Consider the possibility that the sense of wonder is not just a brief state of awe, a blip of “wow”, but a real sense, just like sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch.
And not just that. Wonder, employed at its full capacity, may reach deeper than any other sense, all the way into the subatomic principle of life itself, judging by some of the breakthroughs of scientific and artistic luminaries who employed it successfully.
It would explain why the stuff we gawk at in a state of wonder tends to entrance but also dumbfound.
Instead of analyzing the data, the rational brain gags at the immensity of what it’s observing, by forgetting about it. An easy escape clause that cuts us off from potentially insightful data.
Take a blade of grass, the type that grows on the front lawn. There are more than 440 million of these things out there for each human who wants to play with them, covering one-fifth of the available landmass. Upon closer inspection, they look like samurai swords or intergalactic star cruisers, yet they’re also squishy and responsive to touch, light and moods. And they seem to inch themselves out of the ground mostly at morning hours, covered in pride and dew, playing the ukulele.
How is any of that even remotely possible?
Or that’s what I once asked inside a brief window of wonder, after a mix of Amazonian medicine and sleep deprivation. It took me a while to realize that I would never solve the secret of the grass, but as the parents tell the kid who failed to make the grade, what matters is that I tried.
What matters is that I wondered.
For a moment, at least, I tried to solve a fundamental question at the grassroots level. A few minutes later, after the window closed, I probably trampled the poor thing on my way out. A typical adult thing.
A toddler, naturally high on wonder, may try to figure out the secret of the grass by chewing on it, stomping on it or by drooling on it – both the curse and blessing of being a toddler. You’re tripping on a single blade of grass but can’t express what the trip is about.
Only a fully matured adult brain can break down what it observes, but when it comes to grass, it’s more likely to mow the lawn.
No wonder kids resist the journey into maturity, at first. At about the time they are close to figuring out the secret of everything, they’re told to grow up.
My kid brain felt that something was off with the adult Legoland by the time I peeked around my crib. I pretended to fit in, while secretly testing the fabric of a perfectly stabilized suburbia. I developed a pyromaniac knack for mixing rapidly reactive powders. I blew up my neighbor’s carrot garden and launched an oil drum into heaven with a mix of potassium nitrate and magnesium.
Nothing changed, alas. No one took me away in a cigar-shaped aluminum craft and explained the true nature of reality and my purpose in it. No “Thought Police” came knocking down my door. Instead, they took away my chemistry set.
The last throes of resistance usually simmer out by the time the frontal lobes stop developing in our late twenties. Some rock stars and poets may need an additional decade to boil down the residue. For most of us, Act II looks like an infinitely downward-sloping tail into a deep sleep, without Act III.
We begin to pretend a little bit less and fit in a little bit more. We become increasingly ready to swallow any story that helps us fit in another itsy-bitsy more, even if we know the story is lousy.
It’s a recipe for jadedness, modern civilization’s most common affliction.
And it’s coded in our brain development.
The prefrontal cortex (PFC), also known as the rational brain, is a fresh piece of squishy sponge in a long history of brain development.
The PFC directs the internal voice that says, “don’t chew on that blade of grass, it could look weird,” by combining cognitive and abstract algorithms that adapt to societal expectations.
PFC makes us behave in the “correct” way, whatever it deems the socio-cultural standard of “correct” to be.
Sometimes, the PFC programs get tangled up. The “need to look good” program, for example, can abstract a stream of selfies that promote Botox into the new normal. Did you know that the majority of men would rather lose ten years of their life than lose their hair? That’s how nuts the PFC can get.
The PFC is not perfect, but without it, we could be chewing grass full-time.
Adults with damage to the PFC area can do abnormally crazy and unpredictable stunts while fumbling with motor skills, memory, intelligence, spatial reasoning and social cues. A PFC disabled person could throw a 5-minute rage fit at a Hell’s Angels gang and a second later go on munching a triple-decker sandwich.
A healthy PFC alerts us if we’re about to become a persona non grata. It helps us navigate our environment and society in a non-disruptive way so that we can analyze and express stuff without getting into too much trouble. One step at a time. Careful. Logical. Slow.
A recent study on PFC development, by author and medical doctor Merve Cikili Uytun, sheds light on why the rational brain is also the likely culprit in demolishing all traces of wonder by the time we hit adulthood.
The formation of synapses (synaptogenesis) and neurons (neurogenesis) in the PFC starts to slow down before birth. We hit peak synaptic density by age 4, carrying about 50 percent more synapses than an adult brain, loaded with choice and opportunity before we start to prune.
Pruning is like mowing the lawn, just a pickier way of zapping neurons that the brain deems less critical, to make way for the popular bling-bling pathways that form our core habits, patterns and beliefs. Over the years, grey matter (mostly cells) is replaced by white matter (mostly axons) while the child’s brain quadruples in size, growing to 90 percent of the adult volume by age 6.
The PFC develops last, at snail speed, to adapt to the kid’s changing environment. The more time the PFC spends pruning the brain, the more it shapes the PFC pathways, calibrating what’s “correct” and “normal” to what’s expected. That’s how we become standup citizens.
If staring at a blade of grass with a gaping mouth is a less expected activity, it may become a pruning target as well.
Teenagers have a hard time because they’re smack in the middle of the hardest pruning season. The reason teens mostly think with their amygdala (the headquarters for fear, anxiety, and aggression) is that their PFC is still puny. It’s why my teen brain would decide to go and do the same stupid thing that it was warned about, like shooting oil drums into the sky.
The PFC only stops developing sometime in the mid-twenties when, having pruned out the bulk of wonder, it becomes a logic-producing powerhouse, that denies the existence of anything out of the ordinary.
Which leads to the catch-22 of modern brain development.
What purpose does a rational brain have, if it doesn’t know how to wonder?
The day may come when the lack of wonder becomes a drag, even under the influence of sugar, opioids, or Netflix.
It could be an entirely typical day, a day when we feel perfectly safe and content – except for the hollow space somewhere in there, accompanied with fatigue, depression, anxiety or a general sense of pointlessness.
It’s also the perfect day to begin a conscious crusade against the old machinations of the PFC, to start prioritizing stories and experiences that may seem entirely irrational but “feel right” – while taking stock of all the signals in our environment.
The signals from the modern myth machine – mass media – are composed of psychoactive gobbledygook that has an impressively low capacity to instigate wonder and an extremely high capacity to influence obsessive consumer behavior.
There are the stories that originate from the subconscious – Carl Jung’s basement – the sandbox of childhood dreams that lean towards faith, emotions and trauma. Colorful, but often too unpredictable cocktail to foster a sense of wonder.
There is art and literature, although we may need to filter out junk for an excruciatingly long time before we trigger the wonder circuits with a genuine article.
Nature is always there, waiting to see if we have the tenacity to drive an hour out of town.
A romantic relationship could help compensate for the hollow point when we don’t claw at each other like a tumbleweed in a codependent embrace.
Then there is religion, with the flipside that it is another manmade concept cooked in Jung’s basement, which doesn’t matter anyway since we’re seeking to get a sense of wonder in the present, rather than some years later in the afterlife.
Some stories originate from native tribes who once co-existed with nature in a perfectly sustainable way. They’re driven by the outrageous idea that Earth is alive and we’re all connected. These stories are beginning to inspire shamanic rituals down to Silicon Valley and Fifth Avenue nowadays, where it’s become fashionable to drink entheogenic plants against depression. Sometimes the plant works. Many get an insight, a new vector or gravity of purpose, but the effect only stays if they start to work the ideas beyond Instagram.
We may also be able to foster a sense of wonder directly as if it was the house plant that needs a bit of water, sun and attention. Bit by bit. Like building muscle memory from scratch after a paralysis. Hard and strenuous work against the dictates of the PFC, sans guarantees.
And then there is science.
If all else fails, we also have the opportunity to trick the PFC into thinking that wonder is rational. Which it is, with the right science.
Classical science is based on PFC’s favorite godchildren: determinism, separatism, reductionism and materialism.
Partly because of a misunderstood scientist.
Newton, who was born four centuries ago, wasn’t actually convinced that classical formulas can explain everything. Instead, he dedicated 25 years of his life exclusively to wondering about alchemy.
Thomas Aquinas, the leading philosopher of the Middle Ages, defined alchemy as a “quest for a unified vision that permeates all nature in its material and spiritual manifestations.” Yet the work that Newton got recognized for includes none of the alchemy and all of the nuts-and-bolts force fields that build skyscrapers, planes and toasters in a predictable way.
Anyone can test gravity, for example, by throwing a piano out of a highrise. The keyboard will become disentangled with force (F) that is mass (M) multiplied by acceleration (A). Every time we drop another piano, the damn thing goes kaboom at just about the same way. This is why PFC loves classical science: things have a predictable vector in time and space.
Then along hops Heisenberg, the cat lover, and his quantum comrades, who discover that reality is made of wave interference that connects everything regardless of time and space – a unified field theory that sounds spookily like alchemy.
Which is probably exactly what we tune into, in a state of wonder. A coherent, quantum physical principle that allows millions and trillions of cells to act as a single organism, whether it’s a blade of grass or a primate.
Anthropologist Jane Goodall compared the probability of a species evolving through random mutations with the likelihood of a hurricane accidentally assembling an airplane out of a scrapyard. She should know. She wondered about primates for half a century.
Goodall also claimed that primates have a natural ability for awe and wonder themselves.
Newton, Goodall, Heisenberg and countless other historical luminaries tapped into signals that classical senses alone can not explain.
Sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, equilibrioception (balance), thermoception (temperature), proprioception (relative movement), nociception (pain), magnetoception (magnetic fields) and electroreception (electric currents) cover a lot of ground in our interaction with the universe.
But it may take wonderception for us to dig the big enchilada.