You will never see a Korean father more excited than when South Korea is playing in the World Cup. In my family, I have a cousin who trained to be on the U-13 South Korean national soccer team (until he got injured, unfortunately) and a dad whose dream is to attend a World Cup game one day. Coming from this household, you can imagine my pure joy and excitement when we were entering the stadium to watch the Women’s World Cup match between the USA and Chile this past Sunday at Parc des Princes. Yes, my dad was extremely jealous. As soon as we entered the metro station, hundreds of people fashioned in red, white, and blue were jam packed into those cars. I could not stop smiling, and it was the best experience being surrounded by fans who love their country. For the U.S. fans, we were on cloud nine as the team was already leading 3-0 by halftime. But even we, the Americans, could not help but be amazed at Christiane Endler throughout the entire 90 minutes of the game.
Christiane Endler is the goalkeeper for the Chile team. Wearing her green Captain band proudly on her arm, Endler is the first woman to captain Chile at a World Cup. Endler played incredibly against the formidable US team, which attempted 26 shots at the goal starting from minute one. But after reading an NY Times article that our professor sent to us, I got chills. The story of this Chilean heroine who rose up and is leading a team that wasn’t even on the FIFA rankings three years ago was so moving and inspiring. Her story is awesome. I experienced goosebumps while reading this article, and I started to think about what goes on in the brain when we experience feelings of awe.
Awe is a unique emotion. It can be associated with both positive and negative experiences and can be triggered by a vast range of stimuli and events. Psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt suggest that awe experiences can be characterized by two phenomena: “perceived vastness” and a “need for accommodation”. “Perceived vastness” meaning that we are experiencing something that seems greater than ourselves, and an experience that evokes a “need for accommodation” when it violates our normal understanding of the world (Keltner & Haidt, 2003). We experience awe when we hear the swell of a symphony, watch the climactic battle in “Avengers: Endgame” in an IMAX theater, or watching Endler save shot after shot at a Women’s World Cup game! To examine what goes on in the brain when people experience awe, a study by Guan et al. was conducted to assess the neural correlates of dispositional, or naturally induced, awe.
Fourty-two university students were given a survey that was measured by the Dispositional Positive Emotion Scale (DPES), which assessed the extent to which the subjects experience emotions in their daily lives, one of which was awe. They would rank statements like “I often feel awe” on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). The researchers also used voxel-based morphology or VBM. Although this sounds complicated, simply put, VBM is an analysis technique that uses neuroimaging scans of the brain and compares it to a baseline template and then across subjects. Researchers use this method to examine neuroanatomical differences in the volume of different brain structures. In this case, they were looking at regional gray matter volume (rGMV), which consists of the brain’s nerve cell bodies. From the DPES scores and the brain images they acquired through VBM, the results indicated that the dispositional awe score was correlated with rGMV in several different brain regions:
- The first correlation was between rGMV and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). This part of the brain is critical for adapting to sudden changes in the environment, early learning, and conscious attention (Allman et al., 2001; Shiota et al., 2017). The association between dispositional awe and the ACC could indicate that awe has an increased tendency to embrace cognitive accommodation and new knowledge. Additionally, the experience of awe leads people to shift their awareness and attention from day-to-day problems and towards the bigger picture away from their own personal self.
- Next, there are correlations with the middle/posterior cingulate cortex (MCC/PCC). The MCC is involved with reward emotional processing (Bush et al., 2002) and the PCC is involved in assessing self-relevant information (Scherpiet et al., 2014). This correlation may indicate that dispositional awe is ultimately a reward-related emotional experience.
- Lastly, they found a correlation with the rGMV in the medial temporal gyrus (MTG). This area is widely involved in the detection of incongruity and socioemotional regulation (Bartolo et al., 2006). The MTG plays a crucial role in the detection and resolution of incongruity in the process of experiencing socioemotional awe.
These results suggest that individual differences in dispositional awe involve multiple brain regions related to attention, conscious self-regulation, cognitive control, and social emotion. This study is the first to provide evidence for the structural neural basis of individual differences in dispositional awe.
The authors could have strengthened their experiment by having a larger and more diverse sample size. Although the college student population is accessible, gaining data from a wider age range would make their findings more generalizable. However, the VBM method that the authors used was able to look at several different brain structures at once, which was able to provide a very comprehensive overview of which brain structures were affected and strengthened the researchers’ conclusion. Overall, it was fascinating to learn more about how our brain processes feelings of awe. It would be interesting to learn more about how our physiological responses, like goosebumps, also have a relationship to neural circuits in our brain, and if different external stimuli have different effects, i.e. our response to awe in music versus a sports match. Huge thank you to Dr. Frenzel who got us this opportunity to attend this AWEsome game. I cannot wait to experience more awe as we close out our final two weeks here in Paris!
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Keltner, D. J., & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 17(2), 297–314. https://doi.org/10.1080/02699930302297
Guan F, Xiang Y, Chen O, Wang W, Chen J (2018) Neural basis of dispositional awe. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience 12:1-7
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Shiota, M. N., Thrash, T. M., Danvers, A., and Dombrowski, J. T. (2017). Transcending the Self: Awe, Elevation and Inspiration. Available online at: http://www.psyarxiv.com/hkswj.
Smith R (2019) Chile Goalkeeper Equal to the Task, if Not to the Team. The New York TimesAvailable at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/16/sports/christiane-endler-chile.html