The state of awe is an unusual and complex emotion, mixing emotions that don’t tend to go with each other, such as ecstasy and fear. Surely such a complex emotion that is so deeply personal, cannot be quantified or captured in any scientific manner, right?
Well, maybe it can. While the concept of awe and wonder has a long history in philosophy and religion, William James and Abraham Maslow helped bring it to psychology. Today, much of the contemporary investigation of awe stems from a 2003 paper, “Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion,”, written by Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt. In that seminal article, the authors argued that there are two main cognitive appraisals that are central to awe experiences: the perception of vastness and the struggle to mentally process the experience. Vastness need not be perceptual, such as seeing the Grand Canyon, but can also be conceptual, such as contemplating eternity.