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Connected Through Awe: Can Interactive Virtual Reality Elicit Awe for Improved Well-Being?



Experiences of awe have therapeutic, health, and educational benefits, characterized by profound feelings of social interconnectivity, shifts in perspective, and increased life satisfaction. We investigated how personalized VR could provide an opportunity to improve well-being through elicitation of awe through a mixed-methods study, with participants interacting with VR to travel the world and visit natural wonders. We complemented introspective measures and survey data with physiological measures of raised goose bumps on the skin, often called ‘chills’, which are known to be a specific marker of this awe experience. Awe ratings were high at an average of 79.7 (0-100 scale); 43.8% of participants experienced goose bumps, and those who experienced goose bumps showed significantly higher ratings of awe than those who did not. Participants that had personalized environments (created through self-selecting the places they visited in VR) experienced more intense awe. Introspective findings of those who experienced awe revealed themes of feeling calmed by the experience, increased curiosity, and profound social connection with their home, friends, and families.
Bernhard E. Riecke
Denise Quesnel
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Research Questions
Can interactive virtual reality elicit awe for improved
And, what are the design considerations for successful
awe-inspiring VR systems?
Methods and Materials
16 participants spent 20 minutes interacting with VR to
travel, visit natural wonders, and orbit Earth through Google
Earth VR using a HTC Vive headset and hand controller
interactive interface.
Three datasets collected: Physiological goose bumps,
introspective survey ratings, and interviews.
Goose bumps were recorded on the skin with a video camera
Surveys included ratings on the reported level of awe
Semi-structured, open ended interviews provided further
insight into the phenomenon
Phase 1: instructed participants to travel to the experimenter-
selected locations (a city and a natural wonder); Phase 2:
personalization that allowed participants to travel to any place
of their choosing.
Conclusion and Next Steps
Interactive VR has a powerful capacity to elicit awe,
especially within personalized environments. Physiological
goose bumps provide reliable, non-intrusive indications of
awe, and introspective data can provide valuable insights
into the VR system qualities and the experience of awe so we
can design effective awe-inspiring experiences. Care must be
taken to design interaction interfaces that do not impede awe.
Future work involves testing the effectiveness of our new,
custom VR system designed to elicit awe. We aim to use
additional physiological sensors to complement goose bumps
and introspective data collection.
Quantitative Results
Participants rated awe 79.7 (out of 100); 43.8% of
participants experienced goose bumps
Most goose bumps were seen in Phase 2, personalization phase
(60% of goose bump occurrences)
ratings of awe than those who did not: t(14) = 2.82, p = .014,
r = .36
Qualitative Results
Verbal indications of awe were made by all participants
Those who experienced awe revealed feeling calmed by the
experience (N=7), and increased curiousity (N=9)
Profound social connection with their home, friends, and
families (N=11), mainly during the personalization phase
10 of 16 struggled with the controllers (interaction interface);
despite a 360 degree environment, looking around was not
intuitive and many relied on controllers to manipulate the
environment (a possible artefact of face-forward, seated
gaming expertise)
Participants who struggled with the interaction interface
reported distraction from the virtual environment, which
could impede awe
Presented at 3rd Annual Innovations
in Psychiatry and Behavioral Health:
Virtual Reality and Behavior Change
Stanford University School of Medicine
A bird’s eye view,
Mount Everest in Google Earth VR
Goose bumps
visible on arm
Connected Through Awe
Can Interactive Virtual Reality Elicit Awe
for Improved Well-Being?
Awe has wellness and educational benets
Characteristics include feelings of social interconnectivity [1],
shifts in perspective [2], and increased life satisfaction [3]
Awe is a rare experience in our busy everyday lives, and rarer
in a lab setting [4]
goose bumps (quantitative) [5,6] and themes of awe
descriptions (qualitative) [7]
Interactive Virtual Reality (VR) could help make immersive,
awe-inspiring experiences accessible to people [8].
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
The emotion of awe is characterized by the perception of vastness and a need for accommodation, which can include a positive and/or negative valence. While a number of studies have successfully manipulated this emotion, the issue of how to elicit particularly intense awe experiences in laboratory settings remains. We suggest that virtual reality (VR) is a particularly effective mood induction tool for eliciting awe. VR provides three key assets for improving awe. First, VR provides users with immersive and ecological yet controlled environments that can elicit a sense of " presence, " the subjective experience of " being there " in a simulated reality. Further, VR can be used to generate complex, vast stimuli, which can target specific theoretical facets of awe. Finally, VR allows for convenient tracking of participants' behavior and physiological responses, allowing for more integrated assessment of emotional experience. We discussed the potential and challenges of the proposed approach with an emphasis on VR's capacity to raise the signal of reactions to emotions such as awe in laboratory settings.
Full-text available
This book presents a study of the various feelings of awe and wonder experienced by astronauts during space flight. It summarizes the results of two experimental, interdisciplinary studies that employ methods from neuroscience, psychology, phenomenology and simulation technology, and it argues for a non-reductionist approach to cognitive science.
Full-text available
Profound aesthetic experiences associated with awe—often described as a sense of wonder, amazement, fascination, or being moved and touched—have received less attention than milder states like pleasure, liking, and interest. Who tends to experience these powerful states? We suggest that openness to experience, although not normally seen as an emotional trait, is a propensity for awe-like experiences that stretch one’s normal ways of thinking about oneself and the world. A sample of 103 adults took part in a two-phase study that examined the role of openness to experience in two domains: nature and music. In the first phase, people viewed 14 images of the sky and space and rated their experience of each on items related to awe, wonder, and fascination. In the second phase, people listened to a song with qualities known to evoke awe (“Hoppípolla” by Sigur Rós) and rated their experience of it afterward. Openness to experience predicted the experience of awe for both space images (r = .48) and music (r = .35), and the experience of awe was correlated across the domains (r = .35). The other four factors of personality had much smaller effects, and extraversion’s effects were consistently near zero, indicating that awe-like experience differs from the activated positive affectivity typical of extraversion. Overall, the results support the view of openness to experience as an essentially aesthetic trait and extend it to deeper aesthetic states.
Full-text available
Awe is an emotional response to perceptually vast stimuli that transcend current frames of reference. Guided by conceptual analyses of awe as a collective emotion, across 5 studies (N = 2,078) we tested the hypothesis that awe can result in a diminishment of the individual self and its concerns, and increase prosocial behavior. In a representative national sample (Study 1), dispositional tendencies to experience awe predicted greater generosity in an economic game above and beyond other prosocial emotions (e.g., compassion). In follow-up experiments, inductions of awe (relative to various control states) increased ethical decision-making (Study 2), generosity (Study 3), and prosocial values (Study 4). Finally, a naturalistic induction of awe in which participants stood in a grove of towering trees enhanced prosocial helping behavior and decreased entitlement compared to participants in a control condition (Study 5). Mediational data demonstrate that the effects of awe on prosociality are explained, in part, by feelings of a small self. These findings indicate that awe may help situate individuals within broader social contexts and enhance collective concern. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2015 APA, all rights reserved).
Full-text available
Strong emotional feelings seem to include physiological and motor responses, as well as the cognitive appraisal of a stimulus (Scherer, 2004). Individuals may thus reach emotional peaks at different points in time. "Chills" (goose bumps or shivers) offer useful indications of individual emotional peaks (Panksepp, 1995). Reported chills of 95 participants in response to seven music pieces are presented. Subjective intensity as well as physiological arousal-Skin Conductance Response (SCR) and Heart Rate (HR)-revealed peaks during chill episodes. A possible influence of breathing was excluded. Familiarity with the music had a significant impact on chills. Age, gender, and music education showed no influence on chill frequency. In an exploratory approach, the influence of active music listening (i.e., singing along, lip syncing, etc.) could not be confirmed. These results suggest that chills are a reliable parameter, synchronizing subjective feeling with the physiological arousal component, without being influenced by motor responses.
Full-text available
Piloerection is known as an indicator of strong emotional experiences. However, little is known about the physiological and emotional specificity of this psychophysiological response. In the presented study, piloerection was elicited by audio stimuli taken from music and film episodes. The physiological response accompanying the incidence of piloerection was recorded with respect to electrodermal, cardiovascular and respiratory measures and compared to a matched control condition. The employment of an optical recording system allowed for a direct and objective assessment of visible piloerection. The occurrence of piloerection was primarily accompanied by an increase of phasic electrodermal activity and increased respiration depth as compared to a matched control condition. This physiological response pattern is discussed in the context of dominant theories of human piloerection. Consideration of all available evidence suggests that emotional piloerection represents a valuable indicator of the state of being moved or touched.
Awe has been defined as an emotional response to perceptually vast stimuli that overwhelm current mental structures, yet facilitate attempts at accommodation. Four studies are presented showing the information-focused nature of awe elicitors, documenting the self-diminishing effects of awe experience, and exploring the effects of awe on the content of the self-concept. Study 1 documented the information-focused, asocial nature of awe elicitors in participant narratives. Study 2 contrasted the stimulus-focused, self-diminishing nature of appraisals and feelings associated with a prototypical awe experience with the self-focused appraisals and feelings associated with pride. Study 3 found that dispositional awe-proneness, but not dispositional joy or pride, was associated with low Need for Cognitive Closure, and also documented a relationship between dispositional awe and increased emphasis on membership in "universal" categories in participants' self-concepts. Study 4 replicated the self-concept finding from Study 3 using experimentally elicited awe. Implications for future work on awe are discussed.
When do people feel as if they are rich in time? Not often, research and daily experience suggest. However, three experiments showed that participants who felt awe, relative to other emotions, felt they had more time available (Experiments 1 and 3) and were less impatient (Experiment 2). Participants who experienced awe also were more willing to volunteer their time to help other people (Experiment 2), more strongly preferred experiences over material products (Experiment 3), and experienced greater life satisfaction (Experiment 3). Mediation analyses revealed that these changes in decision making and well-being were due to awe's ability to alter the subjective experience of time. Experiences of awe bring people into the present moment, and being in the present moment underlies awe's capacity to adjust time perception, influence decisions, and make life feel more satisfying than it would otherwise.