On my way home today, I encountered a toddler stumbling down a hill with all her 2-year old might and screaming: “wowwww!”Then she spotted a tree, stopped, and whipped her head back to stare at it: “wowww!” She ran her fingers across a rusty fence: “wow wow wowww!” It made me smile.
Everything surprised and delighted her. Everything made her wonder because her world was wonderful.
I had just witnessed the epitome of what we often call “a child’s eyes.” Through a child’s eyes, everything is intriguing and surprising because everything is new. We respond to all this newness by staring at it, poking it, soaking it all up. We can’t help it.
As we grow older, the world surprises us less simply because we become more familiar with it, and little by little we stare and poke and soak up less.
We stroll down hills, past trees and rusty fences, and we have so little awareness of their existence that as far as our brains are concerned, we’ve just floated down an empty gray hallway. Scientists call this process habitation. Regular folk call it “growing up.”
Glum as this may sound, to some extent, habituation is a good thing. It wouldn’t be practical to spend your entire life mumbling “wow wow wowww!”. Surprise slows us down, and most of us are busy trying to speed up. But habitation becomes a problem when:
1. We stop seeking novelty and therefore stop experiencing surprise and therefore stop learning. Maybe lifelong learning wasn’t imperative 50 years ago, but these days we have to keep learning to keep up with the pace of our world. Child eyes aren’t just for kids anymore.
2. Our expectations prevent us from seeing the novelties in our world. A very real phenomenon called attentional blindness literally prevents us from spotting small surprises right before us.
The solution for problem #1 is simple: go places, meet people, and listen to ideas that make you go “woww” or “oooo” or at least “hmmm.”
Tackling problem #2 requires a bit more effort. To notice the pictures in the clouds, the pennies on the sidewalk, the humming of cicadas, the scent of honeysuckle, and the sweet way your significant other chuckles at your jokes, you have to slow down and look at the world as though you’re seeing it for the first time. Is it efficient? No. Crucial? Not really. Wonderful? Absolutely.