The neural correlates of the awe experience: Reduced default mode network activity during feelings of awe

Michiel van Elk, M A Arciniegas Gomez, Wietske van der Zwaag, Hein T van Schie, Disa Sauter

Research output: Contribution to journal/periodicalArticleScientificpeer-review


In the present fMRI study, we aimed to obtain insight into the key brain networks involved in the experience of awe-a complex emotion that is typically elicited by perceptually vast stimuli. Participants were presented with awe-eliciting, positive and neutral videos, while they were instructed to get fully absorbed in the scenery or to count the number of perspective changes. By using a whole-brain analysis we found that several brain regions that are considered part of the default mode network (DMN), including the frontal pole, the angular gyrus, and the posterior cingulate cortex, were more strongly activated in the absorption condition. But this was less the case when participants were watching awe videos. We suggest that while watching awe videos, participants were deeply immersed in the videos and that levels of self-reflective thought were as much reduced during the awe videos, as during the perspective counting condition. In contrast, key regions of the fronto-parietal network (FPN), including the supramarginal gyrus, the medial frontal gyrus, and the insula, were most strongly activated in the analytical condition when participants were watching awe compared to positive and neutral videos. This finding underlines the captivating, immersive, and attention-grabbing nature of awe stimuli that is considered to be responsible for reductions in self-reflective thought. Together these findings suggest that a key feature of the experience of awe is a reduced engagement in self-referential processing, in line with the subjective self-report measures (i.e., participants perceived their self to be smaller).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3561-3574
JournalHuman Brain Mapping
Publication statusPublished - 07 May 2019


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