“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.”
― William Blake, Auguries of Innocence
Take a look at small child as you wave a shiny object in front of her face. Or indeed any object really if she’s a baby. What inference can we make about what she sees, what she experiences? What she thinks?
It’s distinctly likely that the child is in a perpetual state of wonder! What is this (not dagger) that I see before me (paraphrasing Macbeth for literary kudos)? With underdeveloped cognitive and perceptual faculties the whole wide world is a vastly novel experience. The little brain must be overwhelmed with the intense stimulation of continually seeing new stuff, figuring out what it is in relation to old stuff (not that’s there’s much of that). But it’s all fresh: a perspective on life is based on an exploratory state of being, uncluttered by preconception.
At heart this is what we might, with a little imagination and a desire to refresh our own perspective, seek to attain as world-weary adults. A worldview driven by wonder. Using new eyes to see richness around us. A consumerist society attempts to delude us into provoking brief spikes of interest at colourful stimuli that momentarily capitalise on a frozen instance where hand is in pocket and reflexively thrusts forth to part with hard earned cash (and thereby obtain the next useless thing that ultimately fails to create longer term satisfaction).
Art at least taps more genuinely into this aspirational state of being, stimulating the senses, attempting to shift the focus and open up perspective to new ways of looking at the world. Modern technologies such as Virtual Reality may well offer another avenue to take us out of the routine, mundane mode of operation and present an opportunity to view the world much as a baby does. Psychedelic drugs or other ‘altered states’ technologies and techniques may defibrillate our cognitive faculties in a more violently immediate fashion and reduce us to a more ‘primary state of consciousness’ (Carhart-Harris, 2018). But nature is the most readily available resource at our disposal perhaps to evince this capacity for wonder.
Look upon the Grand Canyon for the first time and can you fail to be seized in near paralysis at the magnitude of it, the resplendent grandeur? A vast palette of colours, shapes, scents, depth, distance, along with a failure to grasp how this has come into being, what it means...
That is because you are in a state of ‘awe’. And this is a special state that can be evoked under the right conditions, the right (environmental) context. Perhaps it is our evolutionary means of predisposition to cast off the shackles of outdated, routinised ways of thinking. It is a way of shocking the system into taking stock of limitations, and realising that there are new things out there to experience, and which reveal the boundaries we set are illusory. There is always something else beyond the horizon. This is something we forget very quickly as we form ever tighter walls around ourselves, building a protective shell in which to hold off the hordes of new ideas that threaten to undermine cherished ‘stability’ of ‘in the box thinking’.
Awe is an area of research amongst cognitive scientists that has it’s roots in a fundamental cognitive/perceptual ‘need to accommodate' (Guan et al., 2018 - there's that pesky posterior cingulate cortex again!). We form constructs, conceptual hierarchies of ideas about objects, categorising and itemising the world into definable chunks. When we encounter new chunks, new items, we strive to fit these into the boxes we have already labelled upon mental shelves. If the item doesn’t ‘fit’ it is subsumed into another ‘near fit’ box, or perhaps discarded onto the junk pile. But occasionally we find ourselves in a place where the whole environment so overwhelms that the system cannot cope. It cannot find any impetus to streamline and categorise what is beholds. Perhaps this might cause ‘meltdown’ in some, but generally, more hopefully, it provokes a ‘need to accommodate’. The cognitive and perceptual boundaries stretch, the brain becomes more plastic, knowledge structures bend or break and new concepts, ideas, experiences update the model and ‘reboot’ the server!
For a moment we perceive as babies do, letting go our firm grip on what we believe reality should be. Throwing ourselves at the mercy of the vista before us. Giving over to a more vulnerable state of perception, of being. The brain grows, as do you. Nature has gifted us this medium to upgrade our perceptual apparatus. It does us the world of good to occasionally (even regularly!) seek out that state of wonder, the provocation of awe. It is the panacea for a world embittered by the familiar, insulated from voluntary vulnerability. We all need to see the world through the infant’s eyes once in a while.
I will continue to develop ideas around awe, principles of which ‘accommodate’ into my wider model of brain function, adventurous experiences, development and ‘mastery of’ the self, and how virtual reality can be used as a tool to facilitate greater understanding of the underlying processes that govern how we may refresh our views of the world.
For an earlier take on this check out a previous piece I wrote, suggesting, as with the current appetite for personal training regimes, an awe workout.
Carhart-Harris, R (2018). The entropic brain – revisited. Neuropharmacology. 142:167-178
Guan, F. Xiang, Y., Chen, O, Wang, Wand Chen, J. (2018). Neural Basis of Dispositional Awe. Front. Behav. Neurosci., (12) 209, 1-7
The science of cognition and perception in context
This is where I elaborate upon brain science relating to cognitive functioning dependent on environmental context.