Looking for Wonder – Caspar Henderson

At the beginning of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark, the explorers cross an ocean guided by a chart that is entirely blank.Wonder is probably less elusive than the Snark, whether Boojum or no. Virtually all of us report experiences of it.  But what is it, and where is it?

Martyn Evans, author of several papers that touch on the phenomenon of wonder, offers a provisional answer to the first of these two questions. Wonder, he suggests, is:

an attitude of altered, compellingly-intensified attention towards something that we immediately acknowledge as somehow important – something whose appearance engages our imagination before our understanding but which we will probably want to understand more fully with time.

I think this definition gives us plenty to work with – not least, that a state of Wonder entails both  affective (emotional) arousal and cognitive engagement, or at least the aspiration to engage cognitively, starting with an act of imagination.  And it has partly inspired this:

A New Map of Wonder

I’d like to think that my chart, for all its obvious flaws, is slightly better than useless in what I believe to be a worthwhile quest. Because my hunch is that Wonder – a profound encounter between an external reality and our conscious self – is essential to making us fully human in the normal run of life, and an aid to the nurturance of hope in circumstances of doubt, disappointment or loss. Further, Wonder is fundamentally important to our future, and the better acquainted with it we are the better for human well-being.  Here are some questions I want to explore further:

* What is the physiological, emotional and cognitive basis of wonder?
* What do people find most wonderful and why?
* What is the relationship between experiences of wonder and scientific/intellectual achievement?
* What role does wonder play in the process of value formation and reinforcement?
* What is the future of wonder in a world increasingly manipulated by human agency? [the “great acceleration”: mass extinction of non-human species, technological change]
* Are there ways in which we can reliably increase the presence of wonder in our lives, with benefit to individual well-being and to society?

I may be on a wild goose chase but for now I stand by these words attributed to  Dominique Janicaud: “Wonder in the face of being, in the face of the very fact that there is being, this astonishment should be hailed and held precious, since it may be the most philosophical act of all.”

Caspar Henderson, author of The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, participated in Wonder and Co – varities of intensified experience on 19 March 2014  He is working on A New Map of Wonders and will be writing a longer paper based on his remarks at the symposium.

You can read more of Caspar’s fascination with wonder in his Wondering about Wonder post for the School of Life, or book now for his workshop Living with Wonder in Uncertain Times (24 April, 18.40 – 21.00, The Grant Museum of Zoology, London – £40).


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