Wondering about wonder. Why do we?

Wondering about wonder. Why do we?
A wonderful circus poster

Why did humans evolve so that they can experience the emotion of wonder? Jesse Prinz, a professor of philosophy: 

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 (and I’ll come to that), wonder might be humanity’s most important emotion.

First, let’s be clear what we’re talking about. 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.

Although he never mentions it, deception can also be integral to the emotion of wonder – optical illusions, magic, perspective in paintings, acting in movies  – all use deception to create a sense of wonder. We might ask not only why we feel wonder, but why does our brain allow certain sensory or thinking mistakes to become wondrous?

Read the essay (it’s worthwhile if you’re the type who thinks about wonder): How wonder works. One emotion inspired our greatest achievements in science, art and religion. We can manipulate it – but why do we have it? Aeon Magazine>>
– Poster is from Mr. Fips Wonder Circus>>

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One thought on “Wondering about wonder. Why do we?

  1. I wonder why. I wonder why. I wonder why I wonder.
    I wonder *why* I wonder why I wonder why I wonder.

    -Richard Feynman

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