Exploring is journeying in the domain of purposeful action. We can stand in awe, or sit and wonder; when we explore, we make life’s journey more complete.
Awe is a feeling, mainly. Wonder is mainly about our thoughts. When we explore, we take action.
We could say that awe and wonder produce the behavior we call exploration. However, as is well known in early childhood psychology, infants and toddlers begin to explore the world long before they have developed a mature sense of awe or have developed sufficient intellectual capacity to wonder as adults might do. A child who strikes himself on the head with a sponge is exploring the world. He finds that the sponge is soft. Then he strikes his head with a wooden block, and finds that it is hard. This process continues throughout life, progressing in sophistication as the brain and mind develop, and experience is gained.
In addition to becoming more sophisticated throughout life, the time relationship between exploring and awe/wonder reverses. In early childhood, the dominant model is to explore, and thereby learn. In adulthood, the dominant model is to consider action before taking it: to look before we leap.
The brain does not all develop at the same time. It develops from the bottom up, starting with the brain stem and cerebellum, which control active functions like breathing before we can think about them. Neonates are largely action machines, who receive stimuli and respond. Rudimentary emotions appear to be present in neonates but they become more sophisticated and, as most of us evaluate it, richer as we age and mature. This is to be expected, because the child’s brain is developing. Emotions are processed mainly in the midbrain. The final domain to develop is the domain of thinking, which resides mainly in the cerebral cortex. The cortex is the outer portion of the brain, the last to have developed in each of us, and the last to have developed in the evolution of species. Precursors of the brain are essentially action machines. For example, ants have mushroom bodies and a central complex, which are rudimentary beginnings of a brain.
As organisms evolved, the brains in some species became more complex. Our rich emotional lives can be traced throughout evolutionary history. Scholarship on emotions in insects, invertebrates generally, bees, Drosophila, fish, reptiles, birds, chickens, ungulates (goats, cattle, pigs, sheep, horses and others) mammals (chimpanzees, gorillas, baboons, bonobos, whales, dolphins, porpoises, dogs, cats, mice, raccoons, rabbits, lions, foxes, elephants), and many other non-human animals, is abundant. At least one study has addressed the body language of cows in relation to their emotions. Subcortical brain structures control many of the brain’s processes. Hemispheric lateralization of emotion in primates predates the appearance of humans. Studies have focused on the evolutionary development of particular neurons.
However, the domains of being are not neatly segregated in the brain; instead, they rely on interactions in many parts of the brain. For our purposes, the precise brain-location of an emotion, such as Love, is less important than its experience and consequences. As an analogy, we still make good and essential use of Newton’s physics, long after Einstein and others disproved some of Newton’s interpretations. Apples fall from trees, notwithstanding that Newton misunderstood what gravity is. By analogy, development of emotions and intellectual thought roughly tracks the evolutionary development of the brain, beginning at the bottom with brain stem, working up through the hypothalamus and midbrain, and culminating – in a sense – in the cerebral cortex, where perhaps most intellectual operations are processed. Just because a general process such as emotion took off in the midbrain does not mean that it is entirely confined there. The evolutionary development of the brain did not neatly segregate the brain’s functions. That is not how the brain works. It houses neither a homunculus nor a trio or any other number of independent homunculi. Brain processes result from interactions throughout the brain.
However, as the brain has added processes, through evolutionary development, the distinctions we characterize as action, emotion and thought have emerged more fully. The reason why neonates cannot do math is that their brains have not sufficiently developed. The reason why they cry uncontrollably is that their rudimentary midbrains are not yet sufficiently wired to the parts of the brain that will eventually develop, enabling the once-baby to regulate her emotions. The process of brain development for mathematical aptitude continues for many years, which is why most pre-teen children are not ready for calculus. Our marvelous human cerebral cortex has made possible language, mathematics and many other intellectual operations as we know them. Now back to the subject of exploring.
A wealth of art and history tells the story of how humans have explored the world and ourselves. Exploration led to the discovery of new places and the spread of humans throughout the world. Great explorers include Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, Ferdinand Magellan, and Roald Amundsen.
Science and the study of history and every subject are explorations. In physics, the great explorers include Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, and Albert Einstein; in historical scholarship, Herodotus, Quentin Skinner, and Fernand Braudel; in archaeology, Julio Tello, Gordon Willey, and Johann Joachim Winckelmann; in cosmology, Tycho Brahe, Edwin Hubble, and Stephen Hawking; in medicine, Edward Jenner, Louis Pasteur, and Richard H. Lawler; in education, John Dewey, Maria Montessori, and Jaime Escalante.
All of art is an exploration. In the visual arts, the great explorers include Rembrandt van Rijn, Salvador Dali, and Jackson Pollock; in music, Johann Sebastian Bach, Gustav Mahler, and Igor Stravinsky; in literature, William Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy, and Charles Dickens; in poetry, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Robert Frost.
Ordinary people make their own explorations of the world and each other. Education is by nature an exploration: students, old and young, explore by sitting at a desk and doing mathematics, or reading poetry. Exploration may be a physical journey or a journey within the self.
By nurturing our natural inclinations for awe, wonder and exploration, we can develop a framework for a journey that leads to a life of meaning and purpose, in good orderly direction.
A sense of awe and wonder leads naturally to an inclination to explore. Whenever a value includes a thought, an emotion and an action, the thought and the emotion are the parents of the action. The Christian trinity expresses this symbolically, with the Spirit or animating force (emotion – feminine principle) combining with the Word (thought – masculine principle) to produce their manifestation in the world (action, the word and spirit made flesh). This week is about venturing forth. Exploration is the expression of that.
“. . . Leonardo’s willingness to pursue whatever shiny subject caught his eye made his mind richer and filled with more connections.” [Walter Isaacson, Leonardo da Vinci, (Simon & Schuster, 2017), p. 521.]
- The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1803-06): volume 1; volume 2.
- James Cook, The Journals (1768-1779).
- Stephen J. Pyne, Voyager: Seeking Newer Worlds in the Third Great Age of Discovery (Viking Adult, 2010).
- Alec Wilkinson, The Ice Balloon: S.A. Andrée and the Heroic Age of Arttic Exploration (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012): “. . . the value of polar stories . . . lies . . . in our endless love of discovery and the drama of being human.”
- Candice Millard, River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile (Doubleday, 2022): “. . . a lean, fast-paced account of the almost absurdly dangerous quest by those two friends turned enemies, Richard Burton and John Speke, to solve the geographic riddle of their era. The two men had set out, in 1857, to find the source of the Nile.”
- Douglas Brinkley, American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race (Harper/HarperCollins, 2019).
- Roger Launius, Apollo’s Legacy: Perspectives on the Moon Landings (Smithsonian Books, 2019).
- James Donovan, Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Extraordinary Voyage of Apollo 11 (Little, Brown & Company, 2019).
- Teasel Muir-Harmony, Apollo to the Moon: A History in 50 Objects (National Geographic, 2018).
- Robert Stone and Alan Andres, Chasing the Moon: The People, the Politics, and the Promise that Launched America Into the Space Age (Ballantine Books, 2019).
Technical and Analytical Readings
Though exploring involves more than spatial intelligence, I present some of the research on that subject here. Spatial intelligence reflects the ability to process information about spatial relations and manipulate objects in space. Spatial ability is the “capacity for mentally generating, rotating, and transforming visual images”. These are essential in building, navigating and many other important activities. They are distinguished from visual-object ability, which is the ability to process visual information about objects and their pictoral properties, such as shape, color and texture. Studies have focused on visual imagery, sex-related differences in verbal and spatial dual-tasking, terrain slope and landmarks, and neural efficiency in the visual-spatial domain.
“Subcortical regional morphology correlates with fluid and spatial intelligence”. In women especially, spatial intelligence, spatial working memory and spatial executive control appear to be related, supporting an efficiency hypothesis, contrary to previous thinking that over-emphasized the role of the hippocampus. EEG technology is used to track brain activity during the mental rotation task, and to measure neural efficiencies related to spatial intelligence tasks. Particular brain lesions can affect visual-spatial ability specifically.
Low visual-spatial intelligence has been traced to a low storage capacity for visual memory and auditory processing disorders. “Women with good verbal abilities have lower scores in mental rotation tasks than subjects with poorer verbal abilities.” “Spatial Processing in Infancy Predicts Both Spatial and Mathematical Aptitude in Childhood”. Gamma aminobutyric acid, a neural inhibitor, appears to mediate inhibition of irrelevant visual cues, thereby enhancing visual intelligence. “Early efficiency in the processing of shape names may contribute to the development of a foundation for spatial learning in the preschool years”. Iron deficiency in children appears to cause deficits in spatial intelligence. A “spatial impairment aetiological model of antisocial behaviour” has been developed.
- Salvador Dali, The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus (1958-59)
- Gustave Dore, A Voyage to the Moon (1868)
- Karl Bryullov, Participants of the Expedition to Mount Vesuvius (1824)
- William Blake, Canterbury Pilgrims (1810)
Film and Stage
- Now, Voyager: exploring life can be done on a small scale, as in this film about a repressed woman who comes out of her shell (Hollywood shtick blurs the ethical message)
- Computer Chess: a pastime for geeks serves as a metaphor for “spiritual exploration.” This quirky film suggests that “our search for the sacred, the frontiers of knowledge and the doors of perception, takes many forms.”
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Claude Debussy, La Mer (The Sea), L. 109, CD. 111 (1905, rev. 1908), is a three-movement impression of the ocean, with all that entails. “La Mer ('The Sea') is not only the title of Debussy's orchestral masterwork, but an apt metaphor for his innovative art. As Rachel Carson noted, like the sea itself, the surface of Debussy's music hints at the brooding mystery of its depths, and ultimately the profound enigma of life itself – after all, mankind carries the primordial salt of the sea in our blood.” “Though Debussy’s professional life was reaching new heights, his personal life proved tumultuous during this time as he left his first wife for a married woman. Many have speculated that this turmoil may have influenced the darker passages of La mer (particularly the stormy finale), but on the whole such personal influences seem to be subsumed in his ultimate source of inspiration: the sea.” “Debussy’s own life experience provided an emotional canvas; he had thought at one point to become a sailor and kept a lifelong attachment to 'my old friend, the sea; it is always endless and beautiful. It is really the thing in nature which best puts you in your place.'” Top performances are conducted by Coppola in 1932, de Sabata in 1948, Toscanini in 1950, Cantelli in 1954, Munch in 1956, Ansermet in 1957, Reiner in 1960, Karajan in 1977, Boulez in 1991, Abbado in 2003, Elder in 2007 (mvt 1; mvt 2; mvt 3), Denève in 2012, and Krivine in 2018.
Ralph Vaughan Williams, Symphony No. 1, “A Sea Symphony” (1909): “A Sea Symphony had begun life as The Ocean in 1903. So the six years of its creation charted the composer’s parallel journey of self-discovery – by way of the first movement’s broad choral and orchestral strokes (a sturdy tribute to Stanford and Parry), and towards the spiritual immensities searched out with shimmering, Ravel-inspired mastery in the symphony’s finale, ‘The Explorers’. The unforgettable setting of Whitman’s invocation to ‘Steer for the deep waters only’ made its own point: here was a composer now fully equipped to do so.” Top performances are conducted by Boult in 1953, Boult in 1968, Thompson in 1988, Haitink in 1969, Spano in 2002, and Elder in 2014.
In classical music, a large body of water – usually referred to as “the sea” in compositions from the Romantic era – can serve as a metaphor for the media of personal exploration. The following works illustrate this, in addition to Debussy's La Mer and Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 1.
- Hanson, Symphony No. 7, "A Sea Symphony" (1977)
- Henry Kimball Hadley, The Ocean, Op. 99 (1921)
- Gilson, De Zee (The Sea) (La Mer) (1892)
Works about great explorers:
- Jordi Savall & Hespèrion XXI, “Ibn Battuta: The Traveler of Islam” (2022): a musical chronicle of the life and travels of a great 14th-century explorer
Other works evoking the theme of exploring:
- Vaughan Williams, Songs of Travel (links to performances by Terfel, Allen and Berisso)
- John Luther Adams, Lines Made by Walking
- Glazunov, Piano Concerto No. 2 in B Major, Op. 100 (1917)
- De Boeck, Symphony in G Major (1895): 1/3; 2/3; 3/3.
- Claude Baker, The Glass Bead Game (1983)
- Braga Santos: Symphony No. 2 in B Minor (1948)
- Hauer, Violinkonzert (Violin Concerto), Op. 54 (1928)
- Raga Ahir Lalit, a morning raga (performances by Ravi Shankar, Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, and Ajoy Chakravarty)
- Harbach, Frontier Fancies for Violin and Piano
- Eckhardt-Gramatté, 6 piano sonatas
Brigitte Beraha’s vocal art demands rapt attention. “Embracing a wide variety of music influences and genres, from jazz and latin to classical and, more recently, electronic, Beraha’s sound is free and fluid with an emphasis on exploration and expression. Fearlessly testing the limits of the voice as instrument, her sound is distinguished by the unexpected, with free improvisation and evocative wordless singing at its core.” Her albums include:
- “Blink” (2022)
- “By the Cobbled Path” (2021)
- “Lucid Dreamers” (2020)
- “Red Skies” (2013)
- “Flying Dreams” (2008)
- “Prelude to a Kiss” (2005)
Bobby Previte has a “trilogy dedicated to travel” in the works. Here are the first two albums:
- Lewis & Clark: “Sounds of Discovery”
- Sam Pilnick’s Nonet Project, “The Adler Suite”: inspired by Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, this album evokes a trip into space and back.
- Alchemy Sound Project, “Further Explorations”
- Jiří Stivín & Pierre Favre, “Excursions” (1981)
- Dinosaur, “Wonder Trail”
- Mat Maneri, Walk Dickey & Matthew Shipp, “Vessel in Orbit”
- The Gothenburg Combo, “Nomad” (2021)
- Omar Sosa, “An East African Journey”: Sosa’s “contributions—on piano, kalimba, and percussion, as well as overall pilot of the project—follow a course of discovery and affirmation.”
- Cameron Knowler, “Places of Consequence”
- Jacob Garchik, “Assembly” (2022): “What evolves here is a dense overlaying of instruments and melodies that, if to intently listened to, may indeed cause . . . vertigo . . . There are many other moments to mention in the remaining tracks, but at this point, let us let the exploration be self-guided. . . This music needs repeated listening, ears and brains allowing the expectations of the straightforward playing and its confounding reconstructions to be fully appreciated. It doesn't take long either.”
On journeys through the States we start,
(Ay through the world, urged by these songs,
Sailing henceforth to every land, to every sea,)
We willing learners of all, teachers of all, and lovers of all.
We have watch'd the seasons dispensing themselves and passing on,
And have said, Why should not a man or woman do as much as the seasons, and effuse as much?
We dwell a while in every city and town,
We pass through Kanada, the North-east, the vast valley of the Mississippi, and the Southern States,
We confer on equal terms with each of the States,
We make trial of ourselves and invite men and women to hear,
We say to ourselves, Remember, fear not, be candid, promulge the body and the soul,
Dwell a while and pass on, be copious, temperate, chaste, magnetic,
And what you effuse may then return as the seasons return,
And may be just as much as the seasons.
- Edgar Lee Masters, “William Goode”
- Richard Powers, Bewilderment: A Novel (W.W. Norton & Company, 2021): “. . . possibility is synonymous with the vast wilderness of childhood, with the child mind’s innate world-building capacity, and with the child self’s inherent multiplicity.”
- Karl Ove Knausgaard, The Morning Star: A Novel (Penguin Press, 2021), “made me feel as though I were drifting through a nearby galaxy, randomly encountering and re-encountering certain celestial beings, before being released, with a disembodied whoosh, into metaphysical deep space.”
Music: songs and other short pieces
- Sérgio Assad, Clarice Assad & Third Coast Percussion, “The Explorer”