The Emotion of Awe: A Catalyst for Self-Transformation

  • Name: Alice Chirico
  • Number of lab members or colleagues (excluding PI): A lot! And the team is constantly growing!
    I have to confess that my closest collaborators are hard to identify. I can provide you with some names: prof. Andrea Gaggioli (Catholic University of the Sacred Heart of Milan), prof. Carlo Galiberti (Catholic University of the Sacred Heart of Milan), David B. Yaden (Johns Hopkins Medicine), prof. Robert R. Clewis (Gwynedd Mercy University, USA and is an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow), prof. Maddalena Mazzocut-mis (University of Milan, Department of Cultural and Environmental Heritage), Dr. Eleonora Maggioni (Fondazione IRCCS Ca’ Granda Ospedale Maggiore Policlinico di Milano), prof. Pietro Cipresso (University of Turin), prof. Elvis Mazzoni and Dr. Martina Benvenuti (University of Bologna), prof. Vlad GlaveanuWebster University Geneva)… and many others!
  • Location: Milan, Italy
  • Graduation Date: Ph.D. in April, 2019
  • H index: 15 (Scholar); 14 (Scopus)
  • Grants: Since I am not fully recognized as a senior researcher in my university, I cannot apply for grants as a PI (in Italy). However, I can say that my contribution has been central to winning the PROMETHEUS national grant (2020-2022) to contrast school dropout using technology, theater, and the sublime.
  • Success of your lab’s members: All the resources I have trained are now successfully employed in different sectors, including research.
  • Twitter followers: Very few, I prefer using other channels such as Facebook or the website of our ExperienceLab

Hello! Who are you and what are you working on?

I am a passionate lover of human complexity and I have always been a researcher, in a certain way. Since I was a baby, I needed to create theories about the world and other people and I have been always fascinated by science, math, as well as Italian and European ancient literature (Latin and Greek especially), and by mid-XVI philosophy. Therefore, I got my diploma in classical high school in Italy in 2008 and then, I was quite disoriented. My parents expected that I had chosen a medical school, and, actually, I studied to pass the exam (despite not being convinced at all). I failed. They also sent me to take the Bocconi University’s entry test and I succeeded immediately. However, I did not accept the position and I was forced to attend the University of Pharmacy in my town. I liked the atmosphere and also the subjects and I passed all the exams. However, I felt it was not my own way. Therefore, the following year, again, I made a new attempt with the exam to access the medical school. And I failed, again. However, this time, I tried to focus on what I really wanted to do in my life, on what I really enjoyed, thus I also took the entry tests for three different universities and the faculty of psychology. I succeeded in every single test and I interpreted it as a sign of Fate. Psychology has become my life.

Notwithstanding, this was not the end but just the beginning of my progressive “transformation” and of self-awareness. During my master’s, I felt I needed something more. I needed to feel inspired again.

My topic encounter with the world of art occurred back in 2013, when I understood that singing would have been the greatest way to express my thoughts and touch people’s souls. Purposely, I chose to start attending singing lessons to pursue a formal musical education, and I discovered an entirely new world that opened many new questions in my mind. One of these questions concerned what I felt when I sang live in my first music band and what the other members felt. It was a sort of invisible connection and when it occurred, we acted as a unique body and entity. The same year, I met Professor Andrea Gaggioli, who I chased for months before getting his OK for my master’s thesis with him. He was interested in applying his Networked Flow model on exemplars of high creativity groups, and I had a domain in which I could help him to implement the model: music bands. From this first collaboration, our study on Networked Flow (i.e., the invisible connection among band members and group performance) was born (for more details see: Gaggioli, A., Chirico, A., Mazzoni, E., Milani, L., & Riva, G. (2017). Networked flow in musical bands. Psychology of Music, 45(2), 283-297.).

Flow and group flow are still now some of my most beloved research topics, and I love to investigate this. We have conducted several studies to apply the model in several contexts and now, hopefully, I will be able to realize the first mixed (online and in presence) festival for music bands interested in empowering their creativity, their flow and their attunement for free.

This first collaboration resulted in a Ph.D. four years later, always at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart of Milan. When I say that I did all of my career path at the same institution, Italians appreciate it, instead, at the international level, it is always seen as weird. I progressively understood that, as Italians, we have different research traditions and habits. One of these habits concerns doing our best with little to no resources. This feeds creativity a lot and trains our resilience. Actually, I learnt to be resilient and to always find the bright side of things. However, this attitude was not innate. I have to say thank you to many people for this, and, especially, to prof. Pietro Cipresso, who has always been a model for me. Indeed, I have always been convinced that changing is possible and functional and I also realized that I could do something to help other people find their way, change and flourish.

It was in 2015 that I understood what my mission in life would be. Andrea (Gaggioli) was interested in the concept of transformation and what we understood, at the beginning of this enterprise, that this mechanism needed a catalyst, as something very small but extremely powerful. Suddenly and unexpectedly, I bumped into a no-more little-studied emotion. The emotion of awe. This was our catalyst of transformation. I was fascinated by all the work done by our US colleagues, starting from the paramount seminal work of Keltner and Haidt (2003) to the central studies of Piff et al. (2015). In the same year, I met a new mate, David B. Yaden who pursued this path to awe.  A great journey! We started working together and we finally met when I was invited as a visiting scholar at Penn University under the supervision of Prof. Martin Seligman in 2018. Till that moment, we discovered that Virtual Reality was extremely effective in eliciting awe (Chirico et al., 2017), that this small emotion could re-shape our way of thinking creatively (Chirico et al., 2018). David was able to place awe among other self-transcendent experiences (Yaden et al., 2017) and this provided all researchers with a new reference model to study this phenomenon. Indeed, again coming back to my Italian culture, after meeting prof. Robert R. Clewis the same year, I started having a suspect that awe and the renowned experience of the sublime have more in common than what it had been posited before. Sublime, in Italy, is a sort of “sacred experience” that reminds Italians of their high school education, and which is central in Italian literature. How could we resemble the puzzle and reconnect these experiences to understand to what extent they overlap? We have studied a lot. Particularly, I started studying the philosophy of the sublime, psychophysiology, and the basic notions of complex system theory. We had to model this experience. If we were handling the sparkle of transformation, the catalysis we should be open-minded, practice abnegation, and create a multidisciplinary team able to pursue this goal. It has happened. Now, we have a very heterogeneous team spread all over the world, which is interested in exploring the boundaries of human experiences with a special attention to awe and the sublime.

The goal we pursue is always the same: to promote people’s wellbeing and mental health by designing these experiences in an effective, low-cost, and impacting way. This is also our mission at the Experience Lab ( in which I am co-Director.

Finally, recently, along with my partner, I funded a new no-profit association called “The Way” whose mission is to doing good, rigorous but accessible scientific dissemination on health, wellbeing, and new technologies with special attention for the creation of validated immersive contents able to help people improve their daily wellbeing.


One of our awe-inspiring VR environments - Alice Chirico

What’s your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

I started studying awe and complex experiences to understand why and how people undergo unexpected and sudden changes in their lives. I was interested in understanding the sparkle of transformation and of transformative experiences.

Then, my interest moved more towards reproducing these kinds of experiences in a low-cost and effective way, so that all people all over the world would have been able to experience them, as well as benefits associated to them, at home and in every moment of their life.

Please describe the process of learning, iterating, and creating the project

I have studied (and I keep on studying) everything I can find about transformation, emotions, awe, the sublime, aesthetics, virtual reality, and recently, also regarding benefits associated to virtual nature exposure. This effort has resulted into about 40 articles, the first Italian book on awe published months ago (title: “Awe: The psychology of moments of eternity”), one national grant we got last year -whose goal is to create a new way to teach science by designing awe- and wonder and sublime-inspiring theatrical plays integrated with the use of virtual reality, to contrast schooling dropout.

Above all, I have found a lot of mates, friends, and inspirational people along my path. I have met so many persons that made me feel useful in what I was doing and that also integrated, changed or transformed my view of science and life.

Please describe the process of launching the project

When I started my Ph.D. on awe and the sublime in Italy, I have been teased by many of my colleagues. And, they were right. It looked too pretentious and ambitious.

Now, they are, let’s say, part of our team.

Since launch, what has worked to make your project grow?

I have learnt that good science is made of people, both those who study phenomena and those who experience these phenomena. I cannot apply the lexicographic category of “success” to my work. I believe it needs to be useful. This is what we work for together, and always with a selfless attitude towards research.

How is everything going nowadays, and what are your plans for the future?

I have a lot of plans. First, and most importantly, I would like to start our study on the therapeutic potential of awe and the sublime for ameliorating depressive symptoms. Then, I am writing a new book along with many renowned scholars on this topic and I hope I will be able to complete it within October 2021.

Finally, I would love building upon all these elements to write my first ERC Starting grant proposal.

Through your science, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Yes, one of the most important lessons – and this is not my sentence neither my own reflection – is that “Better is the enemy of good” (Voltaire). As researchers, we have to be especially managers, able to find a daily compromise between deep and intense study as well as the need to concretely do things, to implement our ideas, to take decisions. Science is made of errors and new discoveries, of uncertainty. I believe that the only way to provide a good service to humanity is to do much more than our best and that to deliver it. To be concrete and sharp is extremely relevant. This will act as a clear example especially for our younger collaborators, whose education is essential to make good science advance.

We’d like to know more about your lifestyle and habits. Please let us know, how does a typical day look for you?

In the last year, my morning routine has changed a lot due to the pandemic. Usually, I get up at around 8 a.m., take care of my house, my cat, my partner, and me. Then, after having breakfast, I read news from the world and I open my laptop and I check my to do list. Then, the magic starts. I got lost till 2 p.m. among studying, answering to e-mails, talking to people, having meetings, writing, chatting with my partner (he is a professor and researcher too) about projects, our dreams and so on.

I try to cook something for all of us (me, the cat, and my partner) and I schedule my daily run in the nearby. Then I really need to go for a run, almost every day and not less than 7 km. It is like a moment of flow for me, and it helps me think about unsolved issues.

Then, I come back to work till about 7.30 p.m., I start cooking again and while I am cooking, I do my drum and singing practice. Finally, I work with my partner on our no-profit association “The Way” and I (we) chat with friends till bedtime.

What does your workstation look like?

I have two screens (at least) I am used to work with, all plugged to my laptop. My place is full of books, Muppet furs, equipment to do audio-recordings and a basic drum setup.

I am also surrounded by several VR devices, laptops etc. to test in order to be used in future researches.

What platform/tools do you use for your professional life?

I love the Google Suite for working on shared documents, especially books and projects. However, I am a Dropbox addicted when saving, ubiquity, and full accessibility of documents is needed. I tend to have, at least, four e-mail accounts open but the main one belongs to my Institution and it is on Outlook. I love using Whatsapp to chat with Italian colleagues and only use e-mails to talk to foreign colleagues.

For webinars, seminars, workshops, and online meetings I use to adopt our self-developed fully equipped The Way’s platform. Very functional and easy to use.

Finally, to teach, my Institution asks lecturers to use the Blackboard platform, Teams or WebEx.

What secondary software and apps do you use daily?

I use the Adidas’ running app to track my progress at running. I am also addicted to the Upday App to check news and I must confess… I superuse JustEat to survive and feed my family.

What have been the most influential podcasts, or other resources?

I wish to confess that the most inspiring sources of my career have been movies and books. I have been especially fascinated by “The Theory of Everything” of James Marsh in which this sentence stroke me a lot:

There should be no boundaries to human endeavor. We are all different. However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. While there’s life, there is hope”.

It means that we all can change the world and make it a better place, as Michael Jackson sang.

I have also felt deeply inspired by Keltner and Haidt’ seminal work on awe (2003) as well as by the book from Schneider, K. (2009). Awakening to Awe: Personal Stories of Profound Transformation. Lanham, MD: Jason Aronson.

Finally, recently, as a woman in science, I feel sometimes the need to fight more and in a more intense way to achieve my goals and to establish my identity. I found a sentence said by Agrado – one of the main characters of Pedro Almodóvar’s movie “All about my mother”, – very inspirational:

It cost me a lot to be authentic. But we must not be cheap in regard to the way we look. Because a woman is more authentic the more she looks like what she has dreamed for herself.

What tools do you use in your personal life? Cook? Self-Care? Hobbies?

I run a lot, study, and do singing and drum practice as much as I can.

Advice for other scientists who want to get started or are just starting out?

Never give up. If you feel frustrated, stressed and with no rewarding, it is normal. Research concerns doing something that transcends us and our fears, our dreams, our inspirations. It deals with matching our inspirations with a bigger paint we all belong to. Therefore, my suggestion is to be always open, curious, in awe of life and people, to allow us experiencing any kind of possible emotion and to serve other people. Research has to serve humanity and the world. It is a mission in life. Thus, do not make the mistake of distinguishing between “private life” and “work”. Research is a pervasive attitude, and it requires time and effort to take place. It is not just a job. It deals with the complexity of life.

Thank you very much for your time, Alice. Where can we go to learn more?



My Blog:

My Institutional profile:


The Way:


Alice, C., Glaveanu, V. P., Riva, G., & Gaggioli, A. (2018). Awe Enhances Creative Thinking: An Experimental Study. Creativity Research Journal.

Chirico, A., Cipresso, P., Yaden, D. B., Biassoni, F., Riva, G., & Gaggioli, A. (2017). Effectiveness of immersive videos in inducing awe: an experimental study. Scientific Reports, 7(1), 1-11.

Yaden, D. B., Haidt, J., Jr., H., W., R., Vago, D. R., & Newberg, A. B. (2017). The Varieties of Self-Transcendent Experience. Review of General Psychology. DOI:

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