Can the Experience of Awe Open the Mind?

Open-minded people are more prone to experiencing awe.

Posted Oct 30, 2015

Awe is a profound and uncommon emotion. People have claimed that intense experiences of awe can change a person’s life in important ways, although to what extent this is true is not well understood. People high in openness to experience are more prone to experiencing awe than others. This might be because awe-like experiences can induce a need to reconsider one’s normal way of thinking about oneself and the world, particularly when one experiences something so vast and profound that it is difficult to comprehend. Is it possible that the experience of awe might itself induce people to be more open? A famous study found that mystical experiences induced by psilocybin produced a lasting change in openness to experience but not in other personality dimensions. Awe is a core feature of religious and mystical experiences. Could it be that the profound sense of awe induced by such experiences is a factor in subsequent personality change? The answer to this is not yet known, but the possibility is intriguing.  

Images of the sky and space create a sense of awe in some people. One of the images used in the study by Silvia et al. 
Source: Open Science Framework Study materials

Panoramic natural landscapes, beautiful works of art and music, and experiences of a spiritual or religious nature can all trigger feelings of awe. A common feature of such experiences is that one encounters something vastly greater than oneself. Such experiences may be accompanied by feelings of wonder or even confusion, inducing a need for deeper understanding in order to make sense of one’s experience. One theory is that awe is an emotional response to complex stimuli that expand one’s usual frame of reference and this prompts one to revise and update one’s understanding of the world and of oneself (Shiota, Keltner, & Mossman, 2007). Hence, one might say that awe is an emotion that broadens the mind.

Some people are more prone to the experience of awe than others, and this might be because some people are more receptive to experiences that can broaden their mind than others. Specifically, a recent study found that people higher in the personality dimension of openness to experience were most likely to experience awe in response to perceptually vast stimuli (e.g. viewing a series of images of the sky and deep space) (Silvia, Fayn, Nusbaum, & Beaty, 2015). Openness to experience is a personality trait that describes the breadth, depth and complexity of a person’s mental life. People high in openness to experience tend to be interested in unusual things, so it makes sense that they would be more prone to experience an emotion that can stimulate one to reconsider one’s usual way of understanding the world. Awe has been described as a knowledge-based emotion, related to curiosity and interest (Silvia, et al., 2015), and openness to experience is associated with a desire for greater knowledge in general, providing another link between this personality trait and awe. Another study found that people high in need for cognitive closure tend to experience awe less frequently then people low in this need (Shiota, et al., 2007). Need for cognitive closure refers to a dislike of ambiguity and a preference for clear rules, and is considered a form of close-mindedness. Hence, people who are relatively close-minded are less likely to experience awe, while those who are more open-minded are more receptive to such experiences. This might be because people with a low need for closure feel more comfortable with experiences that elude easy understanding.

It then seems likely that something about being open-minded increases the likelihood of experiencing awe. On the other hand, it might also be possible that having an experience of awe could influence a person in the direction of becoming more open-minded. One experimental study found that inducing an experience of awe produced at least a temporary change in the way people thought about themselves (Shiota, et al., 2007). In the awe-inducing condition, participants were led into a building and then to a full-size replica of a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, about 12 feet high and 25 feet long, which they were asked to look at for one minute. Pre-testing had found that at least some people experienced awe-related emotions in response to this. Participants in the control condition were led into an empty hallway. Participants were then asked to write down twenty different responses to the question “Who am I?” Participants in the awe condition were somewhat more likely to provide universal responses in which they define themselves as part of a larger group or abstract category (e.g. “I am a person”, or “an inhabitant of the earth”). This could indicate that having an experience of awe might prompt people to think of themselves as part of a greater whole. These results suggests that an awe inspiring experience might prompt a person to revise their self-concept. The study did not examine whether this change would be long-lasting or whether it would lead to greater openness more generally.

However, another study did find that a profound experience related to awe resulted in enduring changes in openness to experience specifically. This was a widely-publicized study that found that mystical experiences induced by the drug psilocybin produced a lasting change in openness to experience, but not in other personality dimensions (MacLean, Johnson, & Griffiths, 2011). Awe is a core feature of mystical experience (Keltner & Haidt, 2003). Mystical experiences involve a sense of transcendence of time and space, a feeling of unity with a universal reality, transcendence of the individual self (ego death), a sense of ineffability, and a feeling that one has experienced a profound insight into the nature of the universe itself. Mystical experiences might therefore be described as involving a very intense and profound sense of awe. I have described this study in more detail in a previous post. To recap briefly, volunteers who had never taken a psychedelic drug before were administered a high dose of psilocybin under carefully supervised conditions intended to ensure participant comfort and safety. About two-thirds of volunteers had what was described as a ‘complete mystical experience’1 that most of them regarded as having enduring meaning and significance more than a year later. Participants who had a complete mystical experience showed a sustained increase in openness to experience that was evident more than a year later, while those who did not have such an experience showed no personality change. There were no changes in any of the other Big Five personality traits.

Wikimedia Commons
Vistas of the Mind? Psychedelics have inspired striking and colorful art. 
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Intense mystical experiences might induce a need for accommodation, i.e. a change in one’s understanding of the world. Perhaps mystical experiences can induce increased openness to experience through inducing a profound need for accommodation of an experience that has an ineffable quality. Awe-like experiences ‘stretch one’s normal ways of thinking about oneself and the world’ (Silvia, et al., 2015). Perhaps when someone has had a very big stretch they feel the need to be more open to new experiences in order to accommodate new ways of thinking. Participants in the psilocybin study who had a mystical experience generally rated it as one of the most significant events in their whole lives (MacLean, et al., 2011). Perhaps an experience of such immense power is what is needed to produce a lasting rather than momentary effect on openness to experience. Such an experience might have this effect through inducing a lingering appreciation of the many ways in which life is mysterious and fascinating.

One of the things I found intriguing about the psilocybin study was that personality change occurred only in openness to experience and not in any other Big Five personality dimensions. Participants described the mystical experience as involving intensely positive emotions, such as joy and love. Positive emotions generally are most strongly associated with extraversion, and love specifically tends to be associated with agreeableness. However, extraversion and agreeableness are largely social traits, and tend to be associated with socially oriented emotions. Research suggests that awe is primarily a non-social emotion (Shiota, et al., 2007) related to knowledge emotions like curiosity and interest, and knowledge emotions are most closely related to openness to experience (Silvia, et al., 2015). Perhaps mystical experiences can affect openness to experience by inducing profound awe, which can increase sensitivity to knowledge related emotions and experiences more generally. Hence, such experiences might not affect sensitivity to social rewards (a core feature of extraversion), and this might shed some light on why psilocybin does not affect the more social traits.

The foregoing discussion is admittedly rather speculative, as not a great deal of research has been done in this area. However, the possibilities are intriguing. Keltner and Haidt (2003) suggested that awe might potentially have the power to transform people and their values and that awe-inducing events might be one of the most powerful methods of inducing personal change. I agree with their suggestion that the potential power and mystery of awe is awe-inspiring in itself. Further research on this fascinating subject may help to unlock some of the mystery and further deepen our understanding of the power of awe to change people’s lives.

Footnote

1 The authors of this study defined as 'complete mystical experience' as comprising high levels of each of the following six elements: unity; transcendence of time and space; ineffability and paradoxicality; sacredness; noetic quality; and positive mood.

Image Credits

Wisps Surrounding the Horsehead Nebula, photo by Star Shadows Remote Observatory, obtained via Open Science Framework.

Psychedelic image, 'Party like it's 1969' by Dominik Wagner, obtained via Wikimedia Commons

Other posts discussing psychedelic drugs 

Psilocybin and personality

Psilocybin and brain function

Psilocybin for anxiety and depression in cancer

DMT, aliens and reality – part 1

DMT, aliens and reality – part 2

DMT: Gateway to Reality, Fantasy or What?

The Spirituality of Psychedelic Drug Users

Psilocybin Users Who Trip Without Drugs

LSD, Suggestibility, and Personality Change

References

Keltner, D., & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 17(2), 297-314. doi: 10.1080/02699930302297

MacLean, K. A., Johnson, M. W., & Griffiths, R. R. (2011). Mystical Experiences Occasioned by the Hallucinogen Psilocybin Lead to Increases in the Personality Domain of Openness. Journal of Psychopharmacology. doi: 10.1177/0269881111420188

Shiota, M. N., Keltner, D., & Mossman, A. (2007). The nature of awe: Elicitors, appraisals, and effects on self-concept. Cognition and Emotion, 21(5), 944-963. doi: 10.1080/02699930600923668

Silvia, P. J., Fayn, K., Nusbaum, E. C., & Beaty, R. E. (2015). Openness to Experience and Awe in Response to Nature and Music: Personality and Profound Aesthetic Experiences. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, & the Arts.