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A group watches the sun set from Whale Watch Point at Gualala Point Regional Park

Slow down, make time for "Awe Walks"

By Stephen Nett

At Gualala Point Regional Park, when a sunset unrolls its colors over the vast Pacific, the view can be so amazing it can make you stop to watch. In fall, the leaves of the ancient bigleaf maples in Shiloh Ranch Regional Park turn school bus yellow before drifting into blankets beneath the spreading trees. And at Spring Lake Regional Park in April, lines of fluffy baby ducklings appear, bobbing furiously as they try to keep up with mom. 

Humans everywhere respond to nature moments like these with feelings of excitement, joy, wonder. It’s part of our makeup. 

But whyWhy do we react to experiences in the natural world this way? Science has started to explore that question, and is finding such feelings come with some real benefits. 

What is awe?

Among the feelings we experience in nature, one of the more powerful is awe. Imagine standing on the lip of the Grand Canyon, or high up under a clear night sky bursting with stars.

Experts say awe is a response to something so astonishing, beautiful, powerful or vast it exceeds our usual understanding of the world. The feeling is like intense amazement with a slight edge of disorientation or danger. We may get ‘goosebumps’, or chills. 

Awe is also powerful enough, psychologists find, that it can actually shift how we view ourselves.  And that can be very positive, in a number of ways.

 a woman surveys the view from atop Gunsight Rock at Hood Mountain Regional Park and Open Space Preserve.

A hiker looks out over Sonoma Valley from Gunsight rock in Hood Mountain Regional Park and Open Space Preserve

Feeling good, feeling small

If you’ve ever climbed the trail to catch the westward vista from Gunsight Rock, or camped at Merganser Pond on Hood Mountain and listened to the chorus of hundreds of frogs in the darkness, you may have felt it.  In addition to creating lasting memories, moments of awe can affect us in other ways. For example, people frequently report that feeling awe makes them feel "smaller,” or, of being a small part of something much larger, in a positive way.  

And that’s not just a feeling: brain scans show that when we feel awe, the areas of our brain that are connected to our sense of self are being activated.  

Test subjects who are asked to draw themselves in a scene that’s awe-inspiring, draw themselves smaller than in scenes that aren’t.  In another experiment, groups of people were asked to take walks in nature and intentionally seek moments of awe, then take selfies. After several weeks, the space taken up by the photographer in each photo grew smaller and smaller. But for a control group that took walks in the city, it remained the same.  

Seeking awe

So what’s creating these effects? As adults, most of the time we’re immersed in our responsibilities, our own concerns, and day-to-day living. It’s hard, psychologists say, to keep a sense of perspective about the grander scheme of things. 

But awesome experiences are powerful enough to pull us out of our inner world, and get us to focus on something outside ourselves. By catching and re-directing our perspective, awe helps us realize that we’re part of something much larger. 

That’s why meeting something truly awesome – such as a bear on a trail or thundering waves – can be such a humbling experience.

A woman leans against a large oak tree

A hiker leans against an oak tree after a hike across Hood Mountain Regional Park and Open Space Preserve

Beyond emotions 

There are physical benefits, too.  Awe can stimulate us, and leave us feeling less stressed, even days after the experience. Unlike feelings of happiness or joy, awe is the only positive emotion that lowers blood levels of molecules called cytokines. Chronic high levels of cytokines are linked to conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and depression, so awe-walks are even being prescribed by doctors. 

Awe can also calm our fight-or-flight response. And people who reported experiencing more awe also appeared to have better immune health. 

Social benefits, too

Even more interesting, studies find that when we “feel smaller” with awe, we’re more generous, feel more connected to others, and are more willing to engage.  On one study, people who were asked to look up at groves of towering eucalyptus trees more often assisted a passerby who “accidentally” dropped pens compared to people who looked up at tall city buildings. 

That leads some to think that awe may have an evolutionary role.  By reducing our self-centered perspective, it may have affected how humans get along with each other, and cooperate for a greater good. Many people in cultures around the world describe their feelings of awe in religious or spiritual terms. 

Tests also show awe increases our sense of place and belonging, stimulates ideas and curiosity, and can relieve trauma.

Two people sit on a bench and enjoy the view over Petaluma at Helen Putnam Regional Park

Looking out over Petaluma from Helen Putnam Regional Park

How to find awe

To experience awe, it isn’t necessary to visit wonders like the Northern Lights or Niagara Falls. In fact, the key to feeling awe, studies show, is our level of absorption. 

Just taking a stroll and intentionally shifting our attention outward instead of inward can lead us there. The level of attention we pay to an experience determines the effect it has, and how lasting those affects will be. In other words, letting go and being absorbed in the experience is key. 

The outdoors are just awe-full

It’s pretty awesome that we’re able to feel awe in the first place. It’s not clear that any other animals can. And we’re surrounded by countless opportunities to do so, everywhere in nature. 

For example, if you see mushrooms pushing up through soil in the forest, also think about the vast networks of underground fungi that produce them. Take moments to explore the intricate patterns and designs in leaves, count how many colors you can find in individual flowers, or track the movements of clouds, to see the atmosphere in motion. 

Your parks are gateways to such experiences. Try taking Awe Walks, to tap into your childlike sense of wonder. Go hunting for experiences with an open mind. 

Some Awe Walks to try:

  • Visit the ocean or seek wide open vistas to experience the vastness of things. Feel the sunlight crossing space, earth deep beneath your feet.
  • Take scent walks beneath the bay laurel trees in fall, when their leaves are most pungent. Wild roses and plants like sage and tar weed also have strong and delightful odors.
  • Visit rivers or streams in the early morning or late afternoon, when birds living in the surrounding trees are most active, and stop to listen to the breadth and variety of their songs. 
  • Give yourself a particular task – look for things in the landscape, like certain colors; how many different shaped flowers or leaves you can spot; things to eat like seeds and berries; or spy on the world of insects all around. 
  • Try to see the forest, not just the trees. Imagine yourself crossing the landscape as if looking down from above, and how the land carries on and on in all directions.

The primary goal of an Awe Walk is to focus outside yourself for a time. Leave the daily world behind, and be absorbed by what surrounds you. 

Even though we spend most of our lives in a mostly human-made world, our bodies are still primed to interact with the natural world in a positive, enriching way. It’s a natural ability. And taking time to put aside the world we carry with us, and letting the outdoors in to fill a larger amount of our attention, has increasing and lasting benefits.

Stephen Nett is a Bodega Bay-based Certified California Naturalist, writer and speaker.

Originally published January 2023.