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Awe as the Gateway of Neuroplasticity

Aonios previously presented the hypothesis that Awe and Wonder are gateways into a wholesale awakening of supernatural senses and an upgraded consciousness. The following paragraphs will detail the effects of Awe on the nervous system and attempt to link this understudied positive emotion to neuroplasticity and the ability of the nervous system to both change and challenge its sense of reality while constantly absorbing new knowledge.

Let’s start with a definition of terms; paraphrasing the scientific literature, Awe can be defined as:

  • A perception of vastness (psychological or physical)

  • Need for accommodation (struggling to mentally process the experience)

  • Triggered by beauty, ability, virtue, threat and the supernatural

Neuro plasticity can be defined as:

  • The nervous system’s (visual and motor) ability to change over time in response to experience

    • Short term malleability (skills/memory/motor function) based on chemical signaling. Usually the realm of pharmacology (ADHD treatment)

    • Long term behavioral malleability (skills/memory/motor function) Priming the nervous system for long term changes via repetition and neuroplasticity inducing protocols

Measurement of Awe

Awe is usually self-reported yet there is consensus around the biomarkers correlated to the presence of the emotion. Studying these biomarkers has allowed scientists to make some powerful observations.

Dr Lani Shiota of Arizona State University has found that Awe is related to:

  • A decreasing Sympathetic (Fight or Flight) response

  • A decrease of the Parasympathetic (Rest and Digest) response

  • An Increase learning and high accuracy of recall and analysis.

No other emotion decreases both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, the implications are that Awe therefore:

  • Increases the ability to take information from world around us

    • Related to the Hippocampus

  • Brings focus attention from the self to our surroundings

  • Reduce tendency to filter experience from what we already know

    • In other words, introducing a maleability to our sense of reality, our sense of what is possible.

    • Related to the Thalamus

Does Awe create Neuroplasticity?

The above observations seem to bring both focus and a malleability of our sense of reality, two characteristics that are related to Neuroplasticity. Lets dive deeper into the mechanics and biochemistry of N\neuroplasticity and see if the hypothesis continues to hold.

Recent research by Van Vleet and Merzenwhich indicates that there are 2 needed steps to Neuroplasticity:

  1. Motivated Learning/Behavior change concentration

  2. Followed by needed states of rest

1. Motivated Learning/Concentration

There are 3 Neurochemicals, that when present indicate the “Opening of the Neuroplasticity Gate“

  • Epinephrine/adrenaline - Indicating Alertness

    • Alertness can be excitement, curiosity, desire, action

  • Acetylcholine secreted from the Nucleus Basalis Region of the Hippocampus -

    • Indicating Focus (Also a byproduct of Awe)

    • Acetylcholine also floods the Thalamus to “reduce” sense of reality (Also a byproduct of Awe)

  • Dopamine - Indicating Motivation

When these 3 Neurochemicals are present throughout particular neural pathways that were activated during learning/concentration, the brain then knows to strengthen said pathways during rest periods

  • Without alertness, focus and motivation, (and their accompanying neurochemicals), neuroplasticity doesn’t truly happen, therefore the knowledge gained during a session of learning/concentration will not graduate to long term retention

2. States of Rest

  • The breakthrough in the last couple of years has been the mechanical understanding that the brain, while at rest, retraces/replays the knowledge acquired in order to consolidate it.

  • When resting, the brain searches for the neural pathways marked by the neurochemicals secreted during true motivation and replays all the knowledge gained during bout of learning, therefore strengthening the particular pathway and weakening others.

The two neuroplastic steps of concentration and rest seem eerily related to the focusing, malleable and expanding effects of Awe.

While Awe does not necessarily induce all the states of Motivated Learning

(No alertness via adrenaline and no extended motivation via dopamine), it definitely creates the sense of focus and reality malleability while offering a state of rest as the sympathetic response (Fight or Flight) decreases.

These observed links bring forth a new set of questions:

  • Is the quality of rest directly related to the degree of knowledge retention?

  • Is rest the best neurological state for neuroplasticity to happen? (At least while awake)

  • Can a session of Awe replace or improve the effects of rest as the second step of neuroplasticity?

New research by Immink seems to indicate that rest is not necessarily confined to sleep but even short bouts of non sleep deep rest (NSDR) states of restfulness like certain meditations, yoga or hypnosis can trigger the same knowledge consolidation patterns as sleep.

We have reached out to Immick and Shiota to see if they would address the question of whether Awe improves upon or counts as the state of rest needed for neuroplasticity.

Another Important question that has emerged by attempting to link Awe to Neuroplasticity is whether or not any other emotional states can improve upon the effects of rest as the second step of neuroplasticity. In order to answer this question, we now head towards the seat of our emotions, the heart.

The Heart Brain Connection

Historically, scientific inquiry has been siloed and specialized with little or no cross referencing amongst scientists and their findings. A positive current development in neuroscience is the notion that the human nervous system has (at a minimum) two operational centers, one in the head (brain) and one in the chest (heart).

We need to take a holistic view of the nervous systems and neuroplasticity before embarking upon our new set of questions.

The heart contains its own neurons (called ganglia) that behave and organize themselves the same way as the neurons in the brain:

  • Growing dendrites and linking together forming synapses, Short/long term memory and plasticity.

  • Moreover, the heart sends more electromagnetic signals to the brain than the brain does to the heart.

  • The Vagus nerve, which regulates the parasympathetic system (Rest and digest) sends 90% of its connections from the heart to brain and regulates the Cerebral-cortex and many of its subcomponents:

    • Amygdala, Hippocampus and Thalamus.

The Heart Math Institute is the leading research center around the heart, they (amongst others) have discovered that a healthy heart does not have the same beating rhythm all the time, rather, the rhythms change depending on many factors, but mostly, the emotional state of the individual. These changing rhythms are called “Heart Rate Variability (HRV)

For example:

  • Frustration, anger and similar emotions produce a jagged HRV graph while

  • Appreciation and similar emotions produce a smooth sine curve graph

  • Further electrocardiograms and encephalo-cardiogram research reveals that once the emotion is sustained for long periods of time, the rhythms of the brain waves and the HRV begin to mimic each other.

    • Specially at Alpha and Theta wave lengths

  • Since the Vagus nerve connects the heart and the brain, research has shown that if the HRV graph of an individual is in a chaotic state (negative emotion), the cortical function of the brain is severely inhibited.

    • Think a smart person making bad decisions under duress

  • Cortical Inhibition has profound effects:

    • Thalamus: Reality perception, visual and auditory processing proprioception (body awareness), and all electrical activity in the body

    • Amygdala: Emotional center

    • Hippocampus: Fear regulation, long term/short term memory processing and capacity

Cortical inhibition reduces the individual’s perception and cognition, including higher-order thinking skills, their ability to be creative, think of the future, self regulate, activate the parasympathetic

Increased Cognitive functions after Coherence

The opposite of Cortical inhibition is Coherence, when the HRV has smooth wave patterns (positive feelings), at this point the Cortical Function is optimal because the heart-brain pathway is open and the Thalamus, Amygdala and Hippocampus can function properly

  • Multiple studies have been conducted to determine the increase in cognitive capacity of individuals at coherence

    • A study of note had a control group relax before a standard cognition test and an experimental group meditate and reach device proven coherence.

    • The experimental group had a 9 fold increase in reaction times

    • Many other studies have proven that coherence improves more than just cognition, but clarity, emotional regulation, resilience, courage, performance under duress, PTSD symptoms, academic performance, memory capacity and recall etc.

  • It’s important to note that experiments were run after coherence, not during, since the individual’s full attention is needed for the HRV to change.

  • All of the studies measure the “Carryover” effect of Coherence

  • The above mentioned “Carry over Effect” opens up many questions:

    • How long can it last? Can we increase how long it lasts? etc

  • Research by the HeartMath Institute in 2015 found that the Amygdala, who holds the emotional memory, has set the individual’s “Familiar Emotional Baseline Pattern” and the brain fights opposing inputs and directives to return to this state.

  • So, naturally, if this state is chaotic, short bouts of coherence will be “fought against”, the carry over effect will eventually end and therefore the individual will revert back to a state of Cortical Inhibition

  • Dr Rollin McCraty from the HeartMath Institute is conducting research that states that 6 weeks of achieving Heart Brain Coherence by Meditating on Appreciation 3 to 4 times a day can in fact create new emotional memories for the amygdala to set as a the new “Familiar Emotional Baseline Pattern”

  • This “ Familiar Emotional Baseline Pattern” and it’s ability to change is a deeper, previously unrecognized ability for our nervous system to be plastic

Aonios has reached out to the Heart Math Institute to have a conversation around the following questions:

  • Can Awe improve upon or replace rest as the second step of neuroplasticity?

  • Can Awe replace appreciation and gratitude as the “ Familiar Emotional Baseline Pattern” and can it increase the quality and the duration of HRV’s Carry over effect and its increased cognitive functions?

In Awe of the Possibilities

The masters and sages of our religious and mystical traditions often speak about accessing the morphic field or simply knowing things (Cardiognosis) without the need of learning and computation. Can it be that they simply live in a state of constant plasticity? In a state of constant reality expansion via ancient protocols of Awe, Focus and Rest?

Are our cognitive functions incremental? In other words, does a constant state of increased cognitive function (as presently understood) unleash the variables and characteristics of yet another increase of cognitive function?

If the obtaining of knowledge and the malleability of our sense of reality are ever changing, is it reasonable to process sensorial data at even higher rates? Is it then reasonable to ask whether this increase in sensorial processing rates can allow us to tap into extra sensorial data fields?

Can Awe permanently open the gates of neuroplasticity to the point that we can improve our cognitive abilities beyond the currently agreed upon parameters of the possible?

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”

― Albert Einstein

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After studying a Bachelor of Science recently, I can tell you that all of this research is current and as a Christian, I can see the exciting possibilities that these questions will lead to


Samuel Daerego
Samuel Daerego
Jun 17, 2022

Wowowowow!!!!! In Absolute Awe!!! We are fearfully and wonderfully made!!! Thank you to the Research team for yielding deeper to unveil the limitless possibilities in our Biology!!!


Debi Lovell
Debi Lovell
Jun 13, 2022

Wow, this is very interesting and really gives me something to think about. I find myself so many times in absolute awe of God and things He has done and is in the process of doing. Its interesting to find out how this affects me. Thanks

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