That Sense of Awe

People are inclined to feel awe over many disparate things including music, expanses of nature, great buildings, and so on. Sometimes it can be overwhelming; I have been moved to tears by great classical pianists seeming to become one with a concerto — and showing joy in the process.

People in groups seem to share a sense of unity when experiencing something awesome. Atheists may try to deny awe because it seems religious, but they feel it too. Indeed, many places in the Bible tell of people overwhelmed with awe when shown the glory of God. It seems that we are born that way.

Bridal Veil Falls, Waikato, New Zealand, Flickr / Adam Campbell (CC BY-ND 2.0)
The concept of awe has been difficult for scientists to define. They try to study it, but it is an intangible part of humanity like consciousness or the soul. (You don't see our alleged evolutionary cousins the apes staring at the night sky in awe — it is uniquely human, and we were created to have it.) But it is human nature to try and understand and to investigate. Some clues to what happens in the brain when experiencing awe are found in neurology.
Everyone, even atheists, experiences awe. Can they explain it away?

The thundering of a waterfall, the soaring heights of a snow-peaked mountaintop, a dark sky sprinkled with thousands of stars. Sights like these have inspired awe throughout history.

What moment of awe stands out in your memory? Mine lasted two minutes and forty seconds. . . .

They often describe it as a spiritual experience. Even skeptics, such as science writer David Baron, who spoke about it in a TED talk, describe being swept away in an intense, seemingly spiritual, moment.

To read the full article or listen to the audio by my favorite reader, visit "Wired for Awe." Related: "Psychology, Creation, and Awe." You may also like this brief article, "Rejoice and Depend on Your Creator."