After a recent walk through the woods, taking in the riot of colorful autumn foliage, a biologist colleague of mine mused, “Same trail as two weeks ago, except the leaves have turned now. Breathtaking. You know, I've heard people say that when you look at the world through the lens of natural selection, you are somehow diminishing beauty. What tripe. The opposite is true.”

This is a common objection to science: It takes the mystery out of life and reduces its mysterious wonder to sterile mechanistic explanations. The fear is that the more you know about a thing, the less wondrous it seems.

But the opposite turns out to be true.

What you know impacts what you see and feel

In his 2011 TED talk “How Beauty Feels,” designer Richard Seymour shows the audience a drawing and asks whether they find it beautiful. Then he informs them that the drawing was “the last act on this earth of a little girl called Heidi, five years old, before she died of cancer of the spine.” Hearing this, the audience experienced a dramatic change in their perception of its beauty. This simple but powerful demonstration illustrates how our experience of a thing is not based solely on its intrinsic appearance but on our interpretation of it. And our interpretation is hugely influenced by what we know.

Scientific knowledge can impact our everyday experience in just the same way, inspiring awe and wonder, as the musings of my colleague shows. As science educator Dr. Mark Girod of Western Oregon University points out, wonder is inseparable from the study of nature for many scientists. Girod and his colleagues describe this as a process of “re-seeing,” having one’s experience of natural phenomena irrevocably transformed by seeing them through the lens of powerful scientific concepts and laws.

This transformation was perhaps described best by physicist Richard Feynman:

The world looks so different after learning science. For example, trees are made of air, primarily. When they are burned, they go back to air, and in the flaming heat is released the flaming heat of the sun which was bound in to convert the air into tree. [A]nd in the ash is the small remnant of the part which did not come from air, that came from the solid earth, instead. These are beautiful things, and the content of science is wonderfully full of them. They are very inspiring, and they can be used to inspire others.

To the average person, pinecones, seashells, and spiral galaxies have little in common. Yet to a scientist or mathematician, they have something fundamental in common: They are all manifestations of Fibonacci numbers, a sequence of numbers defined by a specific linear recurrence equation. For some stunning photos of Fibonacci sequences in natural phenomena, click here.

The challenge science teachers face is conveying this sense of scientific wonder to their students, and encouraging them to experience it themselves. In a 2008 paper published in Teaching and Teacher Education, Dr. Tonie Stolberg of the University of Birmingham reported the results of a study she conducted involving 40 primary school science teachers who were asked to describe events or occasions in which they had participated or observed that evoked a heightened sense of wonder. With little prompting, these teachers described 240 such experiences, such as the following:

The trip to the mountain top was very beautiful. We saw glacial pools. I always remember… how beautiful everything is—crystal clear water, wow! Knowing all the processes that went on, the geological terms for everything and trying to imagine the glaciers when they were there, what they did and how it all worked and how long it took! The wonderment of all of that, that nature can do that to a landscape and make it so beautiful.

The same transformation from dull to fascinating happens when science informs us about human behavior. In 1982, developmental research psychologists Susan Goodwyn and Linda Acredolo noticed that infants as young as 10 months of age often attempted to communicate with others using gestures—panting for “dog,” flapping their arms for “bird” or sniffing for “flower.” Intrigued, they developed a system that allowed parents to directly communicate with infants who could not yet speak. This system has been found to profoundly change the way parents perceive their very young children, which in turn reduced the amount of frustration for both parents and children. All of that seemingly meaningless and often annoying infant behaviors suddenly were seen for what they were: Attempts to communicate. Parents described the transformation this way

When I get home from work the first thing I do is have a conversation with my toddler about her day. (Father of 16 month old infant)

I’ve learned that babies are brighter than we believe. A baby is smart, they want to communicate with us and they can communicate with us, with baby signs, but even before they can do that, they’re already communicating with body language. We as parents just need to learn what our smart baby wants to tell us. (Mother of 4 month-old infant)

To see a mother and infant using this system, click here.

Making the leap

And then there are those decide to become scientists or mathematicians. These are the people who make the leap from allowing scientific knowledge to enrich their experiences to experiencing the wonder and beauty of the scientific process itself. Mathematician Paul Dirac once famously said, It seems that if one is working from the point of view of getting beauty in one's equations, and if one has really a sound insight, one is on a sure line of progress.  One team of researchers surveyed over 700 scientists to explore their reasons for choosing to study science. Their impressive body of results was succinctly summarized by one scientist’s comment: ‘People don’t go into science for the money and glory. It’s passion for knowledge and science that always attracted me to the field.’

Copyright Dr. Denise Cummins November 15, 2013

Dr. Cummins is a research psychologist, a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think.

More information about me can be found on my homepage.

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About the Author

Denise Dellarosa Cummins, Ph.D.

Denise Dellarosa Cummins, Ph.D., is the author of Good Thinking, The Historical Foundations of Cognitive Science, and Evolution of Mind.

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