The Healing Power of Awe

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image: Alexey Trofimov

Standing before the walls of an ancient temple, walking in the quiet shadow of a snow-covered mountain, and bathing in the transcendent sounds of religious music can all fill you with a sense of wonder. But according to new research, these moments of awe may also boost your mental and physical health.

In a study published January 19 in the journal Emotion, researchers found that positive emotions—especially the awe that comes with a deep connection to art, nature or spirituality—are linked to lower levels of inflammation-producing cytokines.

“That awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggests that the things we do to experience these emotions – a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art – has a direct influence upon health and life expectancy,” said UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, a co-author of the study, in a press release.

Cytokines play an important role in the body’s immune system, stimulating it to fight disease, infection and injuries. But high levels of cytokines over a long period are linked to disorders such as heart disease, type-2 diabetes and clinical depression. Eating well, exercising and getting enough sleep can all boost the body’s immune system, but the new study found that emotions are also a powerful tool for promoting good health.

Researchers believe that cytokines may boost mood by blocking other chemicals in the brain — such as serotonin and dopamine — which are also involved in regulating sleep and memory. But these effects could be a two-way street, with lower levels of cytokines and positive emotions both influencing the other. Yet researchers see awe as a way to move beyond your limited physical and mental existence toward something more.

“Awe is associated with curiosity and a desire to explore, suggesting antithetical behavioral responses to those found during inflammation, where individuals typically withdraw from others in their environment,” said Jennifer Stellar, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toronto and lead author of the study, which she conducted while at UC Berkeley.

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He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.”
~ Albert Einstein

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