Don’t Do Awe Alone. Here’s Why.

I was eleven when I saw my first—and only—total eclipse of the sun.

It was March 7, 1970. I knew it was going to be a Pretty Big Deal, because my teacher had said so, and we had studied eclipses all week. I knew what caused a solar eclipse, and knew I wasn’t supposed to look at it for fear of going blind. So my dad and I went to the hardware store to buy some welder’s glass so we could actually look at the thing.

What I didn’t expect was the rush of emotions I felt when it happened. I remember goosebumps rising as ripples of light raced through the neighborhood as the moon moved in front of the sun . . . and the afternoon went dark. I remember dogs barking and yelping, their hair on end. I remember birds going quiet, thinking it was night.

But as much as anything, I remember witnessing this cosmic spectacle in community. My brothers and I were practically freaking out, like it was the wildest, weirdest thing we’d ever seen. (It was, and still is.) Neighbors gathered in the streets for this moment of marvel and mystery. The oohs and aahs and other exclamations indicated that this was a shared experience of shock and awe. It was tremendous, mysterious, and terrifying all at once.

I’m fully expecting more of that “community of awe” again soon when, on August 21, another total eclipse sweeps across the U.S. The ORBITER team will watch along with astronomers and other stargazers at Clemson University, smack in the middle of the path of totality.

Awe and community go well together—and science is now one step closer to explaining why.

Consider “How Awe Brings People Together,” an article in Cal-Berkeley’s Greater Good magazine. Researchers at the university, it reports, have shown that “experiences of awe diminish our sense of self-importance, creating a ‘small self’ perspective that seems to aid us in forming social groups.”

Yang Bai, one of the researchers, told the magazine that awe’s “evolutionary purpose” is to redirect our attention away from ourselves and toward other people and the world at large—both of which we need to survive and thrive. Awe puts our own selves and stories in perspectives and turns us toward our interconnectedness with things larger than ourselves. Without that broader perspective, communities cannot survive.

The article goes into detail about how the research was conducted, both in the U.S. and China. Participants kept track of times they experienced awe, joy, and/or something they wanted to share. They also gauged their emotions, positive and negative. Finally, they were asked to quantify their sense of self in the wake of these experiences.

Researchers found that participants reported a smaller “self-size” after experiences of awe than of joy, a result that Bai expected.

“When I experience awe, I feel like I’m just a small piece of this great world,” she told Greater Good. “It’s a kind of metaphorical sense of the self that is shrinking during awe.”

The “smallness” of awe is unique

Other experiments in the study yielded similar results. Bai further explained what this “small” sense of self was all about. She said it didn’t mean that people felt less about themselves, perceived a decrease in social status, or felt shame—all of which can yield a “small” feeling.

“We can feel small in response to different kinds of emotions—for example, when you feel embarrassed, you will also feel small,” she explained. “However, the smallness brought on by awe is unique.”

In an “awe moment,” Bai says, we often feel connected to others—or the need for that connection. Awe is an experience that wants to be shared.

For many, of course, awe possesses a spiritual or religious significance, a sense of community not only with fellow human beings but with something unseen, something beyond.

Einstein said that “the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. [He] who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”

Other “awesome” science

Cal-Berkeley researchers have done more digging into the science of awe:

Further reading on the science of awe and wonder:

Finally, want to feel some awe? Try to get into the path of totality for the solar eclipse on August 21. Or check out a season of the BBC’s Planet Earth. But don’t do it alone. Awe is way better in community.

Managing Editor, ORBITER magazine