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What happens in the brain when we feel awe? New research suggests that a key feature of the experience of awe is a reduced engagement in self‐referential processing.

Awe is an overwhelming emotion that is at the basis of religion, great scientific achievements, and magnificent works of art. Several studies have used self-report measures to show that awe induces changes in the perception of the self, and in particular that awe is associated with a reduced focus on the self. 

 

In the present study, AICE researcher Disa Sauter, together with Michiel van Elk, Andrea Arciniegas Gomez, Wietske van der Zwaag and Hein T. van Schie, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as a way to measure brain activity during the experience of awe. Participants were shown awe‐eliciting, positive and neutral videos, while either getting fully absorbed in the videos or counting the number of perspective changes. By using a whole‐brain analysis, the researchers found that several brain regions that are considered part of the default mode network (DMN), were more strongly activated in the absorption condition, but this was less the case when participants were watching awe videos. 

 

These results suggest that while watching awe videos, participants' levels of self‐reflective thought were as much reduced during the awe videos as during the perspective counting condition. Together these findings suggest that a key feature of the experience of awe is a reduced engagement in self‐referential processing, in line with the subjective self‐report measures.

Link to paper: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/hbm.24616