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Experiencing Awe with Psychedelics

*DISCLAIMER - This article is in no way an incentive for anyone to try any legal or illegal

substances. It has been written for educational and harm reduction purposes only. If you have

any health conditions or are taking medication, DO NOT take these substances without first doing your own research, and talking with your doctor or healthcare professional.*

Awe is the mysterious emotion that has been used to describe a wide variety of experiences, with reverential respect often combined with fear or wonder. It is a complex one that can be positive - eliciting happiness and contentment, or negative - tinged with fear or a sense of insignificance.

Perhaps you have experienced it in witnessing the breathtaking beauty or raw power of nature or standing in the presence of someone you deeply admire and respect. Maybe you came across a particularly sublime piece of music or art that moved you to tears, or a profound spiritual experience that brought you closer to the supernatural or divine. It could even have been a life-changing event such as childbirth, or simply seeing our planet floating in the vastness of space for the first time.

Awe can be triggered by different things for different people, with factors such as personality, social class, religion, and culture influencing how we experience awe. Despite all the different ways it can be experienced, the data shows that it still has profound effects on those who experience it. But what is awe really, and how does it change our perception of ourselves, and even our behaviour towards others?

drawing of alice sitting in the garden
Artwork: Tim Rogerson - Dreaming in Color From Alice In Wonderland

In 2003, psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Heidt presented their paper, “Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion”. They propose that all experiences of awe have two things in common: Firstly, there is a “perceived vastness” that goes beyond physical size and encompasses “anything that is experienced as being much larger than the self, or the self’s ordinary level of experience”. And then there is “a need for accommodation”, the process of shifting or expanding one’s conception of the world to make sense of the awe-inducing experience.

Take a moment to think about this:

  • How does awe feel to you?

  • What emotions did it bring up in you?

  • When was the last time you felt a sense of awe?

  • How did it change your mind, feelings, or attitude about yourself or others?

Current research shows that positive experiences of awe have incredibly beneficial effects such as boosting life satisfaction and physical health, reducing stress, as well as increasing humility and critical thinking. It induces more feelings of connection, and increases cooperation and generosity in people that experience awe, and can even help people suffering from PTSD.

This transcendental state is often accompanied by a diminished sense of self, and thanks to a reduction in their default network activity when experiencing awe. Being able to remove the egocentric lens allows us to feel more connected to our

Does this sound familiar? It would if you have already heard about the growing research around psychedelic-assisted therapies.

draw of alice and catterpillar
Artwork: Alice in Wonderland - Disney

Psychedelic experiences also induce awe and transcendence. The dissolution of ego or self, or what is called “ego-death” is also commonly reported. The valuable insights and lasting therapeutic benefits of psychedelic experiences have been proven in many studies, but new research also shows that microdosing psychedelics increase one’s sense of awe, even when taken in small sub-hallucinogenic amounts.

Similar to starting a gratitude journal to foster feelings of gratitude, it is possible to seek out more experiences of awe in your life. People who reported feeling awe on average 2.5 times a week had “greater wellbeing and curiosity weeks later”.

Keltner recommends taking note of the “eight wonders of life” to get you started. For a more detailed guide on how to do so, check out this Psyche Guide on “How to Experience More Wow”:

  1. Witness other people’s moral beauty and courage

  2. Move in unison with others

  3. Get out in nature

  4. Listen to or create music

  5. Take in visual art or film

  6. Seek out a spiritual or religious experience

  7. Consider a big idea

  8. Witness life & death

Keltner believes that as we are getting more “awe-deprived... our culture has become more individualistic, more narcissistic, more materialistic, and less connected to others.” He encourages us all to seek out experiences of awe for greater well-being and a kinder society.

The ongoing research on awe and psychedelics suggest that they can have a huge impact on both our individual and collective well-being. Awe stimulates wonder and curiosity, but it is also not an elusive, grandiose, unattainable state. It can be found in daily life with mindfulness and awareness, and perhaps with a little help from psychedelics as well.

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