Life as Art

How our world shapes who we are and how who we are shapes our world

Novelty-Seeking, Hospital Beds, and the Spirit of Exploration

Will our creative brains allow the space program to die?

It is 8 pm EDT on July, 20, 1969. Anticipation and excitement grip the nation. Sometime within the next few hours, the hatch of a small vehicle will open and history will be made.
I sit on the edge of my bed in the hospital pediatric ward of St. Joseph's Hospital while a nurse empties the contents of a scary syringe into my arm. She tells me the shot will put me to sleep in preparation for the next day's operation.


Wait a minute, I think. Put me to sleep? Oh no! I can't go to sleep! As soon as the nurse disappears down the hall, I jump up and convince my young roommate to get up, too. Within a half hour we have made the rounds to most of the rooms in the pediatric ward and now lead a small army of kids - who like us are scheduled to have their tonsils removed the following morning - through an assortment of calisthenics as we desperately try to keep our eyes open.


Thankfully the nurses, once they understand what we're up to, realize the historic nature of the night. They don't break up our little group until sometime after the grainy footage of that One Small Step for Man - footage that to this day sends a chill of excitement up my spine - has been broadcast and then rebroadcast over the small TV in a hospital room filled with excited kids fighting off sedation. We cheer and dance, and I, like every kid in that room, plan to be an astronaut someday...plan to bring back rock samples from Mars or study the rings of Saturn up close and personal. On this night, there is no conceivable limit to what we humans can accomplish!

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Fast-forward to 2009.


It's now been forty years since the space program motivated, united, and inspired a generation of Americans to accomplish things that no nation has done before. Yet our space program is in danger of dissolution. After seven more flights, our space shuttle fleet is scheduled to be decommissioned. At that point, we will no longer have the ability to put an astronaut into orbit. Are we really thinking of abandoning space?


Critics of the space program claim that it's too costly to continue in these economically-challenging times. However, our newly-enacted stimulus package provides funding for everything from waste disposal to tax breaks for Hollywood movie producers. These earmarks will not spark the economy - or the imagination - the way a program to send a human to Mars will do. For over a century, the dream of space exploration has symbolized the human desire to broaden the boundaries of what is known and what is possible. By stretching beyond our earthly bounds, we reinforce our commitment to continually expand our horizons. This brings hope and courage to all humankind.


Because we humans are by nature creative, we're equipped with a propensity to seek out that which is new and novel. We receive an internal reward (in the form of dopamine release in the reward centers of the brain) for exploration of the unfamiliar. Whether it's adding an exotic ingredient to a tried-and-true recipe or venturing into the unknown realms of the solar system, the incentive for exploration is actually built into the human brain. This explorer's spirit is what keeps us - as individuals and as a species - moving forward. It's what drives us to seek new problems and find new solutions.


Like my little companions in the hospital ward so long ago who fought off sedatives to be present for that historic Giant Leap, I hope that we as a nation will refuse to be lulled into sedation by what are often petty, self-serving, and divisive personal and national concerns. I hope we will experience a resurgence of that spirit of exploration that has united us in the past and that has made our nation great. I hope - and I believe that our novelty-seeking creative brains will insist - that we continue to find inspiration and motivation in the last great frontier of space. We have so much more to explore.

Shelley Carson, Ph.D., is an instructor and researcher at Harvard University, where she teaches creativity and abnormal psychology.

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