Photo by Charles Gullung/Getty
That childhood urge to ask ‘how’ and ‘why’ usually fades. But we can all learn to rediscover the joys of wide-eyed discovery
by Frank Keil + BIO
Photo by Charles Gullung/Getty
Humans grow up with a powerful drive to learn how things work and why certain patterns and properties exist in the world. Wonder, a word with multiple related meanings, has one sense that captures this desire to know. You employ wonder when you ask questions such as ‘How do fish breathe underwater?’ or ‘Why do air conditioners drip water?’ Wonder, as I describe it here, is more than the sort of curiosity that motivates someone to seek a simple factual answer (eg, ‘What is the biggest kind of dog?’) Wonder moves someone to seek out explanations – especially about the patterns of cause and effect that underlie phenomena. It is also different from awe, which can occur as a more passive state of amazement. Wonder involves active thought and engagement. It invokes conjectures about ‘how’ and ‘why’. It might even launch speculations about different possible worlds. Wonder motivates targeted explorations and discoveries.
In its most mature forms – in adults who have flourished as lifelong wonderers – wonder promotes sustained excavation of the rich causal architectures of the world. It helps us to appreciate everything around us more fully. We come to see a more richly textured and dynamic reality. For example, through wondering and learning about how and why songbirds sing, how the first flowers break through frozen ground, and how animals hibernate, we come to see and experience the first days of spring in more immersive and rewarding ways. Each instance of wondering in turn launches a branching network of new instances and opens a door to the potentially endless joy of successive discoveries. If this sounds overly euphoric, it is exactly how renowned polymaths describe their lives, from childhood to their final moments.
Wonder and the learning it encourages enable us to more fully engage with others – not just about topics such as cosmology or evolution, but also pressing current issues such as epidemics and the climate crisis. It can also help provide a shield against misinformation. Even the most schematic understanding of gravity, stars and planets, for instance, can make one more suspicious of causal claims by astrologers. Dubious ideas, including notions about disease or climate risk that run contrary to the scientific consensus, are easier to question if we acquire rough renderings of the mechanisms involved.
Sophisticated elements of wondering appear at an early age. Around 40 years ago, a pair of British researchers, Barbara Tizard and Martin Hughes, investigated children’s spontaneous questions, finding that children were asking them soon after they started using language. At first, the questions might be simple requests for the whereabouts of a favourite toy, but soon they were asking more ‘why’ questions, such as why some roofs are steeply slanted and others are not, why babies can’t drink really sweet drinks, and why you have to pay people money for doing things for you. More recent studies show that wonder expands greatly in power and scope in the preschool years, as children learn how to go deeper and deeper in their understanding of the hidden workings of things and learn how to rely upon the knowledge in other minds.
Research has even revealed early versions of enthusiastic wondering in preverbal infants. These signs of wondering occur when an object doesn’t act as it should – such as when it seems to pass through a solid wall. The surprised infant might immediately start to explore and manipulate the object to figure out why, perhaps by banging it against a surface.
Wonder commonly declines with age – but it doesn’t have to
Around the time children enter classrooms, their spontaneous questions seem to plummet. Even worse, this abandonment of wonder can persist indefinitely. This decline happens at all levels of affluence and across diverse groups and cultures, leading some to worry that it is inevitable.
Yet some people remain lifelong, joyful wonderers. What makes them able to sustain their wonder? Consider the biochemist Jennifer Doudna, who launched the CRISPR gene editing revolution in biology. She recalls wondering constantly about the plants around her when she was growing up in Hawaii. She became fascinated with how certain plants closed up protectively when touched and, more generally, why and how plants developed ways to survive specific threats. In adolescence, she became fascinated with how genes mediate the adaptations of organisms to their environments. As Walter Isaacson, a biographer of famous wonderers including Doudna, notes:
When we are in our wonder years, we always ask these questions – up until some grown-up finally says, ‘Hey, quit asking so many stupid questions!’ But what we have to do is be like Leonardo da Vinci, Ben Franklin, Steve Jobs, and Jennifer Doudna, and not outgrow our wonder years.
Such famous examples – along with less well-known lifelong wonderers whom we know or encounter – provide reason to believe that we can regain and maintain wonder in adulthood. We might even help young people hold on to theirs. Gaining insights through wondering is not some kind of rarefied ability that is off-limits to most people. Its presence in young children shows how intrinsic it is to being human. And wonder can continue to grow and expand for a lifetime.
After more than 50 years involved in experimental research on how both adults and children make sense of the world around them, I have become ever more impressed by the ability of young humans to sense something important lurking beneath the surface of things. They quickly grasp that uncovering how something works is especially rewarding. An intrinsic joy is at the heart of what makes this happen. All of us should experience the pleasures of learning through wonder every day of our lives. Through studies in my lab at Yale and countless discussions with other researchers and notable wonderers, I’ve been able to collect a number of practical strategies that can help you revive your wonder and maintain it at levels that become so rewarding that they are self-sustaining.
Conduct regular introspections
Ask yourself: have you learned anything new in the past month that has changed how you view or understand some aspect of the world? This might include learning important new facts or realising that you were mistaken in some way about a prior view. Think about these updates in your understanding as opportunities that enable you to see the world more clearly. It would be the ultimate form of hubris to assume that one already understands everything just right. Uncovering pockets of ignorance or misunderstanding and gaining new insights can feel invigorating. Leading scientists freely admit not knowing as a primary reason for conducting research, and you can follow their lead.
You can begin to embrace this spirit of seeking new understanding by making a point of pausing on the first day of every month and asking what new insights you have recently gained or what misunderstandings you have resolved. When you identify an instance, think about what has changed in your mind and what new lines of enquiry have been revealed as a result of this change. Almost always, you will have several novel things to explore.
If nothing comes to mind during your introspection, take a few minutes to reflect on what is around you. For example, as I sit here writing this sentence, I can look around the room or outside the window and quickly find an area of ignorance. On an early spring day, looking outside, my attention lingers for a moment on a lone cluster of daffodils. In interrogating my own knowledge, I realise that I have enjoyed seeing the first flowers of spring all my life – but that I have no idea why daffodils come up early while other flowers, such as roses, appear much later. This line of enquiry quickly unrolls a rich tapestry of follow-up questions about whether the early flowers tend to be ones with bulbs and why that might be the case.
Even at such early stages of wondering about a new topic, you quickly come to look at the object of your wonder differently and experience it more deeply. To find out more, you might start searching for answers online – or, if the right search phrase or source of information is not obvious, you might ask a friend who is knowledgeable about the subject how they suggest learning more. That discussion could in turn lead to a visit to your local library or perhaps to an expert in your community.
After a few months of regular introspections, you’ll likely find yourself doing them more spontaneously because it is so rewarding.
Embrace the proliferation of wonder
When you wonder, try to approach a question with the expectation that you are just taking the first step in what might turn out to be many possible cycles or branching paths of wondering, each one triggered by what you learn in response to the prior question.
The natural world and the world of technology are both full of complex, nested systems. Consider the components of a car and how each of these (engine, brakes, transmission, etc) has its own complexities and internal parts with additional complexities. What this means is that you should be on the lookout for what new ‘wriggling worms’ appear when you overturn your first rock of enquiry though wondering. For example, if you find out that slime moulds can solve mazes and wonder how that happens, then learn that they leave behind slime trails as a form of ‘external memory’, you might immediately start asking how they ‘read’ such trails and use them.
Adopt diverse ways of wondering
You can experience extra pleasure in information foraging when you discover a new way of learning more. Alternatives to the standard search engine query, as helpful as that can be, might include seeking out YouTube videos created by experts or visiting online forums such as Reddit’s ‘Explain Like I’m Five’. You could also explore lectures or other educational events at nearby science museums or colleges.
Do not feel shy about asking experts you meet to help you understand a subject. While some experts might not want to explain things to a novice, many, including those who are leaders in their field, are thrilled to share their excitement and help you see why they have devoted so much of their life to a topic. Even some doctors, despite crushing schedules, might still be happy to have a patient who becomes more of an intellectual partner in understanding what is going on. Emails out of the blue to experts you haven’t met might not always work because of the sheer volume they receive, but it is often quite easy to approach an expert after a talk or other event.
If a topic of interest seems especially complex, looking back at its early history could provide a useful entry point. For example, say you became interested in the concept of electromagnetism. Entering the topic by reading about mathematical models might be intimidating. Even back in the early 1860s, James Clerk Maxwell’s four equations required a fair bit of mathematical understanding. Yet if you go back just a few more decades and read a book about the pioneering scientist Michael Faraday (and perhaps some excerpts from his notebooks), you can quickly gain a vivid, almost mathematics-free sense of many key phenomena.
The more you approach a topic from different vantage points and perspectives, the more you start to see the phenomenon under investigation emerge in all its beauty and complexity.
Look for anomalies and puzzles
Wonder will often go into high gear when you are confronted with an apparent anomaly or puzzle. Sometimes, people ignore anomalies as annoying exceptions to a simple explanatory story that they have in mind. But very often an anomaly can be extremely revealing and cause a revamping of your understanding. For instance, you might notice that a particular tree in your town loses its leaves much earlier than all others. At first, you just ignore the anomaly, but when you eventually decide to look up why this might be the case, you learn that trees often lose their leaves earlier when they are stressed by poor soil conditions or a toxic substance. You now better appreciate how trees provide information about the quality of the local environment.
Here’s another example: perhaps you learn that many political scientists recommend ranked-choice voting systems, yet these systems are far from universal. When you start to consider why this is the case, you begin to wonder all sorts of things about voting. You explore what reasons are given for and against ranked-choice voting and other types. You might ask whether implementing this kind of voting has unanticipated consequences in addition to the suggested benefits. You start to better appreciate the many intertwined processes involved in practically implementing fair and efficient voting systems.
Similarly, if you stop and try to explain to yourself or others how various ordinary things work, you might find that there are gaps in your understanding – whether it is your grasp of how a flush toilet works or how the heart pumps blood. When you stumble upon such gaps, appreciate that you have just uncovered an opportunity to unleash wonder and to explore why something works the way it does.
Explore contrasting cases
A range of studies has shown the value of contrasting cases for learning more deeply about a topic. For example, your understanding of the concept of mammal will likely deepen after you compare various pairs of mammals and consider the commonalities and differences between them. You might also wonder about the similarities and differences between two related concepts in psychology or another field – concepts such as ‘extrinsic motivation’ and ‘intrinsic motivation’ – and by contrasting them, learn more about a larger topic (eg, motivation) and how experts think about it.
A vivid example of the power of contrasting cases in my own life concerns the planets Earth and Venus. I grew up in the 1950s and ’60s thinking of Venus as our twin planet. It is almost the same size, only a little closer to the Sun, and covered with clouds, which suggested that it might have lots of water and a climate that could support life. My visions of Venus were supported by science fiction of that period – such as Ray Bradbury’s story ‘All Summer in a Day’ (1954) – that presented Venus as a warmer, more humid version of Earth. So, I was recently staggered to learn that Venus is now considered ‘the evil twin’ because it is so different from Earth in ways that are hostile to life. For example, the mean surface temperature is an astonishing 864 degrees Fahrenheit (462°C), and the atmosphere consists mostly of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and sulphuric acid. It is about as lethal a place for humans as one could find.
This contrast launched me into a wonder-propelled effort to find out how two planets of the same mass could have such different environments. As I explored the topic, I came to see why the solar system is truly a system, with interactions between planets and asteroids over time that may have led to the huge contrast. I also learned how clouds can become vehicles for runaway global warming. I still have much more to learn but, even at this point, when I look at the night sky and easily locate Venus, I see and experience it completely differently – not as the friendly twin where Earthlings might live in a few decades, but as an example of how Earth’s status as a liveable planet might be far more fragile than we realise.
Wonder is most powerful when it uncovers the causal structures that lie beneath and are responsible for surface phenomena. These structures often include elaborate and extensive branches, so that each ‘how’ or ‘why’ question can launch a cascade of follow-up questions. Many recent studies show that posing counterfactual questions is an excellent way to peel away appearances to see the workings underneath.
In asking such questions, you provide fuel for wonder. For example, you might ask: ‘What would the world be like if water contracted when it froze (like most liquids) rather than expanded?’ If you think it through on your own, and then consult some sources, you might be astonished to learn just how important that very unusual feature of water is. Indeed, some experts believe this property of water is essential to life on Earth. To grasp such claims fully, you will find yourself coming up with a number of follow-up questions.
How do you know what to counterfactualise? It is much more interesting to wonder what transportation would be like if the speed of light was 100 miles per hour than to wonder what it would be like if all wheeled vehicles had blue wheels. Why is one counterfactual so much more interesting? It has to do with the ramifications of changing such an important property as the speed of light. If you engage in counterfactual exercises regularly, you will develop a better sense of the sorts of what-if questions that are likely to be most revealing. But most of us know right from the start that some attributes of the world are more interesting to imagine transforming than others.
Practice win-win wondering with others
One way to reawaken wonder lies in your interactions with others. Many adults see arguments as aversive battles with the goal of conquering the other with your point of view. But this ‘argue to win’ perspective neglects the opportunity that disagreements offer for expanding wonder. To take advantage of this, we need to adopt an ‘argue to learn’ mindset.
Can you think back to an argument when everyone exchanged views with no fear of ‘losing’? When getting closer to the truth, not winning, was the focus, and all sides made positive contributions? All too often we can fall into a zero-sum framing of disagreements when in fact win-win encounters are also possible – and are more rewarding for all parties. The next time you find yourself disagreeing with a friend, try to embrace that disagreement as an opportunity to learn and communicate. Let your friend know that you want to argue in good faith and that you would be delighted to have your mind changed as you can learn more that way. Following through on this commitment to learn almost invariably involves asking ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions.
There are other simple ways to promote arguing to learn. One of the easiest is to have arguments with another person without an audience, and with an agreement that the details of who knew what at the beginning of the conversation are of no concern to anyone else.
Create a checklist for wondering
Checklists can be surprisingly useful for helping you engage effectively in a variety of desired activities – including wondering.
Suppose you wonder about the costs and benefits of a particular public health intervention. Given that emotions can bias how we approach and value information, you might be especially vigilant by using a checklist with items such as the following:
Depending on the subject of your wondering, the checklist might include different items. For instance, your checklist could ensure that you are taking into account your own cognitive biases, such as the tendency to seek out information that confirms your beliefs and to neglect information that challenges it. If these checks sound difficult, with a little practice, you’ll find that they are often surprisingly easy to do and can become automatic.
To foster more moments of wonder, upon encountering a new phenomenon that is puzzling, you might check how often you pursued the topic with a number of ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions instead of just seeking a simple answer. For example, upon learning about so-called ‘wood wide webs’ of fungi that link trees to each other, instead of simply asking when or by whom they were discovered, you might ask why trees form such communities or how those communities expand. Fact-seeking questions can be fruitful if they are used as launchpads for wondering, but not if they close down further enquiry because an ‘answer’ has been found.
These examples are not meant to be prescriptive, but rather to give a sense of how you might construct checklists that work best for you. One key constraint is to focus on wondering that seeks out the truth as opposed to fitting into an agenda or serving as a means to some other end.
The more you engage in wondering, the more you will ask why you haven’t wondered more in the past. Wondering deeply is one of the few activities in life in which you can acquire something of great value at little or no material cost – something that can continuously enrich how you experience the world going forward.
Fostering wonder in children
In addition to reviving our wonder as adults, we can choose to interact with children in ways that help support and maintain their high early levels of wonder. By preserving wonder in the next generation, we will also be more likely to experience it in our own lives.
You can start by simply having different kinds of conversations with children. The goal is to help them continue to enjoy and grow the knowledge that they already have. One approach involves asking them open-ended questions. These are questions that expand on a conversation instead of abruptly shutting it down. For example, if a child has just returned from picking apples in an orchard, you might ask: ‘How did you decide which apples to pick?’ This question invites an extended conversation about apple variations, the ease of picking, ripeness, and other details. Expanded discussions encourage children to delve more deeply and form new insights by reflecting on the answers to the question. It is far better than asking something like: ‘Were there a lot of apples?’ Questions like this can be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, which does not so easily invite further discussion of the topic.
You can also ask more ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions of yourself while in the presence of a child. This reminds children of their own past pleasures when asking those kinds of questions. It also illustrates your role as a partner in wondering and learning. ‘Why’ and ‘how’ questions address children’s special appetites for uncovering hidden mechanisms in the world. You can show children how uncovering a gap in your own understanding is energising while also providing a revealing demonstration of intellectual humility.
Wondering about how things work and why they are the way they are demonstrates the pleasures of discovery. It is similar to finding a new trail that promises exciting, unfamiliar terrain to explore. By jointly engaging in wondering, you illustrate the pleasures and powers afforded by new insights, especially when they are shared with someone else. There are many activities between parents and children that can promote wonder, ranging from reimagining dinner conversations around shared topics of wonder (perhaps even with a prop, such as a local fossil), to pausing at intriguing spots on a walk, to wondering why cellphone service disappears and reappears on a drive, and perhaps also why the GPS signal doesn’t. The possibilities are endless once you get used to such practices and appreciate the intellectual pleasures that follow.
In my book Wonder: Childhood and the Lifelong Love of Science (2022), I provide a detailed account of the sense of wonder and why it is so important to support the incredible ways it flourishes in young children.
The Reddit forum ‘Explain Like I’m Five’ offers a springboard for asking and seeking answers to a large variety of questions, as well as fun examples of how to simplify phenomena that might at first intimidate. And the linked forum ‘Change My View’ nicely demonstrates the kind of attitudes involved in ‘argue to learn’ conversations and in monthly introspections.
The book The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science (2010) is a fascinating account by the English biographer Richard Holmes of how wonder took off in a diverse group towards the end of the Enlightenment.
The book The Last Man Who Knew Everything (2006) by Andrew Robinson is a remarkable portrait of Thomas Young, an extraordinary polymath from an ordinary background who, by his own account, came to know so much because of unceasing wondering, not exceptional cognitive ability.
Elinor Wonders Why (2020-) is a PBS show that takes a promising approach to supporting wonder in children. The programme’s website features games, activities and videos for young wonderers.