Mind & Body

Test Your Capacity for Wonder With the Awe Experience Scale

Have you ever experienced something that left you breathless? A scene of unfathomable beauty, a thought about the vastness of time and space, maybe even an act of unparalleled selflessness — many things can inspire a feeling of awe. It's an emotion with many elements, and everyone experiences it in different degrees and combinations. We'll dive into the six ingredients for an awesome experience, then show you a way to test how intensely you experience awe.

Awe Yeah

The concept of awe was mostly in the realm of philosophy and religion until around the 1960s, when Abraham Maslow — a positive psychologist before positive psychology was a thing — described it in more secular terms in his book "Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences." Maslow used the term "peak experiences" to refer to what were usually considered religious experiences and identified a number of their characteristic sensations: things like disorientation of time and space, a loss of fear and anxiety, and "such emotions as wonder, awe, reverence, humility, surrender, and even worship before the greatness of the experience." He even went so far as to say that peak experiences are "one part of the operational definition of the statement that 'life is worthwhile' or 'life is meaningful.'"

Since then, there's been plenty of research into these concepts — awe most of all. Studies have found that while awe is usually considered an overall good thing, it can include some negative elements, like a feeling of threat or powerlessness — so even though the Grand Canyon or a star-filled sky can elicit awe, so can a tornado or a terrorist attack. But when awe is good, it's really good: It can make you feel like time is slowing down, like you're impossibly small, and, yes, like there's a higher power at work. It's been shown to decrease feelings of aggression and to boost generosity and satisfaction with your life. Researchers have even found that it could be a secret weapon in helping kids get excited about science.

The Six Facets

Although research has found a variety of elements at play in the awe experience, the current answers weren't strong enough for psychologists Scott Barry Kaufman and David Yaden. "This is all well and good, do the existing measures of awe really capture the full complexity of this emotion?" Kaufman wrote in a piece for Scientific American.

That's why they set out to more fully define the ingredients of awe by surveying people about their experiences and comparing those elements to ones that had already been identified in the research. They came up with six facets that are generally at play in these experiences:

  • Perception of vastness: This can either refer to physical vastness, like the Grand Canyon, or perceptual vastness, like the age of the universe.
  • Need for accommodation: This is the feeling that you just can't process it or take it all in — it's too much for your eyes to fully appreciate or for your brain to handle.
  • Alterations in time: This is the sensation that time is slowing, expanding, or standing still, like you could sit in this moment forever.
  • Self-diminishment: It makes you feel smaller, both physically and metaphorically. You feel as though your own concerns and desires don't mean as much in the presence of this much greatness.
  • Connectedness: This is the feeling that everything is one, like you're connected to the world and to every person in it.
  • Physical sensations: Many people freeze in place, get goosebumps and chills, or just stare with their jaws agape.

The Scale

Does any of this sound familiar? If you have an experience that left you awestruck, you can take a questionnaire on Scott Barry Kaufman's website to gauge how much of each facet you experienced. You'll be asked to identify the experience and spend a few minutes writing about the exact sensations you felt, then you'll answer a few more standardized questions. After that, you'll see how your experience compares to that of others who have felt awe-inspiring events. Enjoy!

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For more from Scott Barry Kaufman, check out "Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind." The audiobook is free with an Audible trial. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer May 24, 2019

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