Goosebumps never lie: the power of awesome experiences

Dr. Dacher Keltner investigates the role of awe in human life. This state of mind can encompass feelings of religion, of terror, of being a minuscule speck in a vast universe. It can also bring about a sense of the communal, connecting people with something beyond - and bigger than - themselves.

Dacher Keltner is one of world's leading scholars in the psychology of awe. He's a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. He's also the co-director of The Greater Good Science Centre

Dr. Keltner has been wondering: why do human beings get that awestruck feeling? Does it serve some evolutionary purpose? 

Keltner has come to believe that awe is the "ultimate collective emotion". It takes people out of their own selves and into something larger, and moves people toward a greater good.

It's a good bet than human beings have experienced feelings of awe for as long as we've been on the planet, but scientists have seemed to steer clear of this state of mind until quite recently. That's something Dacher Keltner and his colleagues are hoping to remedy with their work.

Keltner's team has discovered that being in the presence of something awesome makes us feel smaller and more humble. "We had participants draw themselves at two locations: Yosemite National Park (during their awe moment) and Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco (during their joy moment). This is a picture indicating our data collection spot and samples of the drawings we got from participants at each spot."

Click on the image below to see an enlarged version.

If all of this sounds like a nebulous field of study, fear not: when psychologists are doing the experiments, you can be sure tangible measurements are involved. Some of the fieldwork on awe has subjects spitting into receptacles, the better to measure certain levels in saliva. Sounds, um, awesome.


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