how wonder works
(by E. Lake, 2013)
When I was growing up in New York City, a high point of my calendar was the annual arrival of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus — ‘the greatest show on earth’. My parents endured the green-haired clowns, sequinned acrobats and festooned elephants as a kind of garish pageantry. For me, though, it was a spectacular interruption of humdrum reality – a world of wonder, in that trite but telling phrase.
Wonder is sometimes said to be a childish emotion, one that we grow out of. But that is surely wrong. As adults, we might experience it when gaping at grand vistas. I was dumbstruck when I first saw a sunset over the Serengeti. We also experience wonder when we discover extraordinary facts. I was enthralled to learn that, when arranged in a line, the neurons in a human brain would stretch the 700 miles from London to Berlin. But why? What purpose could this wide-eyed, slack-jawed feeling serve? It’s difficult to determine the biological function of any affect, but whatever it evolved for, wonder might be humanity’s most important emotion.
My favourite definition of wonder comes from the 18th-century Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith, better known for first articulating the tenets of capitalism. He wrote that wonder arises ‘when something quite new and singular is presented… [and] memory cannot, from all its stores, cast up any image that nearly resembles this strange appearance’. Smith associated this quality of experience with a distinctive bodily feeling — ‘that staring, and sometimes that rolling of the eyes, that suspension of the breath, and that swelling of the heart’.
These bodily symptoms point to three dimensions that might in fact be essential components of wonder. The first is sensory: wondrous things engage our senses — we stare and widen our eyes. The second is cognitive: such things are perplexing because we cannot rely on past experience to comprehend them. This leads to a suspension of breath, akin to the freezing response that kicks in when we are startled: we gasp and say ‘Wow!’ Finally, wonder has a dimension that can be described as spiritual: we look upwards in veneration; hence Smith’s invocation of the swelling heart.
Smith’s analysis appears in his History of Astronomy (1795). In that underappreciated work, he proposed that wonder is crucial for science. Astronomers, for instance, are moved by it to investigate the night sky. He might have picked up this idea from the French philosopher René Descartes, who in his Discourse on the Method (1637) described wonder as the emotion that motivates scientists to investigate rainbows and other strange phenomena. In a similar spirit, Socrates said that philosophy begins in wonder: that wonder is what leads us to try to understand our world.
For a less flattering view, we turn to the 17th-century English philosopher Francis Bacon, the father of the scientific method. He called wonder ‘broken knowledge’ — a mystified incomprehension that science alone could cure. But this mischaracterises science and wonder alike. Scientists are spurred on by wonder, and they also produce wondrous theories. The paradoxes of quantum theory, the efficiency of the genome. Knowledge does not abolish wonder; indeed, scientific discoveries are often more wondrous than the mysteries they unravel.
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