A majestic waterfall, the Taj Mahal, towering redwoods, the Grand Canyon, a tornado, Beethoven’s Symphony Number 9, Monet’s Water Lilies, a fractal, a spiritual experience, a performance by Prince, a child being born, a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., the view of Earth from space. What do all these things have in common? They’re likely to induce one of the most mysterious and mystifying of emotions: awe.
Awe is a complex emotion that can be difficult to precisely define. Feelings of awe can be positive or negative—unlike most other emotions—and can arise from a wide range of stimuli. Awe experiences are what psychologists call self-transcendent: they shift our attention away from ourselves, make us feel like we are part of something greater than ourselves, change our perception of time, and even make us more generous toward others.