Have you ever been stopped in your tracks by a stunning view, or gobsmacked by the vastness of the night sky? Have you been transported by soaring music, a grand scientific theory or a charismatic person? If so, you will understand US novelist John Steinbeck’s response to California’s giant redwood trees, which can soar more than a hundred metres towards the sky. “[They] leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always,” he wrote. “From them comes silence and awe.”
Philosophers and writers have long been fascinated by our response to the sublime, but until a few years ago, scientists had barely studied it. Now they are fast realising that Steinbeck was right about its profound effects. Feeling awestruck can dissolve our very sense of self, bringing a host of benefits from lowering stress and boosting creativity to making us nicer people.