Category Archives: Wonder

Awe requires feeling small — I don’t buy it

My research involves (among many other things, of course) reading literature on spiritual emotions such as awe. One of the first studies of awe came out a dozen years ago, conducted by psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt (Keltner & Haidt, 2003). These researchers concluded that awe involves two main components: the perception of vastness and the need for accommodation of that vastness into the person’s existing mental model of the world — or of the universe, as the case may be. (They didn’t frame it in terms of mental models, but as a good HCI person I use that highly appropriate term from my field.) I find this a valuable model for my research.

What concerns me about the treatment of awe in most of the literature — at least, in the literature on awe in spiritual experience — is that it tends to associate feelings of awe with feelings of being small and insignificant. Now, Keltner & Haidt themselves didn’t say that feeling awe necessarily involves our feeling ourselves to be small, just that we perceive vastness in whatever evokes awe in us. (NB: They also emphasize that “vastness” isn’t limited to size alone but could also refer to beauty, goodness, or any of several other characteristics.) Other researchers, however, have taken this to mean that a feeling of awe must necessarily involve a feeling of oneself being small.

I disagree!

And so does Neil Tyson, it would seem.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, PhD, directs the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Tyson, a strong promoter of science and an outspoken atheist, describes with passion and eloquence the spiritual feeling that his knowledge of his physical connection with the vast Universe evokes in him. In what has been called his “Greatest Sermon“, Tyson explains his view. “It’s quite literally true”, Tyson says, “that we are star dust, in the highest exalted way one can use that phrase. …I bask in the majesty of the cosmos. I use words, compose sentences that sound like the sentences I hear out of people that had revelation of Jesus, who go on their pilgrimages to Mecca.” He goes on to stress: “Not only are we in the universe, the universe is in us. I don’t know of any deeper spiritual feeling than what that brings upon me.”

Tyson also says in the “sermon” that he had received a communication from a psychologist studying “things that make people feel small”, and he commented what a bummer of a job that must be. (Tyson doesn’t name the psychologist, only the university, but I can’t help wondering if it was someone studying awe and taking the approach that it necessarily involved feelings of being small or inadequate.) Donna Burdzy, in her master’s thesis completed just last year (Burdzy, 2014), created the “Sacred Emotions Scale” to tease out the components of the emotions that people feel when they perceive themselves to be in the presence of the sacred. Basing her scale mainly on Rudolf Otto’s framework of mysterium tremendum and mysterium fascinans (Otto, 1923), Burdzy divides her emotions into those of awe and those of fascination (with which I have no quarrel), and from my first reading of her thesis I’d say her method and statistical analysis seem sound. But here’s the rub: Burdzy defines awe as almost exclusively negative. The factor of “Sacred Awe” in the original SES includes sixteen “I felt” statements, and almost every one of them is unequivocally a statement of negative feeling. Examples include

  • “I felt like I could cease to exist”
  • “I felt worried”
  • “I felt unworthy of being in the presence of something so great”
  • “I felt insignificant”
  • “I felt concerned that I would be found wanting or at fault”
    (Burdzy, 2014, p. 85)

I see in the list of sixteen statements only two that might allow for neutral or perhaps even positive interpretation — “I was filled with awe” and “I felt humble” — but the Awe factor in this instrument is overwhelmingly negative and focused on feelings of smallness.

This aspect of research on awe and other emotions evoked by the sacred distresses me, and I refuse to accept it. I take comfort in Tyson’s comments to Bill Moyers Tyson’s comments to Bill Moyers, who asked him about some people’s concerns that astronomy makes them feel small. “It depends on what your ego is, going into the conversation,” Tyson replied, explaining that the atoms that constitute our bodies came from out there in the Universe. “I look up at the night sky;” he observed; “I don’t feel small, I feel large. I feel connected to the universe.” Contemplating the Universe, urges Tyson, “should not make you feel small; that should make you feel large.”

So. If I were a psychologist, I would consider doing more in-depth study of the emotions involved in spiritual experiences. To be fair, my interviews do support the claim that feeling small or humble can be associated with awe. But I don’t like the declaration of “always” in this context, and my data do not support that extreme position. Nor does my individual experience (or Tyson’s, as best I can tell). For now, all I can say to the claim that awe always involves feeling small and insignificant is this:

Not necessarily!

What about those of us who feel connected to the vastness that evokes our awe? What if we feel inspired by it?

It is not a requirement, I maintain, that to recognize and appreciate the vastness in something else, we ourselves must feel small or inadequate.

Do we really want to take a win-lose approach to spirituality?


Burdzy, D. C. (2014). Sacred emotions scale. Bowling Green State University.

Keltner, D., & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition & Emotion, 17 (2), 297–314.

Otto, R. (1923). The Idea of the Holy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


In fairness, I must make this update to point out that during her analysis Burdzy ended up recognizing the positive position of awe in the experience. Not only did she rename her subscales — i.e., “Sacred Awe” and “Sacred Fascination” (initially named à la Rudolf Otto) became “Sacred Dread” and “Sacred Exuberance” because of how the items fell together — but she moved “I was filled with awe” from the negative group where she had initially placed it to the positive group that she ended up calling “Sacred Exuberance”. Kudos to Donna Burdzy for recognizing and honoring the need for this change.

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A stroll down memory lane

I’m spending a few days in Torino, the city where I first came to know Italy. For about a year and a half, some 25 years ago, I spent 25% of my time here; I was working on a contract with the company that at the time was called Aeritalia* and is now part of Thales Alenia Spazio. Aeritalia built the Columbus Laboratory, the European module of the International Space Station, and I was providing consultation in human factors and human-computer interaction. The project sent me to Italy for two weeks every couple of months (the perfect setup in the days before online bill pay :-). It was a magical time. On my first visit, I landed in Milan on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, 1987, and took the Alitalia bus to Torino, where my colleague met me and took me to lunch at a self-service restaurant called Brek. It soon started raining in the city, but in the hills across the Po it was snowing, so on the Sunday we went for a drive and a frolic in the snow and a coffee. (I adore snow, and I wish we had more of it in Newcastle.)

The Monday dawned clear. We were staying east of where we were working, and when we reached the crest of the bridge over the train tracks entering Porta Nuova station, wow! some 20 miles away, in all their snow-capped, Alpenglowing glory, stood the Alps. I was instantly in love. (Here’s a photo that gives an idea of what that looked like, although the Mole Antonelliana was not in our view as we were going to work.)

Torino is not a touristic city, and most visitors to Italy would not place it on their itinerary. It’s not full of Renaissance history like Florence, canals like Venice, or Roman history like Rome. But it is a beautiful city full of parks, where most things work, and every time I come here I am reminded of how much I love it. Yesterday I ambled around the city and savored the memories. Most of the attractions are closed on Mondays, but that’s OK. I walked up to the Monte dei Cappuccini (which should have a bar where one could get cappuccini), through the Parco del Valentino, and by our favorite pizzeria of the time, the Flegrea (which I’ve heard isn’t as good now as it was then) — and I stopped in at the Expo Residence, the place where we stayed during the two weeks we were in town. At that time our food allowance was only $27 a day, so we had to have most meals in, and a residence was the perfect solution.

I took 82 photos. Many of these will appear in the next few days in my Torino album on Flickr. My favorite, though, is still the one I took sometime in the early- to mid-1990s of a lantern in an archway leading to a courtyard. I’ve seen that scene several times since then (including yesterday), but it doesn’t have the punch that it had then. Maybe something about the scene itself has changed; or maybe the light quality has always been different. But that first one is just special.

In my ambles and my reminiscing, I tried to look at the city with the same kind of wonder that I experienced when it was new to me. Although practical reasons make that somewhat difficult — the Christmas decorations that adorned the city on my first visit then made it much sparklier and more magical than it is in ordinary old mid-September — I paid attention to noticing things I had not noticed before and to seeing known things with new eyes. I feel good when I consciously invite wonder into my life.

All in all, I walked eleven miles around the city. That’s the second longest walk I’ve ever done, and the longest since I was in my twenties. I love this city.


*Not to be confused with Alitalia, the airline.