FOR HUFFINGTON POST
In Andrew Stanton’s 2012 TED Talk on Storytelling he details his sense of wonder, when at five-years-old he was taken to see Bambi at the cinema. He explains how wonder is innocent and honest, and that it can’t be artificially evoked. It’s the mystery ingredient missing from many stories. The science of wonder reaches far beyond its presence in stories; it is possibly the mystery ingredient that inspires everything we do in life.
When I was ten, I remember getting up early and cycling to the Priory Gardens park in Orpington in Kent before school. There was a row of Horse Chestnut trees and I collected the fresh fall of conkers, which filled the saddlebag on my bike. I had never seen so many on the ground and they were the biggest I had ever seen. I spent an hour there and can still recall the excitement and wonder and that memory is now triggered if I as much as see a photograph of a conker or hear Jean Michel Jarre’s “Oxygene Part IV” – the music that was in my brain that morning. I brought the conkers into school and shared them with my friends, which made me popular for a few days. It was a new experience.
As we grow older, the less wondrous the world seems, so we search for it in other ways. As we chase that wonder and our brain releases dopamine in anticipation of the reward – often to the point of addiction. There are many levels of reward, serviced by a cocktail of chemicals but it’s the dopamine that drives us – and it influences nearly everything we do.
Freudian philosophy cites libido as a primary motivation for human incentive but possibly libido is part of a wider spectrum that starts with wonder at a young age. We have an instinctual curiosity which nurtures the anticipation of reward as we grow. The innocence of wonder decreases the more we experience, so as an adult, we chase it in different ways. Sex is a primary incentive because it is a basic instinct and the thrill-of-the-chase activates an intensely pleasurable path for dopamine. An orgasm is the reward but the anticipation (and thus dopamine) fuels the journey to that reward. The wonder also decreases with familiarity, which is why affairs happen – when the anticipation becomes more prominent than the attachment.
Drugs, alcohol and gambling each have their temporary rewards, which is why the dopamine rush is so commanding and there is genuine scientific justification for controlling recreational drugs as many users will legitimately search for a greater high as the familiarity with milder drugs have less impact.
I remember that feeling of wonder I had when I went to Las Vegas for the first time. Having familiarised myself with poker online and seeing poker tournaments set in Las Vegas on television, the ‘being there’ was a bigger high than I had anticipated. I never lost my sense of wonder throughout the entire visit – the Bellagio fountains, the overhead light-show on Fremont Street, the lion enclosure at the MGM Grand. This continued when I took a day trip to the Grand Canyon via the Hoover Dam. It’s little wonder that I returned six times over the next five years.
New memories and experiences can also trigger a sense of wonder. Our brains are wired to optimise the path of neurons in the routine and monotony of life at home and work, but new experiences allow our brains to process new information and if that information has triggered a sense of wonder, the brain prioritises that. We remember our holidays, the early days in a new house, a new relationship – our first kiss. These rewards act as incentives to steer a path for our future decisions. Wonder stimulates motivation in our brain as a reward for our actions.
We are all motivated by different triggers. Creative people can find wonder in art, music or a book; spiritual people can find it in their faith or search for personal enlightenment but it’s often found in something as simple as the conclusion to a good film, video game or personal achievement.
When my children were young, their favourite games were treasure hunts. I would leave clues around the house and they would eventually find the secret stash of goodies. I took this a stage further and created day trips for them and would witness their sense of wonder with each clue. That observation motivated me too and I became more innovative with each hunt. I would later use these ideas for themes in my own books and strive to captivate that same excitement and wonder within those pages.
By identifying our sense of wonder and by understanding the wiring of our brains, maybe we can control our motivation and open up our exploration of that wonder. Theoretically, we can use this to steer our way out of depression and destructive thoughts – even understand and control our addictions. By recognising our mind’s pathways we can allow ourselves to find wonder in new things and trigger positive memories to stimulate past wonders.
It’s important to venture outside of our normal routine and make new memories – even with our long-term partners. The fulfilment we gain by doing so is a reward that can give our sense of wonder the momentum it needs for us to feel like a child again.