Ooh and awe: The science behind our fascination with the Grand Canyon

By

Emma Greguska

Editor's note: This story is part of an ASU Now series celebrating the centennial of the Grand Canyon National Park.

In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt called it "the one great sight which every American should see." In 1919, perhaps in recognition of that sentiment, a national park was established to preserve its splendor for generations to come.

Today, not only Americans but more than 5 million tourists from around the world make the trek to the Grand Canyon every year. As they gather at lookout points, veritable moths to a flame, audible gasps can be heard echoing up and down the rim — the awe of the canyon.

This reaction is practically universal, transcending age, culture and socioeconomic factors. At Arizona State University, Associate Professor of social psychology Lani Shiota is an expert on the emotion of awe. In her research, Shiota is working to uncover the secrets of the emotion — including its very purpose — and she has made some interesting discoveries.

For starters, awe is something that is almost certainly uniquely human.

“The capacity for awe relies on something that humans are certainly best at, and that is taking a mental map of things and people in the world and forming an internal mental representation of those things,” Shiota said. “It’s a huge part of how we survive.”

Video of Awe Inspiring Research and the Grand Canyon

Video by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

For centuries, humans have relied on mental maps of the world based on prior experiences to guide us safely through new and unexpected situations and territory. So, when we encounter something we’ve never seen before, it is in our best interest to absorb as much information about it as possible, to be able to add it to our internal mental schema and be better prepared for something like it in the future.

Researchers are still learning how the emotion of awe allows that to happen, but what they theorize is that it alters our information processing.

“When we're in an awe state, part of what our minds are telling us is that prior experience doesn’t necessarily apply here. So what we think it's doing is promoting a cognitive and behavioral state — and perhaps even a physiological state — that makes it easier to take in information,” Shiota said.

“So you stop moving. Your attentional focus shifts from yourself, your day-to-day priorities, whatever was on your mind just beforehand, to be entirely focused on this awe-eliciting thing in front of you, whatever that may be.”

To listen to some ASU students’ experiences of the Grand Canyon is to hear compelling evidence to prove that theory.

Ethan Hetrick, a junior in physics, has visited the canyon many times. When asked how it makes him feel, he replied, “My senses kind of get clearer. … It’s almost like I’m more aware of what I’m experiencing in that moment. I can see a little bit sharper; I’m aware of the sounds that are going on around me.”

Sunrise at Mather Point

Dawn breaks over the canyon at Mather Point. Photo by Craig Zerbe/Getty Images/iStockphoto

In the laboratory, Shiota has tested the effects of awe on information processing by exposing subjects to an awe-inducing stimulus, then having them read a story about a romantic dinner and asking them to recall certain details afterward.

She found that people were less likely to add details from their internal mental schemas of what a romantic dinner should include if they had been exposed to an awe-inducing stimulus before reading the story.

For example, when asked if there had been a candle on the table in the story, subjects who had not been exposed to an awe-inducing stimulus often recalled that there was a candle, when in reality, the story made no mention of a candle. People who had been exposed to an awe-inducing stimulus before reading the story were less likely to make that mistake.

“That tells us they're really attending more carefully to the information that was actually in the story,” Shiota said.

Exactly what causes people to feel awe can vary, but panoramic nature views — and the Grand Canyon itself — are high up on the list.

“The most commonly accepted definition of awe in literature right now involves encountering a stimulus, something very large, very vast or with very vast implications that doesn't map onto knowledge that we have already interpreted about the world around us,” Shiota said.

But people have also reported art, music, dance and social interactions as awe-inspiring.

“Anything that challenges their conception of the world,” she added, “or presents them with something new and complicated and difficult to take in, but valuable.”

And yet there are those few outliers who are more resistant to feeling awe. Shiota suspects it could be any number of reasons, such as overexposure to a certain stimulus or one’s willingness to admit — either consciously or subconsciously — that they are unfamiliar with something.

For those who do experience awe, the emotion isn’t just a mental experience. In her lab, Shiota has been able to measure people’s physiological response to awe-inducing stimuli. Unlike other positive emotions that cause arousal in the form of increased heart rate, dilated pupils and other such symptoms, awe appears to have a calming effect.

“It is one indicator that when people describe their body feeling suddenly calm and soothed in this experience, that there's something biologically real about that,” she said.

Top photo: Grand Canyon South Rim view at golden hour under a stormy sky with tourists at a lookout point taking pictures and selfies. Photo by Susan Vineyard/Getty Images/iStockphoto