science of awe

People remember, sometimes years later, transforming and unforgettable experiences of music. These emotional experiences are often described as a sense of wonder, amazement, fascination, or being moved or touched by a song. As I sat watching the movie The Longest Ride (Watch Here) starring Scott Eastwood (Clint Eastwood’s son), I felt moved and transformed as the two love stories in the movie came together. What was this strong emotional sensation? In that moment I felt less isolated, less singular, and more connected to the human condition.

I had a new understanding of things and I was part of something massive. I was in awe—a deep emotional experience unassociated with a logical change of my circumstances. The same type of awe you sometimes feel when you hear beautiful music. This experience provoked a thought—using music, could you increase the likelihood to get this amazing awe-like sensation. I've tested this theory and the answer is yes. How? Find out here.

Feeling awe—What is “openness to experience”

Openness to experience is a personality trait. To have the trait of openness to experience means you often experience a broader range of emotions, you accept your emotions, and you experience complex emotions more often. I am sure you have seen people with high openness to experience in your life: you notice that they describe everything like they are experiencing it for the very first time and they are often touched and absorbed by things as simple as the shade of a tree. For me, I think I fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

How can you tell if you are high in the the trait of openness to experience? A group of researchers (Silvia, Fayn, Nusbaum, & Beatym 2015) examined just that: whether someone’s openness to experience made them more likely to experience awesome aesthetic emotions like awe, wonder, fascination, being moved, and feeling touched. They studied two things often associated with the experience of awe: stars and sound.

deep space

Your openness to experience predicts your likelihood to experience awe

The Silvia et. al 2015 study came to an important conclusion: your openness to experience significantly predicted your awe-like experiences (Silvia et. al. , 2015, p. 6). For both images of deep space and music, openness to experience emerged as the only predictor of the likelihood to experience emotional awe.

Let’s focus on music because it’s everywhere. What causes you to experience the awe-like sensation while listening to music and what does it feel like? People that experience awe feelings associated with music show high intensities of interest and excitement while listening to your favorite song. Some say that this awe feeling is accompanied with thoughts that reflect an understanding of something vast and thoughts that reflect a shift in one’s knowledge in light of the new experience. For me, the feeling that you feel in an awe-like experience while listening music is one that leads to chills, goose bumps, and sometimes intense sensation of possibly coming to tears. This overall experience gives you a high sense of connectedness with the music. A connectedness with nature.

Music helps you experience a wide range of emotions—emotions that often help us resolve cognitive dissonance in our lives.

The Silvia et al. 2015 study findings help support the idea that, if you are open to experience new things , you’ll experience more resolution of cognitive dissonance, you’ll feel closer to the world around, and you’ll be able to control your own anxiety through feelings of interest and excitement.

The everyday tool you can use to help experience awe-like emotions on a regular basis is music.

Put simpler

Music provides a continual opportunity to improve your openness to experience. While some might argue your openness to experience is a permanent trait, you can also think of it as a habit—a habit you can build. Take advantage of new and different sounding music as a tool to build a new good habit. Try this:

If you hear a new song, take note of one thing positive about it—it'll improve your openness to experience. Share this

Do this simple task for a month or so and you’ll see improvement in your creativity and, most importantly, you’ll increase your feeling of connectedness with nature.

See Silvia, P. J., Fayn, K., Nusbaum, E. C., & Beaty, R. E. (August 17, 2015). Openness to Experience and Awe in Response to Nature and Music: Personality and Profound Aesthetic Experiences. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 1-9.

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