Takano, R., & Nomura, M. (2020)

Takano, R. (高野了太), & Nomura, M. (野村理朗) (2020).
Neural Representations of Awe: Distinguishing Common and Distinct Neural Mechanisms.
Emotion, Advance online publication.
doi: 10.1037/emo0000771

Awe is an emotional response to perceptually vast stimuli that transcend one’s current frames of reference. The psychological form and function of awe differ between two types: positive-awe, which arises from perceptually aesthetic experiences (e.g., the beauty of nature, spiritual experiences, or the virtue of a leader), and threat-awe, which is triggered by threatening stimuli (e.g., natural disasters, wrathful god, or a leader’s coercive charisma). Here, using functional MRI, we investigated common and distinct neural responses to experiences of positive- and threat-awe, elicited by watching awe-inspiring videos. We found that both awe experiences deactivated the left middle temporal gyrus (MTG) in contrast to control conditions (positive-awe vs. amusement; threat-awe vs. fear), which suggest that awe experiences generally involve the “schema liberation” process since the left MTG plays a critical role in matching existing schema to events. In addition, positive-awe was associated with increased functional connectivity between the MTG and the anterior/posterior cingulate cortex, which are associated with the aesthetic reward process, and the supramarginal gyrus (SMG), which is involved in the self-other representation. Threat-awe was associated with increased functional connectivity between the MTG and amygdala, which detects and processes threat stimuli, as well as between the amygdala and SMG. These findings suggest that the neural mechanisms underlying the complex psychological processes of awe vary as a function of the type of awe. The implications of these results regarding our understanding of the neural basis of awe and the future directions of human social cognition research are discussed.