The Phenomenology of Abstract Awe

University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Raised of $3,620 Goal
Ended on 12/12/22
Campaign Ended
  • $130
  • 4%
  • Finished
    on 12/12/22

About This Project

Awe is an emotion that we experience when we become aware and appreciative of the mysteries of our world, and ourselves. This arises in various contexts, ranging from experiencing nature scenes to abstract imagery. Recent phenomenological work has utilized virtual reality (VR) to induce awe through simulating real world environments. To extend this literature, this study will use a psychedelic VR program to study how awe is experienced in an abstract context.

Ask the Scientists

Join The Discussion

What is the context of this research?

Awe is an emotion that is notoriously difficult to study, yet has fascinated scholars for centuries. A recent definition posits awe as a direct and initial feeling when faced with something incomprehensible or sublime. This often arises through experiences of nature, whether through viewing something vast such as the Grand Canyon, or something small, like a butterfly or the way light shines through a single drop of water. Awe can also arise through experiencing abstract phenomena, such as viewing works of art or through psychedelic experience. Recent phenomenological work has induced awe in laboratory conditions through VR and have begun to map out the qualities that characterize how we live and make sense of these experiences.

What is the significance of this project?

Awe is a profound experience that has only recently grabbed the attention of experimental psychology. It's an important emotion to study because of its potential for positive transformations, including having a more generous and interconnected perspective on life. Though we have begun to flesh out how people live and make sense of awe experiences, there is still much work to be done. For example, no work utilizing VR thus far has extended beyond simulating natural world environments and included abstract imagery. The significance of this project lies in its aim to study awe in this abstract context. Furthermore, this project expands beyond constructing common themes to elucidating the micro-dynamics of how this experience unfolds.

What are the goals of the project?

I will have participants experience a psychedelic VR program, then follow with up to two rounds of interviews. The first will follow an interpretive phenomenological analysis framework (IPA); this is a broader inquiry seeking to discover what they experienced in the virtual world, allowing the construction of themes that can extend and be compared to previous work on VR induced awe. The second round will be micro-phenomenological interviews. The goal of this interview method moves beyond common themes of experience and dives into how these phenomena actually appear in one's experience. The focus here is to shift away from what was experienced to how it was experienced, allowing inquiry into the structural characteristics of experience.


Please wait...

I believe participants should be fairly compensated for their time so will receive $15 an hour and will come into the lab on two separate occasions. Each participant will be in the lab for up to 4 hours and I will recruit a maximum of 20 participants. The analysis I plan to do can be done with fewer participants, so this fund will cover the possibility of needing to exclude any participants' data along with the possibility of people not coming for the follow up visit where the primary data is collected. The money I hope to collect here will go to participants, reimbursement for the VR equipment, the software needed to transcribe and analyze the interview data along with's fees and advertising the study (FaceBook ad campaign). Any leftover funds (if any) will be donated to other projects on!

Endorsed by

In-depth study of awe is no frivolity. In our deep past, I believe awe was a far more common and critical animator of human existence. Human life was designed to be fueled by awe, elicited by intimate contact with nature and participation in potent religions. Awe fosters daily perseverance and provides resilience to face severe suffering. Recently, we have largely lost contact with awe, and so, our sense of meaning and mental health is in decline. Studies like this may help us bring genuine awe back to life and even rescue the human experiment.
I have been teaching and doing research on positive psychology for the past 20 years and I greatly appreciate its growing focus on positive experiences like awe. This study is potentially groundbreaking in the light it can shed on our capacity for experiencing and benefiting from the beauty and wonder all around us. I hope you will make whatever donation you can to support this exceptional effort to enable us all to raise our lives to higher level.
This project will provide an analysis of the experience of awe, which is quite an interesting construct that has not been explored using the methods in the current study.

Project Timeline

I proposed this project to my masters committee on June 8, 2022. I'm aiming to complete the project and defend by the end of June 2023.

Jun 08, 2022

Thesis proposal

Oct 28, 2022

Project Launched

Nov 01, 2022

Begin data collection

Apr 30, 2023

Finish data collection

May 31, 2023

Analysis and write up

Meet the Team

Jacob Spinks
Jacob Spinks
Graduate student


University of New Mexico
View Profile
David Witherington
David Witherington
Associate Professor


University of New Mexico
View Profile

Jacob Spinks

I was very active as a child and participated in many sports. But I also spent a significant amount of time staring off into space and letting my mind wander. I was always fascinated by tracing my thoughts back, seeing what lead to what and how new thoughts would emerge. I believe this was the beginning of my inquiry into the human mind and experience, but I didn't recognize it at the time.

Fast forward a decade or so and I was fumbling around in my first few semesters of my undergrad, not really sure what I wanted to do with my life. Around the time I became interested in contemplative practices and in related contexts had a few experiences of awe that began to open me up to the mysteries of existing as a human being. This led me to the seemingly obvious conclusion that I wanted to study the human mind for a living.

I applied to graduate school and got accepted into the combined masters and PhD experimental psychology program in my home town of Albuquerque at the University of New Mexico. The first couple years has mostly consisted of conceptual exploration, leading me to the field of phenomenology and more specifically to the sub-field of micro-phenomenology (receiving formal training in the latter). In a nutshell, this mode of inquiry revolves around studying the mind and experience introspectively through interviews. The farther I've dove into the endless rabbit holes of my own and others' experiences, the more I come to realize that we know, and tend to recognize very little of what is seemingly most intimate to us all, our own lived experience. I am deeply curious to see where this lifelong pursuit takes me!

David Witherington

My empirical work focuses on perception-action, cognitive, and emotional development in infancy and early childhood. In recent years, I have begun to study the phenomenology of affect. My conceptual work focuses on the metatheoretical foundations of developmental and psychological science and on delineating, elucidating, and resolving conceptual confusions in these disciplines.

Lab Notes

Nothing posted yet.

Additional Information

The VR program participants will experience is called SoundSelf. This was inspired by and to an extent mimics psychedelic experience by having participants engage an abstract world full of colors and patterns that are responsive to their vocal input

Project Backers

  • 4Backers
  • 4%Funded
  • $130Total Donations
  • $32.50Average Donation
Please wait...