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Why Awesome Natural Beauty Drops the Jaw and Lifts the Spirit

T. Ryan Byerly: When we’re awe-struck, we experience ourselves as smaller and the world beyond us as larger. That can be literal: people who experience awe judge their own bodies to be smaller in size. Yet it’s also figurative: the self and its concerns are less salient, while the world beyond the self becomes more significant. Crucially, in awe, we also see our smaller self as more connected with the larger world. People who experience awe report feeling themselves to be ‘part of a greater entity.’ They also report a greater sense of connection to groups they belong to, to their nation, and to their species. Experiences of awe induce a greater sense of oneness with others and friends, and make people feel more integrated into their communities. Astronauts who feel awe in spaceflight report a greater sense of connection both to other people and to the Earth in general. In this sense, awe is referred to as a ‘self-transcendent’ emotion: when we encounter it, we transcend ourselves by experiencing our small selves as connected to larger wholes. In light of this, it’s unsurprising that awe is intimately intertwined with spirituality.

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