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Biological Need for Awe and Beauty
October 19, 2023
The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.
-Rachel Carson, 1907-1964, American marine biologist, conservationist, writer

Dacher Keltner, in his book, The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How it Can Transform Your Life, writes, “Do we have a biological need for wild awe? Let’s begin with the question of development. When given the chance, children find abundant awe exploring the outdoors, pouring liquids and filling buckets of sand; collecting bugs, twigs, and leaves; climbing trees and digging holes; splashing water; and marveling at the rain and clouds. Our remarkably long childhood emerged in our evolution to allow for the exploration and play necessary for learning about the natural and social environments. Less controlled by the prefrontal cortex…, children’s brains form more synaptic connections between neurons than adults’ brains and are more oriented toward novel explanation and discovery.”

Ruth Wilson, in the Exchange Reflections, “Beauty, Nature and Wellness,” writes about children’s (and indeed all human being’s) need for beauty and awe:

“While it is hard to actually measure the influence of beauty on health and well-being, it is not hard to understand how exposure to beauty can make our lives more beautiful. Surrounded by beauty, we tend to be happier and healthier; perhaps even be more philosophical and spiritual (Cohen et al., 2010). Experiences of profound beauty can promote an increased understanding of self and the world around us (Cohen et al., 2010). Such experiences can also foster gratitude and awe and help us transcend self-interest (Cohen et al., 2010). These benefits of beauty overflow into the realm of spirituality, which should be recognized as a developmental domain of childhood (Hart, 2005; Hyde, 2008; Schein, 2018; Wilson, 2010; Wilson, 2022)…

We sometimes refer to the early childhood years as a time of wonder and describe their world as being ‘fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement’ (Carson, 1956). Many of us are familiar with these words written by Rachel Carson, a biologist who often described nature and elements of the natural world in both scientific and poetic terms. In The Sense of Wonder, Carson writes, ‘Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.’ This is something we want for our children. Carson also speaks to the importance of adults in helping children keep their inborn sense of wonder alive. One way to foster wonder in children is to surround them with beauty, including—or perhaps especially—beauty in the world of nature."


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Comments (4)

Displaying All 4 Comments
Kirsten Haugen · October 25, 2023
Eugene, OR, United States

I agree with Nancy - beautiful poem, Michele. Francis, yes, the knowledge and research is valuable, but too often it gets framed as a race to make children into something measurable rather than creating the physical, sensory, social, cultural, temporal and relational environments that allow them to thrive

Nancy Rosenow · October 19, 2023
Lincoln, NE, United States

Michele, what an incredible poem. I especially love the line, “May ALL of our children know of this magic!” Thank you so much for sharing it!

And Francis, I couldn’t agree with you more: we must have faith in our children - and let them be children! Yes!

Francis Wardle · October 19, 2023
University of Phoenix/ Red Rocks Community College
Denver, Colorado, United States

This is such a critically important message. We are constantly bombarded with messages from so-called experts, agencies, and research groups - including many within our own field - who focus only on adult goals: increasing infants' language development, developing emotional regulation, inspiring learning, enhancing brain development, and creating dispositions for learning to read. We need to have much more faith in children! Let's let children be children!!!!

Michele Hemenway Pullen · October 19, 2023
United States

I was trying to respond to the article today about the natural world and beauty. Here's a poem by a local Louisville Poetess - a 3 minute listen! WELL WORTH YOUR TIME!

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