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The Science of Awe
By ICF Metro DC
Posted: 2024-04-22T12:35:24Z

The Science of Awe: An Earth Day Opportunity

by Christiane Frischmuth, PCC

In a recent meeting of the ICF Metro DC Nature & Outdoor Coaching Community of Practice, we explored the science of awe. Awe has been studied for some time now and its psychological, spiritual and somatic benefits are plenty. 

Awe is the emotion that arises when we encounter vast mysteries that transcend our understanding of the world. It can make us feel small and humble, quiet and contemplative, turn towards the greater good and appreciate the beauty, the challenge, the fierceness we behold. About two-thirds of awe experiences occur while in nature or as a result of being in nature.

When did you last feel awe? Where and when did it occur? How did you feel? Was it a fierce thunderstorm? A group collaboratively achieving something impactful? A gorgeous flower pushing through the snow? A mountain peak?

The benefits of experiencing awe include:

• Awe can reduce stress, loneliness, and physical distress, and bring one a sense of expanded time, perspective, and connection.

• Brief experiences of awe—for example, standing amidst tall trees—lead people to be more altruistic/generous, less entitled, more humble

and aware of the strengths of others, and less stressed by the challenges of daily living.

• These brief experiences give people a better sense of how they are part of larger social collectives, they stir scientific thought, and are good

for the immune system.

What happens during a state of awe:

• Experiences of awe activate the vagus nerve, which wanders from the top of your spinal cord through your throat, heart, lungs, and digestive


• Awe slows your heart rate, orients your attention toward others, and prompts you to explore and engage with the world.

• Awe’s effects on the lacrimal glands (tear ducts) make our eyes well up with tears that studies find are accompanied by a sense of shared

identity with others.

• Awe is associated with a goose-tingling sensation in your arms and at the back of your neck—perhaps the bodily register of Kundalini in yoga

—that arises in many social mammals, including humans, when responding to peril together.

• Awe is a basic state of mind, a primary form of consciousness. 

Imagine if we could make collective and individual decisions when we are in a state of awe. Imagine if our coachees and we ourselves could regularly practice being open to awe – going on awe walks, letting ourself drink in beauty in all its forms, exposing ourselves to challenges that lead to humility.

Interestingly, research from 26 cultures shows that people find awe in the “eight wonders of life,” which are:

• the moral beauty of others,

• collective movement,

• nature,

• visual design,

• music,

• spirituality,

• big ideas, and

• encountering the beginning and end of life. 

To tune into awe, and to celebrate Earth Day today, take an awe walk! Here’s how:

1) Take a deep breath in. Count to six as you inhale and six as you exhale. Feel the air move through your nasal passages and hear the sound of your breath. We’ll come back to this breath throughout the walk.

2) Feel your feet on the ground and listen to the surrounding sounds. Return to your breath. Count to six while you inhale and six as you exhale.

3) Shift your awareness now so that you are open to what is around you, to things that are vast, unexpected, things that surprise and delight. Take a deep breath in. Count to six as you inhale and six as you exhale.

4) Let your attention be open in exploration for what inspires awe. Your attention might appreciate vast spaces, and the sounds and sights within them. You might shift to small patterns, for example of the sorrel on the ground, or the veins on leaves, or a cluster of tiny mushrooms.

5) Bring your attention back to the breath. Count to six as you inhale and six as you exhale. Coming out of these experiences of awe, we often feel a sense of wonder. Wonder happens when we are delighted by that which surprises us, and we are moved to find explanations and deep meaning.

To learn more about the science of awe, check out the work of Dacher Keltner of UC Berkeley, one of the best known awe researchers. And to continue learning about how to enrich your coaching practice through nature, join an upcoming Nature & Outdoor Coaching Community of Practice session! We meet most months on a Friday from 12-1:15 pm EST and explore topics of interest, answer questions, exchange tips and experiences.


Christiane Frischmuth, PCC, is a co-leader of the Nature & Outdoor Coaching Community of Practice. She is a Professional Certified Coach and founder of Global Frischmuth Coaching. Connect with Christiane at


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