Seeking a Science of Awe: A Conversation with Dacher Keltner

Dacher Keltner grew up with a mother who was a professor of poetry and a father who was an artist. But Keltner didn’t take to the arts. Instead, he liked the idea of proof.

His first collision with science was at the Le Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, where he marveled at reconstructions of dinosaurs and wooly mammoths and saber tooth tigers. He developed a precocious appreciation for dinosaurs, in particular. It wasn’t for their scaley tails or massive teeth. He was instead drawn to the underlying mystery of their existence. “My mind was blown by deep time and evolution,” he told me. “I was like, wow, species existed in other forms and we’re evolving.”

This early appreciation for scientific mysteries, coupled with an upbringing of wonder and wild ideas fostered by his parents, positioned Keltner as a perfect pioneer to explore a new and understudied phenomenon in the field of emotion science—awe.

Awe, as in the chill-up-the-spine you might find in a poem, symphony, mountaintop, spiritual experience, or selfless act. In clever and imaginative ways, Keltner has researched what awe is and how it moves us. He’s conducted natural experiments using the awe-inducing beauty of national parks. He’s enlisted unconventional methods, like drawings and selfies, to measure how awe shrinks a person’s sense of self. And he’s traveled to prisons, monasteries, and artists’ studios to conduct careful ethnographic research of people’s awe-filled experiences.

Keltner recently shared what he and other scientists have learned about awe in his new book, Awe: The New Science of Every Day Wonder and How it Can Transform Your Life. I spoke with Keltner about the people, places, and experiments that have inspired his understanding of awe and the transformative power it can have on a person’s connection to the world around them. Our conversation below has been edited for clarity and length.

You had an epiphany when you were 27, after a job interview with Paul Ekman, a pioneer in the study of emotions. What was it?

In the field of emotion, Ekman is the beginning. It was such a new science at the time, there just wasn’t a lot happening. He had created a postdoctoral program that really shaped the field, with people like Barb Fredrickson, James Gross, Brian Knutson, and others.

At the end of the interview, I said, “Paul, hopefully I’ll work in this field. What do you think I should study?” It’s kind of corny, because we’re on his deck, and he’s got this amazing view of San Francisco—and he said, “Awe.”

I was fascinated by the idea that there were tools, scientific tools, to study awe. I had such an awe-filled childhood—rock ’n’ roll and politics and nature and social change. Then the founding figure in this field is saying I could study this emotion that means the world to me. It really stuck with me.

In 2003, you set out to find a definition of awe. How did you go about it and what did you find?

Psychologist Jim Russell was editing a book on pleasure, and he said “Hey, what would you like to write about?” I called my friend Jon Haidt and said, “You and I have been talking about awe, let’s write a paper on it.”

There weren’t that many papers on awe in social science, so Jon and I relied on philosophy. Jon brought to it his sense of anthropology and religion. I was interested in cognitive science and what’s going on in the mind when we feel awe.

We arrived at the definition that awe is really about vast things that transcend your understanding of the world which you need to accommodate to your understanding of reality.

Awe is really about vast things that transcend your understanding of the world which you need to accommodate to your understanding of reality.

You had a hypothesis that a person’s sense of self vanishes when experiencing awe. How did you test that?

Emerson, in one of his most famous passages says, “Standing on the bare ground—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space—all mean egotism vanishes.”

When you look at reports from people taking psychedelics, they describe “ego death”—the idea that their whole sense of self dissolves. In the religious tradition, people say, “I just feel small and humble when feeling awe.”

The challenge is to really document that. My favorite studies are like the Yosemite study, where you talk with people when they’re first seeing the Yosemite Valley. They just feel awe. And we ask them to draw their self, and it’s really small (Figure 1 below).

This is where neuroscience is really helpful. The new studies of the default mode network, which is where self-representation takes place, show that awe reduces activation in those chunks of the cortex. To me that says this isn’t just people telling you what awe is in a semantic association way. It’s really that the self is quiet.

Figure 1: “(a and b) View of the Fisherman’s Wharf and view of Yosemite National Park. (c and d) Participants’ self-image drawing randomly selected out of all drawn at the two locations.” Source: Bai et al. (2017), Keltner, Awe (2023).

When I think of awe, I think of positive experiences of rapture and wonder. You write about a darker side to awe. Can you tell me more about that?

Dark awe is about a quarter of experiences of awe. And the first thing that’s really of note is peril and threat. I was backpacking with my daughter, Natalie. We were high up. It was last summer, and it was this storm that hit Death Valley. It was literally more rain than in the past 1,000 years and it ripped up into the mountains and came over us. I was looking at it, and I was like, “These clouds are awesome.” We were awestruck.

Then it started firing lightning bolts down into the ground close to us. It became dark awe.

We’ve done a lot of careful work showing that kind of awe doesn’t have the positive side. It doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t lift your well-being. It feels dangerous and is more stressful.

Right now, the climate crisis feels like dark awe. Like, God, look what we’re doing to the Amazon, the Arctic ice sheets. This is dangerous.

And psychedelic experience is interesting here, too. About 12-15 percent of people will experience terror. That’s part of the spectrum of experiences of awe.

And what about those experiences, typically around life and death, where awe is neither positive nor negative?

Instead of it being either positive or negative, it’s really both. A lot of awe is like that. A lot of emotion is like that. Mixing awe and beauty and horror. When I saw my brother pass away—a lot of people have this experience of watching people pass—it is beautiful. It’s full of love, it’s full of terror, like, Geez, what is the end of life? It’s full of awe—this is mysterious and incomprehensible to me.

A lot of awe has these intense combinations of emotions. You hear music, an incredible Aretha Franklin song or symphony, and it’s got mixtures of beauty and sadness and longing and awe. So what are these experiences like? They’re complex, and it makes it hard for us to study them, but we can do it.

What are these experiences like? They’re complex, and it makes it hard for us to study them, but we can do it.

On the topic of music, you spent time with an award-winning cellist in the Philadelphia Orchestra. What’s the type of awe she experiences while playing?

It’s really interesting because as I covered these different forms of awe, some were easy to understand. Moral beauty, when we see the kindness of strangers: you can describe it, and you’re like, Oh, that makes me feel awe. Nature, all of us can describe and paint a picture of what’s awe inspiring in nature for us.

Music is hard. It’s auditory, it’s nonvisual. The structure of music is complicated. And what she taught me is the “cashmere blanket of sound.” That is, when we feel awe with music, you’re listening to it and you’re with a bunch of people who are strangers, and all of a sudden it surrounds you like a blanket, and you feel warm and connected and cheerful and blissful. That’s as close to the truth about music as you can get. It affects our bodies, it unites you with other people, there’s a social warmth through it.

The cellist also told me about playing some piece of music after her grandfather had died and how it’s awe inspiring because it can move you around in time. You can be listening to music, and suddenly you’re thinking of your child, or your grandmother, or your first love 20 years ago. That’s pretty impressive.

There’s also a photographer who deepened your understanding of awe. Can you share more about her and what you learned from visiting her studio?

She was full on awe. When my brother died, I would tear up when I found places and moments that he and I were joined, like in the mountains or with music that we had listened to side by side. And I didn’t understand that. I thought tears were about loss. But it was more about joining and merging.

So I started looking around. I read a book about the history of tears, and then came across Rose-Lynn Fisher. The first thing I learned from her is that most of awe is big, but there’s microscopic awe. She was photographing bees’ eyes and honeycombs, tears and the tissue of her blood, just to understand meaning. And when I looked at those tears, it blew my mind that art could capture how the body expresses emotion better than any measure. So that was a lesson in small awe, if you will, that was important to me.

The pull between attachment and release from The Topography of Tears © Rose-Lynn Fisher, published by Bellevue Literary Press 2017.

You’ve also gone to unconventional places to find stories about awe. What have you learned from finding awe in unsuspecting places?

I spent a lot of time in San Quentin Prison. I was standing up there giving a talk about awe, and I was kind of ashamed in a way. Like, here’s a white guy who grew up poor, but had lots of privilege—racial privilege. Here I am in front of these guys and the last thing they want is like a long-haired Berkeley guy saying, “Find awe!”

So I stopped and broke out of the talk I had prepared. I was like, “Hey, I got to ask you guys, do you find awe in San Quentin?” And their answers blew my mind—the light on the bay, my grandchild’s hand, the laughter of my son, reading the Quran, or the Bible, meditating, praying, learning to read. I was like, forget it. If these guys can feel awe, given how we treat prisoners in California, any human can.

And I think that the veterans really shook me up—that there’s awe in trauma. Then, talking to ministers was really interesting. I am not a spiritual person. I, like a lot of skeptics of religion in the social sciences, worry about the dogma and the institutionalization and the patriarchy and the inequality. All the ministers I talked to were really interested in experience. This is about an incredible feeling you have about the spirit. It’s always evolving in your life and it’s mysterious. And that’s what I started to feel with my brother’s death. I just felt like he was still with me. They taught me an enormous amount that I wouldn’t have learned with science.

Let’s imagine you’re lucky enough to experience awe in some way. What happens next? Is it more than a fleeting moment?

It’s profound, and that’s why I use the word “transform” in the title. What it does is a fleeting experience. But it’s a way more than a fleeting moment. It surfaces what’s meaningful to you, what you care about.

Awe transforms you in terms of your orientation to other people. There’s new work showing that after people go to festivals, a year later, they’re kinder.

It changes your sense of who you are. You start to realize, I’m not a separate person, I’m connected to all these people. If you’re looking for change, it’s a good emotion to seek.

Awe changes your sense of who you are. You start to realize, I’m not a separate person, I’m connected to all these people. If you’re looking for change, it’s a good emotion to seek.

You have collaborated with film directors, including the director of Pixar’s Inside Out. What do you think attracts filmmakers to awe?

In some sense, what attracts filmmakers like Steven Spielberg to awe is that one of the central aims of the arts is to unite people into a shared understanding of reality—what it is and what you need to change.

Filmmakers and painters and musicians and ceramicists and poets and graffiti artists, they do their art for a lot of different reasons. But often, it’s to inspire awe. It’s to say, This is what’s transcendent about life, and let’s all think about it together. That’s one of the interesting things about awe. It brings about togetherness.

What is the next question for awe? What don’t you know that you want to find out?

How do you build awe back into society? Kids in schools are struggling, and they’re stressed out and narrowly focused. And we’re working on that. At the Greater Good Science Center, we’re going to host an awe curriculum for schools.

I think a big question is the neuroscience. The psychedelic story, the meditation story. Those are all about the default mode network, the self quieting down. But when people feel awe, there are a lot of interesting psychological phenomenological qualities, the experience of oneness with everything—seeing life-animating forces in everything, feeling like boundaries are dissolving, feeling the divine. Awe provides a window into those amazing things that we really don’t know a lot about with respect to neuroscience.

I think there are going to be a lot of awe interventions. So how much does awe help with disease or heart problems or depression? I think there are big frontiers coming for our world.