Wonder is what sets us apart from other life forms.
No other species wonders about the meaning of existence or the complexity of the universe or themselves.
-Herbert W. Boyer
On July 14, 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft zoomed within 7800 miles of Pluto, snapping epic close up images of the dwarf planet and its five moons’ surfaces. It then sent the photos — taking 4.5 hours to travel 3 billion miles — back to earth at the speed of light to be interpreted by eagerly waiting astrophysicists.
This is a staggering technological achievement because Pluto is so incredibly far away. Launched on January 19, 2006, New Horizons uses a decade-old technology, traveling a route that was calculated years ago.
Despite this, NASA engineers managed to get the tiny probe to an incredibly precise spot in space, using Jupiter’s gravity as a slingshot to accelerate it outward and a few thruster burns over the years to keep the probe on track.
The Natural Urge to Explore
It would be a mistake to think that this mission is only exciting for curious scientists. New Horizons embodies a fundamental characteristic of humans, the urge for exploration: our passion for seeing a new world, climbing a rock-face mountain, writing a poem, searching for extraterrestrial intelligence or creating a mathematical formula to better explain a theory, simply because it’s tantalizingly there.
So, what motivated these scientists to invest so much time (nine years for the spacecraft to reach Pluto) and money (700 million dollars over 15 years) to risk the software glitches, collisions with space debris and asteroids, and other potential failures of such a venture?
The response to this question might be illuminated with a quote from author and psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi who said,
“Without awe life becomes routine… try to be surprised by something every day.”
Learning should elicit and develop respect for wonder and stimulate the imagination. Some people, however, avoid difficult problems and are “turned off” to learning. They make such comments as “I am not good at this kind of problem,” or “Go ask Jose, he’s the brain in this class.” “It’s boring.” “When am I ever going to use this stuff?” “Who cares?” “Thinking is hard work,” or “I don’t do thinking, just give me the answer.”
Many perceive thinking as hard work and therefore recoil from situations which demand “too much” of it.
Wonderment, Awe and the Brain
All thinking begins with wondering.
We all share the capacity for wonderment, awe, inquisitiveness, intrigue, curiosity and mystery. Nobody is born without it. Because every thought and action is accompanied by emotions, they have their origins in the brain. The center for emotions in the brain is the amygdala. Those feel-good neurotransmitters (serotonin, endorphin, dopamine) are released whenever we experience such good feelings as rapture, intrigue, amazement or fascination.
But many of us never learn to tap into the source of our passions because we fail to discover what inspires it. Passion refers to the force for intensity in all of us. One’s passions might be writing, gardening, acting, sports, and working with children, business, competition, and personal improvement.
A Child’s Curiosity
Young children are naturally curious. They commune with the world around them; they reflect on the changing formations of a cloud; feel charmed by the opening of a bud; sense the logical simplicity of mathematical order. They find beauty in a sunset, intrigue in the geometrics of a spider web, and exhilaration at the iridescence of a hummingbird’s wings. They see the congruity and intricacies in the derivation of a mathematical formula; recognize the orderliness and adroitness of a chemical change, and commune with the serenity of a distant constellation. And they never stop asking “why?”
Efficacious people have not only an I CAN attitude, but also an I ENJOY feeling. They seek problems to solve for themselves and to submit to others. They delight in making up problems to solve on their own and find the problems that have universally escaped understanding to be a challenge. They enjoy figuring things out themselves, and continue to learn throughout their lifetimes.
The capacity for wonderment and awe represents the best of humanity, the heights of what we can accomplish through ingenuity, persistence, and cooperation.