Awesome: Brain scans shed light on the brain networks supporting Awe


When was the last time you expe­ri­enced awe?

Per­haps you were stopped in your tracks by a beau­ti­ful vista on a recent hike, or cap­ti­vat­ed by a paint­ing at your local art muse­um, or moved to tears at a con­cert or church. Or maybe you were just sit­ting on your couch breath­less­ly watch­ing an episode of Plan­et Earth. What­ev­er it was, you prob­a­bly weren’t think­ing much about your­self or your to-do list.

What makes awe so trans­port­ing, over­whelm­ing, even mys­ti­cal at times? Researchers explored this ques­tion in a recent study pub­lished in the jour­nal Human Brain Map­ping (details below) by exam­in­ing what the brain is doing when peo­ple have an awe experience.

The Uni­ver­si­ty of Amsterdam’s Michiel van Elk and his col­leagues used func­tion­al mag­net­ic res­o­nance imag­ing (fMRI) to scan the brains of 32 par­tic­i­pants ages 18 to 41 while they watched three dif­fer­ent types of 30-sec­ond videos. The videos fea­tured awe-inspir­ing nat­ur­al phe­nom­e­na (e.g., stun­ning vis­tas from the BBC’s Plan­et Earth series), fun­ny ani­mals (e.g., ele­phants play­ing with tires and balls), and neu­tral land­scapes (e.g., a small bab­bling brook).

Before each video clip, par­tic­i­pants were told to either pas­sive­ly watch the video (the way one nor­mal­ly would) or to count the num­ber of per­spec­tive changes in the video. This allowed the researchers to com­pare brain activ­i­ty when par­tic­i­pants were immersed in watching—and their minds could wander—versus when they had a focused task to per­form while watching.

For the fun­ny and neu­tral videos, watch­ing pas­sive­ly increased activ­i­ty in regions of the default mode net­work (DMN)—a brain sys­tem that is par­tic­u­lar­ly active when our minds wan­der or when we think about ourselves—compared to watch­ing while count­ing per­spec­tive changes. How­ev­er, watch­ing the awe videos pas­sive­ly did not increase DMN acti­va­tion as much.

This dif­fer­ence sug­gests that par­tic­i­pants may have been extra engaged while watch­ing the awe videos—even when they didn’t have a task to do—and thus their minds were less like­ly to wan­der and start think­ing about themselves.

In oth­er words, awe may help stop us from rumi­nat­ing on our prob­lems and dai­ly stres­sors. Instead, awe seems to pull us out of our­selves and make us feel immersed in our sur­round­ings and the larg­er world (which may help explain its ten­den­cy to inspire gen­eros­i­ty and a sense of con­nec­tion with others).

Damp­en­ing default mode net­work (DMN) activ­i­ty may be key to giv­ing us a sense of self-tran­scen­dence. Oth­er stud­ies have found decreased DMN activ­i­ty when par­tic­i­pants entered a flow state, dur­ing med­i­ta­tion, and when par­tic­i­pants under the influ­ence of psy­che­delics expe­ri­enced “ego dis­so­lu­tion.” Awe appears to be anoth­er exam­ple of such a trans­for­ma­tive experience.

Van Elk’s study found one more piece of evi­dence that awe engages us more with our exter­nal world and less with our­selves. Count­ing per­spec­tive changes while watch­ing the awe videos actu­al­ly increased activ­i­ty in areas of the fron­to-pari­etal network—a brain net­work thought to be involved in exter­nal­ly direct­ed attention—more than the oth­er types of videos. “This find­ing under­lines the cap­ti­vat­ing, immer­sive, and atten­tion-grab­bing nature of awe,” write the researchers.

This study builds on pri­or research on the ben­e­fits of awe. In research by van Elk and oth­ers, peo­ple in awe-inspir­ing sit­u­a­tions report­ed feel­ing the pres­ence of some­thing “larg­er than them­selves,” felt less focused on them­selves and their con­cerns, and drew small­er self-por­traits than par­tic­i­pants in more mun­dane sit­u­a­tions. (Researchers call this feel­ing of being small­er and less con­cerned with one­self the “small self.”) The new study’s brain scans com­ple­ment the sur­vey results in ear­li­er stud­ies, which can be prone to bias and rely on par­tic­i­pants’ mem­o­ries rather than real-time responses.

What does this mean for you? If you feel a need to get out of your head, go take in that vista, con­cert, or what­ev­er helps you find your awe—it just might help.

– Sum­mer Allen, Ph.D., is a Research/Writing Fel­low with the Greater Good Sci­ence Cen­ter. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. A grad­u­ate of Car­leton Col­lege and Brown Uni­ver­si­ty, Sum­mer now writes for a vari­ety of pub­li­ca­tions. Copy­right Greater Good.

The Study:

The neur­al cor­re­lates of the awe expe­ri­ence: Reduced default mode net­work activ­i­ty dur­ing feel­ings of awe (Human Brain Mapping):

  • Abstract: In the present fMRI study, we aimed to obtain insight into the key brain net­works involved in the expe­ri­ence of awe—a com­plex emo­tion that is typ­i­cal­ly elicit­ed by per­cep­tu­al­ly vast stim­uli. Par­tic­i­pants were pre­sent­ed with awe-elic­it­ing, pos­i­tive and neu­tral videos, while they were instruct­ed to get ful­ly absorbed in the scenery or to count the num­ber of per­spec­tive changes. By using a whole-brain analy­sis we found that sev­er­al brain regions that are con­sid­ered part of the default mode net­work (DMN), includ­ing the frontal pole, the angu­lar gyrus, and the pos­te­ri­or cin­gu­late cor­tex, were more strong­ly acti­vat­ed in the absorp­tion con­di­tion. But this was less the case when par­tic­i­pants were watch­ing awe videos. We sug­gest that while watch­ing awe videos, par­tic­i­pants were deeply immersed in the videos and that lev­els of self-reflec­tive thought were as much reduced dur­ing the awe videos, as dur­ing the per­spec­tive count­ing con­di­tion. In con­trast, key regions of the fron­to-pari­etal net­work (FPN), includ­ing the supra­mar­gin­al gyrus, the medi­al frontal gyrus, and the insu­la, were most strong­ly acti­vat­ed in the ana­lyt­i­cal con­di­tion when par­tic­i­pants were watch­ing awe com­pared to pos­i­tive and neu­tral videos. This find­ing under­lines the cap­ti­vat­ing, immer­sive, and atten­tion-grab­bing nature of awe stim­uli that is con­sid­ered to be respon­si­ble for reduc­tions in self-reflec­tive thought. 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 (i.e., par­tic­i­pants per­ceived their self to be smaller).

Related Reading:

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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