How to revive your sense of wonder

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Humans grow up with a powerful drive to learn how things work and why certain patterns and properties exist in the world. Wonder, a word with multiple related meanings, has one sense that captures this desire to know. You employ wonder when you ask questions such as ‘How do fish breathe underwater?’ or ‘Why do air conditioners drip water?’ Wonder, as I describe it here, is more than the sort of curiosity that motivates someone to seek a simple factual answer (eg, ‘What is the biggest kind of dog?’) Wonder moves someone to seek out explanations – especially about the patterns of cause and effect that underlie phenomena. It is also different from awe, which can occur as a more passive state of amazement. Wonder involves active thought and engagement. It invokes conjectures about ‘how’ and ‘why’. It might even launch speculations about different possible worlds. Wonder motivates targeted explorations and discoveries.

In its most mature forms – in adults who have flourished as lifelong wonderers – wonder promotes sustained excavation of the rich causal architectures of the world. It helps us to appreciate everything around us more fully. We come to see a more richly textured and dynamic reality. For example, through wondering and learning about how and why songbirds sing, how the first flowers break through frozen ground, and how animals hibernate, we come to see and experience the first days of spring in more immersive and rewarding ways. Each instance of wondering in turn launches a branching network of new instances and opens a door to the potentially endless joy of successive discoveries. If this sounds overly euphoric, it is exactly how renowned polymaths describe their lives, from childhood to their final moments.


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