for how to proceed?

What happened?

If you felt awe, and if your respiration and heart rate are now slower and your mind is clearer, that is because you are experiencing awe-induced coherence within your body and brain.

Your heart rhythm is more ordered and stable, which in turn facilitates cognitive function – in other words, when your heart rate is orderly, your brain works better. That harmonious synchrony has a profoundly beneficial effect on how you perceive, think, feel and perform. As well as being clear-headed, you are more energy efficient and all the systems of your body are functioning more smoothly.

Try this out and let us know what you experience.

What to do if fear really has you in its grips

It is difficult to experience awe when you are strongly experiencing fear, so first calm the autonomic fear response with this two-step practice.

Citations and other references


(2) Boardman, P. (2013). The shining mountain: The first ascent of the west wall of Changabang. Vertebrate. ISBN: 9781906148768.

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

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

Lotto, B. (2019). How we experience awe – and why it matters. TED Talk.

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