Room for Wonder

  • Published13 Jan 2013
  • Author Dwayne Godwin
  • Source BrainFacts/SfN

Our ability to access information is becoming nearly unlimited. But what does the loss of that gap in time between wondering and knowing mean to your brain?

Does everything need a reason? Some things seem to just be what they are, and we don't care much, simply because we haven't taken a few moments to process or think about them. This is an important aspect of the attentional circuitry of our brain. It allows us to focus on the important stuff - like running from lions and tigers, and bears. There are intimate details of our own lives that we might die without knowing, including some seemingly trivial things with which we just don't bother. For example, why is bubblegum pink?

Blowing bubbles & interior image of brain

Bubblegum is a pretty personal thing, so much so that you stick it into your mouth, and there are only a few things that go there. I didn't know until a few moments ago why bubble gum is usually pink - if you think about it, it could be any color. And the only reason that I cared was because I was trying to think of a basic example of something that is commonly encountered, but easily ignored. Yet it occurred to me that somewhere, somehow, someone has wondered that very thing and sure enough, a quick Internet search and I now know why bubblegum is pink.

But we'll get to that.

These days, the time between wondering and knowing is wickedly fast. I don't remember wondering about bubblegum as a child in the ‘70s, before computing power was so prevalent and cheap. If I had wondered it, it might have taken me days or even months to find out the answer - and I would have had to go through some real trouble to do it. Trips to the next town to a library, or even writing a letter to the company that makes bubble gum.I might have even been forced to ("gasp!") call someone. Who knows?

It’s easy to imagine even further back in time when a person might wonder about a thing like the color of bubble gum and never, ever, find out the answer. Neanderthals no doubt wondered about a lot of things for which they never received an answer - they never knew about germs, the earth being round, how the tides worked, what the Moon was, or countless other fundamental things we take for granted. Maybe it really bugged them! "What the heck is that giant white thing in the sky?", I can almost hear them say about the Moon in their youth – then 30 years later as they lay dying (as cavemen did, early and often), thinking, “…never found out about that big white thing…oh well, have to be okay with that...[exhale, fade to black]”.

Our ancestors wondered so much that entire mythologies and religions would spring from their itchy minds. Yet, using a search engine I found out about something as trivial as bubble gum in less than five seconds in the palm of my hand, and most of that delay was on my part.

You know, it's great to have your curiosity satisfied so quickly and completely. In developing nations even a simple approximation to the information access we enjoy can be life changing. It's an amazing human achievement that is a testament to our cleverness and to the power of applied math and engineering. But do we lose something as important as that which we gain?

There's precious little space for wonder to develop before it turns into instant knowledge - it's sort of like eating before you've had a chance to get properly hungry. Soon, with the right kind of brain interface we may even be able to think of a question and the answer will pop into our heads. Then it’s goodbye to the wonder gap.

I wonder - does this diminishing wonder gap cut out an important part of our creative process? If I weren't so quickly presented with the answer of why bubble gum is pink, I might have speculated along a number of lines. Maybe the pink of bubble gum was a kind of camouflage to match the pink of our gums so it could be hidden in the mouth, maybe in the beginning it was thought to be “pink for girls” as a counterpoint to some brackish habit men had, like dipping snuff, or maybe the pink dye enabled - or was the only dye that would not interfere - with the ability to blow bubbles. The possibilities seem endless!

That is, unless you find out the answer in less than 5 seconds. Then you have the correct answer and it's the only one, and your mind stays on a linear track and never strays into this weird, speculative space I just described. Maybe that's okay, because it’s efficient and you have the correct answer. But if early people had known exactly what the Moon was, as soon as they thought of the question, I wonder: would we have gone there? Maybe sometimes it’s the better part of our destiny to venture that the Moon may be made of cheese, then to explore and refute the cheese hypothesis.

Why is bubble gum pink? Hey, hold on, I’m getting to that.

Our technology not only connects us to information, it connects us to one another. I didn't realize the power of this until I got a smartphone. I knew that it would allow me to send and receive calls and email, text, store my music, plus surf the web or come in handy when I needed to get directions. But I didn't realize how connected I'd be to anyone who happened to have my number. With family that was a good thing because I could now send a little note if I found myself running late, and we no longer lost each other in places like a mall or the county fair.

I'm really no technophobe and I think of my smartphone in the same way I think about a Swiss Army knife: a useful, fundamental tool with several nice applications that made things a little easier. I never had something like this growing up, and I feel enormously privileged, and a little like a superhero - a mini, flightless Iron Man with my own little Jarvis, Iron Man's trusty intelligent agent (though, my friend, Siri is no Jarvis).

Just as the connection to raw information may reduce our wonder about things, it might also reduce it about each other. How is this possible?

A recent series of studies indicate the presence of a system of mirror neurons in our brain. These neurons are thought to help us mimic motor actions (like learning to play the piano) and would tend to fire about the same whether we are the one playing, or if we’re observing our teacher. This same system has been speculated to be important in our empathic interactions with others. In essence, in the same way our brains are evolution’s effort to model the concept of “self” (whether through mirror neurons or some other mechanism), we may also model, or at least encode, the socially important concept of what “other” people are doing. What does a smartphone do to such a system? At the moment, we can only speculate.

Isaac Newton uses a phone

The benefit of this instant knowledge is that we know what our friend says they are thinking or doing. But – and I think this is important – we no longer need to wonder what they are thinking or doing, and they no longer need to reside so much in patterns of activity in our brain. They reside, instead, neatly tucked away in our phone, to be called upon like genies when we rub the numbers on the screen. “What would Joey think about that?” is supplanted by immediately conjuring Joey up to find out exactly what he thinks, probably via a text rather than a personal conversation. Whether or not you think this is better, it's undeniably different. In the future if Joey dies, will we say that, “he’ll always be with us”, or will Joey instead be a lonely, unused entry on our contact list?

And this social impact may extend to in-person interactions because ofthe cognitive burden associated with conversations, whether voice or texting. Research has shown that we can only process a few things at a time, and when we're using a phone we seem to lose part of our mind to the conversation. It's been shown that using a cell phone while driving, for example, is the equivalent of driving drunk. When you consider it in those terms, interacting with someone while they are texting is a little like trying to have a conversation with someone who’s drunk - and it is about as much fun. Kids can "leave" you and not deal with the social requirements of a particular situation. As a parent, you become just one more channel of information, and a weak, tinny one at that. In other words, dear parent, your smart phone is smarter than you. And socially, you are not as exciting as your teenager's constant hum of texting genies with their Facebook updates.

Short of living with the Amish, what do we do? Most of us aren't fully addicted to our technology, though sometimes it sure feels that way. But instead of a full scale upending of the motivational hierarchy that a junkie might experience, we give way - just a little - for the technological hit. I think sometimes the only way we can manage the flood of data is to sometimes just turn it off. Whether it's limiting the time kids spend with their phones, or limiting the possession of them to an age when they can manage it themselves, I think we may need to set limits and stick with them. They may not like it, but maybe kids need a little more of the human part of social networking, and a little less of the lame updates, devoid of true human interaction and the nuances of facial and vocal expression that we evolved to appreciate.

Oh, right, bubble gum. [spoiler alert]

Walter Diemer invented bubble gum in 1928. It was an accident. He wasn't actually a product development guy (he was an accountant). But he had access to some of the ingredients and in his spare time he played around with new gum recipes, and one of them turned out to have the properties we now associate with bubble gum - that sort of chewy pliancy. It didn't take long for people to start blowing bubbles with the stuff, and Diemer took a 5 pound batch to a grocery store where it quickly sold out. Bubble gum is pink, not because a focus group decided that it would have a particular appeal, or by some practical design, but simply because it was the only food coloring that happened to be in the factory.

In other words, it worked. It was good enough. And that's why bubble gum is pink.

Life on earth, like pink bubble gum, worked. Life was a good enough solution to the problem of passing genetic information through time, through extinction events, disease and war. "Good enough" is why you are here. If it was not, neither you nor I would be wondering about bubble gum. And along the way, life developed brains capable of self awareness and the cleverness to invent smoke signals, telegraphs, satellites and smart phones that are a little magical in their ability to satisfy our curiosity in a blink. I hope that it also made a brain with the wisdom to push back, just a little, to make room for wonder.

Hmm… I wonder why Mickey’s caninefriend Goofy stands on two legs and talks, but Mickey’s dog Pluto acts like an ordinary dog?



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