The Pursuit of Wonder in the Digital Age

During the period of the late 1970s and early 1980s the scientist Jacob Bronowski launched his brilliant series The Ascent of Man on public television, the series encapsulating how human knowledge has provided us with such a miraculous understanding of ourselves, our world, and our universe. And of course, this is absolutely true. The continuous pursuit of truth through human knowledge has produced the discoveries of Galileo, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein, and other great scientists and thinkers which of course have led toward an ever-increasing sense of wonder concerning the world in which we live.

Yet if one might be bold enough to suggest, there still appears to be something inherently missing from this important assessment of the potential power of human knowledge. This is simply that by focusing too exclusively on the acquisition of knowledge as the primary means by which people can ascend, to use Jacob Bronowski’s term, one can easily ignore the whole person; and in so doing, ignore other aspects of their being such as the power of their sensorial and emotive lives.

If people are to develop a greater fascination with the details and dynamics of the world in which they live, certainly they must allow their impressions to become as vivid as possible; at a place at which their senses and feelings can come to full fruition, free from the potential dulling effects of thought and memory; using the latter only when these are needed.

Indeed, it is this capacity to become fully absorbed in the potential depth of one’s impressions which, as much as anything, might create moments of wonder in which a person’s inner life is fused with the observations of their world until the psychological distance between the two things begins to shrink, potentially even disappear completely. Yet how exactly might that kind of transformation of one’s being actually occur?

In his iconic book The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley, during his experience with the consciousness expanding drug mescaline, described some flowers in a vase which shone with what he called a stunning inner light; the stoical serenity inherent in some window drapes which revealed them as not just another household item, but as a true silken wilderness; and the folds in his trousers as being not just part of a necessary article of clothing, but as a labyrinth of endlessly significant complexity.

Such a state of complete absorption in the world’s details, that in which there is little or no psychological distance between the observer and the observed, would appear to present the best opportunity for fusing our emotive and sensorial live into such a deeper, more wondrous awareness simply because it is a state in which there is little or no separation between one’s inner life and the details of one’s world, what Huxley described as the non-existence of a self which in a very real sense inwardly becomes many of the things with which one is in contact. Yet how to achieve this state of wondrous awareness during one’s normal, everyday state of mind, without the use of consciousness expanding drugs such as mescaline?

If we are to pursue this new type of consciousness on the other side of thought and memory, one which is firmly anchored in our sensorial and emotive lives, it would appear to be of the utmost importance that we begin to understand more completely the exact limitations of both thought and memory so that we might begin to comprehend how each of these might on occasion become an impediment to the full growth of our emotions and our senses.

Yet at the same time, if certain of our cognitive capacities, such as our ability to attend and the stream of our thoughts, which have been adversely affected by the jumpy, fragmented nature of the Internet, and the dulling of our working memories by large search engines such as Google, which have in effect become our brain’s external hard drive as we search for information, then the endeavor to comprehend the dynamics and validity of our thoughts and memories so that these won’t necessarily impede our sensorial and emotive reactions from coming to full fruition is going to inevitably become exponentially more difficult to achieve. And so this this is something that might necessarily require our increasing attention as our current digital age proceeds into the future.

Lyn Lesch’s new book Toward a Holistic Intelligence: Life on the Other Side of the Digital Barrier was recently published by Rowman & Littlefield.