The etymology of awe is:

“fear, terror, great reverence,” , c. 1200 from Old Norse ‘agi’ meaning ‘fright.’  




Mont Blanc, 2015, ink on paper

Mia Rosenthal, American born 1977, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art



Research of awe began in the United States only in the last two decades.

There continues to be skepticism towards the need and outcomes of this research.



The information here is taken from the work of Dacher Keltner at the University of California at Berkley.

His study of awe is 15 years old.


It is a part of his research on the biological and evolutionary origins of human behaviours and emotions which do not seem to serve obvious evolutionary purposes (love, compassion, mirth etc). **


The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California,***  founded in  2002, seeks to translate this research into practical action.




A definition of awe is a universal experience felt upon an encounter of a mystery

whose dimensions are much more vast than the individual’s frame of reference.



Awe creates two emotional states:  wonder whose chills are goosebumps;


And terror whose chills are classified as shudders.


Terror and wonder share the characteristic that both sideline the ego and render the human being small in a vast, unintelligble landscape.


That is to say that the veil between them is thin. They are on a continuum.





 Botanists take a Core Sample of a 350 ft. Redwood Tree, Redwood National Park, California.  Photograph taken by Michael (Nick) Nichols, 2008. 

On display at the Philadelphia Art Museum, summer of 2017





The physiology of the fear which results from terror has been the subject of decades of study.


This is not the case for wonder whose physiology is seen now to be much more complicated than that for terror/fear.



The witnessing of awe has pronounced historical, cultural and individual particularities. 


This may have contributed, for example, to why the conversion of St Paul of Tarsus was experienced by him as a wonder and not as a terror

when he was thrown from his (non-Biblical) horse, blinded by light, cowering at the sound of a voice directed at him.




The Miracle, 1954, bronze.

Mario Marini, 1901-1980, Italian.  Baltimore Museum of Art




Both terror and wonder are recognized as the products of an evolution

adapted to many processes in the human body

to the end of surviving and maintaining and flourishing individual and communal human (possibly primate) life.







Terror has been reported for between 20 and 25% of all experiences of awe.  


Awe/terror  has been famously represented by Edvard Munch.





Sick Mood at Sunset: Despair, 1892, oil on canvas. 

Edvard Munch, 1863-1944, Norwegian.

Thielska Galleriet, Stockholm on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2018



The artist was in Nice when he painted this.  There the artist noted this in his journal for January 22, 1892 about a memory from years earlier in Norway.


“I was walking down the road with two friends.  The sun set.  I felt a tinge of melancholy. 

“Suddenly, the sky became a bloody red.  I stopped, leaned against the railing dead tired and I looked at the flaming clouds that hung like blood and a sword over the blue-blood fjord and city.  My friends walked on. 

I stood there trembling with fright.  And I felt a loud, unending scream piercing nature.”






2600 people in 26 countries were questioned about their sources of awe/wonder. ** 


The sources of awe/wonder were prioritized in this research by the frequency with which they were identified by research clients.


These categories are not mutually exclusive.  They overlap.


These are not the only sources of wonder. 



Sources of Awe by frequency mentioned: 


1.  The experience of other people’s kindness, courage, spontaneous generosity, strength.

Referred to as moral beauty. 

Some adults express moral beauty beginning in childhood.




2. The experience of nature



Midwinter Euonymus (Euonymus bungeanus), native of China.  Winterthur, DE in May 2022




3. The experience of being in company with other people, known and unknown. 


Referred to as collective effervescence.

People together in one place:

being, walking, dancing, swaying, praying, watching, singing, ‘deep hanging out’, or whatever.




Shadow Dance, 1930, drypoint and sandpaper ground. 

Martin Lewis, American born Australia, 1882-1962.  Baltimore Museum of Art




The Audience, 1983, oil on canvas. 

James Voshell, American born 1943.  Baltimore Museum of Art



4. Visual design (Art)



5. Music



6.  Epiphany (a ‘sudden’ understanding of a big idea and its implications)





The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths, neon, 1967. 

Bruce Nauman, American born 1941.  Philadelphia Museum of Art




7.   Mystical experience (spiritual and religious insight)



8.   The witness of the processes of birth, life and death



Hospice (Eastern Light), 2019, gelatin silver print. 

Geoffrey Ansell Agrons, American born 1954.  On display at the Woodmere Museum of Art in 2022




Further sundry comments from the originators of the work on awe:



The mammalian-wide vagus nerve is implicated in the experience of wonder. 

A bundle of nerves which stretches from the top of the spinal chord through the amygdala, the heart, the gut.  It co-ordinates several critical processes including heart/breathing and digestion.


Awe is the single positive emotion most likely to be linked to lower levels of inflammation in the body’s immune system.


The primatologists Jane Goodall and Franz de Waal have noted the absorption of awe among chimpanzees who undergo piloerection in the presence of awe. 

The encounter with waterfalls, with large storms, and the approach of and merging with other chimpanzee bands were the occasions of such wonder.


It is believed that wonder is an emotion which moves the human mind from self-interest  to a collective interest.


It is not clear yet how long the results of awe experienced on one occasion lasts. Or what cumulative changes are made in the body.

Although it is known that the result of certain psychoactive drugs – which can also induce awe/wonder and awe/terror – can last a year. 


The experience of awe varies from individual to individual although the ‘mindset of awe’ can be learned by investigating and working sources of awe.


The experience of beauty has to be separated from the experience of awe of which it may or may not be a part in any single experience.


Ecstasy, bliss and euphoria do not meet the definition of wonder and are distinct other emotions. 


Wonder is sometimes referred to as The Sublime

This is a philosophical term and I am not up to understanding the discussion of their interconnection.


Judgement and categorization are not compatible with the experience of awe.


The manipulation of emotions resulting from awe by demagogues, charismatics, ‘gurus’, and ‘mystics’ has been frequent.


Given the current popularization of the science of awe, it is expected that widespread commodification and monetization of the mechanics of awe are following.


The human vocalization of wonder is thought to be universal; 

and the sounds of wonder – but not only – are the structure of certain music:  sacred chanting, choral singing, gospel music and some rock and roll.


No material resources are needed for the experience of wonder.  Nor any particular external conditions.


I have seen nothing about whether social media are or are not sources for the experience of awe.

However, it is known that fragmented attention is not compatible with the witnessing of awe.


Awe cannot be generated on demand.

However, individuals can learn to be alert to the sources of awe virtually everywhere.







**  Dacher Keltner:  Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life – January 2023


** Dacher Keltner: Awe: The Transformative Power of Everyday Wonder – January 2023


*** Greater Good Science Center (




Coming Home, linocut, 2020.

Kaela Pinnizzotto, no DOB or nationality; 2020 Bachelor of Fine Arts graduate at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia in 2020





5 thoughts on “Awe

  1. Most welcome, all-encompassing perspective on a much more user-friendly awe-reality than the one in Rudolf Otto’s “Der Heilige”, or in the Freudian explanation, in “Totem and Taboo” about the double nature of awe explicable through the tribal sense that recently deceased kin are fearful to think of, while long-dead ancestors have had the time to become objects of reverence. So good to follow in your tactful, inspiring text the enlargement of the scale of awe and the discovery of limits – in “Judgement and categorization are not compatible with the experience of awe.” and in the caveat against fragmented attention. THANK YOU!

  2. Thank you, Ioana, for your always thoughtful comment.

    Rudolf Otto I don’t know; but thank you for the reminder of Freud’s work on this subject.
    Also of interest is that Einstein is said to have suggested that it is awe that is at the base of human consciousness. Almost as though awe was the rocket fuel which launched our conscious development. As though the species began to think it safer to ‘know’ more and more things in order to reduce its insecurity?!

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