The Campfire is a blog at the intersection of nature & technology brought to you by the team behind the award winning Portal App.

Uncovering the Power of Awe

How do you feel gazing into the fiery crater of an erupting volcano? Do you feel wondrous and captivated? Do you feel a sense of insignificance in the face of such overwhelming power? Do you feel threatened or even scared? Does time seem to slow as you lose perspective of what’s around? 

Over the past 20 years, awe has emerged as an emotional response that may offer particular benefits for wellbeing. Triggered in a number of ways, it can boost mood and outlook as well as igniting new thoughts, ideas and perspectives - and even boost altruistic behaviours.

But what really is this unusual emotion, and how can we harness it to help improve our daily lives?

Defining the transcendent emotion of awe

Awe is experienced when something (or someone) transcends our normal range of experience and goes beyond the ordinary. It's that sense of feeling aghast at a moment of pure wonder or amazement.

In nature, it can be elicited by an overwhelming sense of vastness like a jaw-dropping view, a vast landscape or a gigantic living organism. But it can also be evoked by a sense of power or intricacy, which tends to redefine our parameters of what's normal. Our minds struggle to accommodate what we're witnessing, and we have to expand our mental frameworks to make sense of what we're experiencing.

It’s safe to say that the feeling of sitting opposite an erupting volcano that’s over 10 stories high and almost 90m wide, certainly reset our parameters of what's normal.

That, we'd learn, is awe.

The positive impacts of awe

When faced with an environment that feels significantly larger than ourselves (and beyond our control), it's easy for our focus to shift away from self-centred thoughts. We realise we're actually just a small part of our wider surroundings, and of relative insignificance.

This sense of the “small self” can act as a mechanism to help people act more compassionately and altruistically towards others as well as boost feelings of positivity. 

Another side effect of awe is a feeling of an elongated perception of time. In the modern, always on and ever-connected world, this is perhaps more relevant than ever. If we feel like we have more time, we’re more likely to want to acquire new knowledge and further expand our horizons. 

In the glow of Litli-Hrútur, this felt very relatable to us. Transfixed by the molten fountains and lava rivers, our ideas and thoughts for the future certainly became more profound and ponderous, and we certainly didn't feel in any rush. The day to day nitty gritty of bug fixes and to-do lists felt a long way away (don’t worry, not too far away!) 

Harnessing awe to ignite a creative spark

Another side to awe is its ability to help us shift into a more creative state-of-mind. The altered sense of perspective, a reduced sense of time and improved mood are all supportive of enhanced creativity.   

Research has also reported changes in key creative thinking components in response to awe, such as fluency, flexibility and elaboration, whilst another study linked awe to improved divergent thinking (the type of creative thought that seeks the creation of a number of big-picture ideas).

What’s certainly relatable to creatives is the impact of totally transforming your physical thinking space, and the potential this shift can have on new ideas and creative thought. Awe-inspiring landscapes lie at the extreme of this scale, as by their very definition, they extend the realms of what we consider normal. 

Finding multiple sources of awe 

It’s unlikely the same stimuli can evoke awe in the strongest sense over a prolonged period of time. You might notice different, smaller changes in the same environment, but you’re going to need to freshen up the experience to get that same awe-struck response. 

Studies have also shown that people who feel more “captivated and engrossed in their surroundings” are more likely to experience awe.  

Our very own Scientific Advisor, Alex Smalley, has also led research that found it’s possible to experience small boosts in awe in every day settings. Appreciating changes in the landscape (and skies above) as you walk to work, or noticing scale and power in the natural world - can all evoke feelings of awe. 

You can experiment with awe in your every day work. For example, if you use pomodoro timers, you might like to trying using “awe” portals for your short breaks. It can significantly shake up your surroundings, potentially sparking new ideas. 

Alternatively, it might be beneficial to harness awe when your creative juices have run dry. Start a creative session with an environment that’s truly inspiring, to help you shift into the right state-of-mind for divergent thought. 

Having more ideas and a becoming a better person 

Eliciting this complex emotion of awe will vary from person to person. Like all environments, we respond to them based on our own lived and cultural experiences, so one person's perception of a scene or environment that inspires awe may differ from the person next to them.

That said, it seems there is a quiet magic to awe that we can all experience, from firing up your imagination, to providing perspective and slowing down time.

Or just maybe it will shift your mood - and leave you feeling truly awesome.

Ready for a daily dose of awe? Here’s an awe-inspiring portal to try for each of your working days...