Monica Parker: Through A Wonder Lens

We were delighted to welcome Monica Parker to our Virtual screens on Friday, November 27th 2020 for her keynote presentation ‘Wonder’. A thought provoking and insightful talk which we have summarised for you below:

For introduction, Monica completed a Master’s Degree in Human Behavior and Analytics and she went on to apply that to corporates, large corporates that she worked with when she started her company, Hatch. However she took a dog-like journey to get here- becoming a homicide investigator for the Department of Justice working with the defense teams to get men and women off Florida’s death row. The men and women, they believe didn’t belong there and to exonerate them. She met people who had such horrible histories and such grim, bleak futures and yet many of them were still able to maintain a sense of hope, a sense of positivity and she wanted to try to understand what was it that gave them that hope, that positivity and she found that those people also had a great sense of wonder and she took that lesson with her and has been studying it now ever since. In this presentation, she wanted to share with you some of the things that she has learned, to make a case for Wonder and it’s different stages: Watch, Wander, Whittle, Wow & Woah.

Wonder, our most powerful emotion. Monica began the session by telling us a story, it’s a story you’ve probably already heard, but she wanted us to see it through a different lens, through a Wonder lens.

In July of 1969, 600 million people watched the moon landing and it was and remains today one of the biggest shared human experiences ever, that giant leap for mankind. After that, the world was never the same again. 

Time that humans could finally see the Earth from space and it really changed our perspective. It triggered the modern sustainability movement and it made us consider an entirely different way our place in the world, but we weren’t the only ones that were changed. The astronauts were deeply affected by that experience. I’ve got some quotes here by some of them. 

  • ‘They were fundamentally changed’ ISS International Space Station resident Ron Garan said it was as if time Stood Still 
  • Edgar Mitchell said he felt a sense of interconnected Euphoria and 
  • Rusty Schweickart called it being the sensing element for man

This has now become described as the overview effect: the unexpected powerful and permanent shift that happens when astronauts see the Earth from space. Unfortunately. Most of us will not be able to go to space. 

You don’t have to go to space to experience Wonder. Our music, politics, religion, birth and death, love and fear. The Myriad of experiences that form the bedrock of our lives has a golden vein of Wonder running through it and scientists are now just starting to explore it. But what they do know so far is that it leads to 

  • lower inflammatory cytokines- those are what trigger heart disease; 
  • it increases curiosity, 
  • the cognition generosity

Wonder is one of the most profoundly beneficial emotions from a physiological and psychological point of view. But what is Wonder? What does it do to our brains and bodies? and how can it make us better leaders, partners and change agents? 

So, to make a case for Wonder and it’s different stages. Watch, Wander, Whittle, Wow & Woah:

Each of them is an important skill that in and of itself would be helpful to learn but when taken as an aggregate when taking an order really can make us more Wonder prone and get us closer to one of those great Wow, Aha moments. But first, why is this important? Simply put, people are struggling, people are having a tough time right now. Even before this time: 

  • One in four women were on antidepressants 
  • 284 million people globally were suffering from an anxiety disorder. 
  • The World Health Organization says stress is an epidemic 
  • Empathy levels have dropped 40% in the last 20 years exacerbated certainly by this crisis news cycle that really impacts our empathy fatigue.

And yes almost as a footnote in case you haven’t noticed we are going through a global pandemic. Inundated by change, distracted by choices and polarized into ever reductive tribes. People are turning to very unhealthy things. They’re turning to instant gratification life hacks and they’re worshiping at a work culture that worships at the altar of the cult of overwork. In short, humanity has been given the keys to a brave new world and can’t yet reach the pedals and Parker believes that wonder is that answer. 

So, where do we start?

  1. We start with Watch: watch is really about the power of pause. The Watcher is the part of that brain that is quiet and open and able to see ideas and opportunities. It’s a sense of passive curiosity- which means being present, it means observing the world taking nothing for granted and seeing familiar things and unfamiliar ways. Curiosity is really fascinating. 

Did you know that curiosity actually changes the structure of your brain? Scientists at UC Davis found that when you’re shown something that you’re curious about it actually triggers the dopamine center- it’s like a drug and then when we’re given the answer to that information to that question it triggers the hippocampus, which means that that information is then embedded in our long-term learning. So a little trick here: if you’re trying to learn something that you’re not particularly interested in- layer it in with things that you are curious about and it will embed all of it in your long-term learning.  

A book by Daniel Kahneman ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ and this is the book that won him the Nobel prize in economics. In it he talked about the benefits of slowing down our decision making. He said if there’s time to reflect, slowing down is likely to be a good idea and he also shared the dangers of action bias. 

Action bias also known as intervention bias- it is the tendency to act hastily without considering all possible solutions. This is a particularly acute problem when people are under pressure when they’re trying to gain control of an unpredictable situation during times of impatience, anxiety or when fight or flight is triggered. Obviously a lot of us are experiencing those things and it finds particularly fertile ground in a culture that is replete with productivity porn: this need or feverish desire to be seen as highly productive on social networks. For example, if you’re not learning a language during the pandemic you’re doing it wrong. 

This matches with research that says that people tend to honor leaders who act decisively even if that decision is the wrong one rather than honoring people who take time to make a decision. And so we’re seeing a lot of this right now: a Manager who is human making decisions and acting in action bias because they’re anxious and they just want to ameliorate that. Then we also see the manager is the leader being given these cultural cues that if you act rather than waiting it will mean you’ll be honored more. There’s a lot of messages telling us we need to act but what I would ask you to do rather is pause and action bias is a Wonder killer and we don’t want that.

  1. The next is Wander: and wander is really about moving from passive curiosity to active curiosity. Wandering is the meandering of the mind, the body or the soul that allows curiosity to flourish. Similar to exploring with the mind of a child, going down past with dead ends and rabbit holes just for the experience. This is called exploratory curiosity or epistemic curiosity, and it’s a different type of curiosity to what’s called diversive curiosity. I want to explain the difference between the two because I think it’s really important. 

Diversive curiosity is a response to novelty and seeking newness. It’s skimming from one topic to another like a Gannett picking up shiny little pieces. It really doesn’t explore in any deep sort of way. It’s what you get from Google searches right that the internet is full of information that we can find and yet it doesn’t really allow for a lot of depth. 

When you get into epistemic curiosity, this is where we become intellectually challenged and focused by our curiosity. It’s learning for learning’s sake, exploration for exploration sake. Ian Leslie who wrote a book on curiosity said that epistemic curiosity is what happens when diversive curiosity grows up– a much more mature way of exploring. Technology has really harmed epistemic curiosity. It harms that exploratory behavior because we are encouraged to just sort of skim over things and pick through them. 

Exploratory behavior is incredibly important for us as humans. In fact low exploratory behavior has been linked with everything from self-harm to body dysmorphia to groupthink Prejudice and low empathy. So really really important. One of the challenges is our education system. Today, a child today will have 16 jobs in 5 industries. Think about that- the job for life is gone. That means that kids today are going to have to learn and unlearn really efficiently, but that’s not what you get in primary and secondary school- a lot of that is this a plus b equals C learning.It’s focused on standardized tests and specifically achieving that output. Regurgitating specific pieces of information and it’s not usually till you get into University or even Grad School that you are allowed to explore that epistemic curiosity.

It wasn’t always this way, Socrates said wisdom begins in Wonder and his approach to education was learning very much in that exploratory way. Simply put, curiosity is a muscle- use it or lose it. Educator Allen Toeffler said it in a great way- the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write. It will be those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn. Epistemic curiosity is the key to that. 

  1. So we’ve gone from passive curiosity to active curiosity. And now we come to Whittle– we narrow our focus, pair back the extraneous thought and we become absorbed. There are a lot of mechanisms to help you become absorbed- everything from mantras to familiar music, running and even work. There was a great book written a few years ago called Flow- an incredible book and what he said in that- one of the great ways to know whether you’re in flow is if it’s an activity where you lose time or you become completely absorbed. What kills flow? Multitasking. Email notifications, the buzzing of the phone and interruptions. If you want to get into this place of absorption you need to try to remove distractions. 

Monica went on to provide a little story that she thought would be a great explanation of how this narrowing of focus, this absorption can help us become more Wonder prone. Frank Lloyd Wright, an incredible architect, one of the finest in the world and if you’ve ever had a chance to visit some of the houses he’s designed they are phenomenal absolutely, but they have some odd features and one of them is that he loved a long narrow hallway and some of these were small and cramped pent-up dark spaces. But when you got to the end of that hallway, you were usually rewarded with these grand crescendos of room light-filled cantilevered spaces. This was on purpose. Frank Lloyd Wright was a keen student of the psychology of space and he knew that the differential between these dark pent-up hallways in these light-filled beautiful rooms would elicit awe. It was actually a technique. He used to be called compression and release and this compression release this differential between narrow dark hallway and Grand light filled spaces is what scientists would call expectation violation and expectation violation is a key component to getting to the next step, to getting to wow.

  1. So now we get to the best part of Wonder- Wow and Whoa. This is Awe, for awe to occur you really have to have two pieces- called vastness and accommodation, which Monica refers to as Wow and Whoa. The wow is one when you experience something that is so vast, so meaningful that it makes you feel small and you actually struggle to make sense of it. It’s where you gasp and it’s actually a face that scientists have determined where you take a sharpened breath and your eyes go wide. That’s wow. That’s the experience that challenges your thinking. 

But this is the special part. This is the whoa to try to accommodate that feeling. Whether it was seeing the Grand Canyon, music in a darkened concert hall or even seeing our children master a new skill, when you’re overwhelmed by that your brain has to accommodate it and to do that, it actually changes your schema. It changes the lens through which you see the world and that’s the moment where you go PHEW. Mind blown. This combination between Wow and Whoa creates Awe. 

Scientists at UC Berkeley say that awe is one of the most profoundly beneficial emotions from a physical and psychological sense. People who experienced all were regularly more innovative, happier, more humble and they wanted to contribute more to society. We’ve all probably had at least one experience that’s like this. But what you need to know is that awe does not have to be rare and fleeting- it can be smaller moments of awe that can still give you the benefit. Scientists did a piece of research and experimented with a group of students, they had half of them go and look up for three minutes at a tall building and then they had another group of students look up at a grove of cypress trees. The students that looked at the cypress trees reported higher prosocial emotions. Simply put, it made them happier and it made them want to be better humans- just from three minutes looking at a Grove of cypress trees. Pretty powerful stuff. 

Now that you know the path of Wonder, here are a few practical tips on how you can become more Wonder prone.

  • The first is all archetypes. 

What are all archetypes? It’s really just understanding what brings you wonder. Give it a thought, is it music? Is it nature? Is it spending time with other people? Is it a spoken word? Whatever that is, do more of it. It seems simple but a lot of people haven’t given a lot of thought to that- what triggers wonder in you? Also, it’s an opportunity to have conversations with the people around you, with your friends, with your family, with your partner, even with your team and discover if you have Wonder compatibility with the people around you. If you do, you can share those moments of Wonder. Research shows that Wonder shared is Wonder multiplied, almost like a love language- you can have this conversation with your partner and you probably think you probably know the answer but you haven’t had that conversation directly with them. This is an opportunity to talk about that to deepen that relationship and to explore what brings wonder what brings awe to your partner then potentially be able to share that with them. 

  • The next is slow thought. 

Many of you are probably familiar with the slow food movement. It was started by a guy named Carlo Petrini- he says ‘we are enslaved by speed and I’m all succumbed to the virus that is fast life’. So really, the slow food movement is a movement of philosophy about slowing down in general. And so we challenge you to have some slow thought. What does slow thought mean? Being present, maybe taking a technology Hiatus (I know it’s easier said than done) but slow down, unplug, try some breathing, schedule in daydreaming time, nap, anything that helps you start to sense that watch, that slowing down. 

  • Avoid multitasking.

Try to make a habit of focusing on one element at a time. And if you can support your teams to do that as well, even better. Help them manage their time such that they only focus on one activity at a time so that you’re starting to strengthen that absorption muscle. 

  • Meditation 

Another way is to meditate. All meditation is popular and for the most part all meditation is good meditation, but the meditation that you want to do that will make you more Wonder prone is focused attention meditation. Things like Mantra visualizations or even walking meditation which brings me to this next element- Wonder walks. So what are Wonder Walks? There is a piece of research done where they sent people one group of people on a regular walk and another group of people on a Wonder Walk and they had them take selfies before and after- the people who went on the Wonder Walk had broader Smiles at the end of it. 

They were happier, they felt better. For a Wonder Walk, they simply primed people to look for things that gave them a sense of wonder, that gave them a sense of awe. Just that priming made them have a more positive experience. 

A few tips for helping you take a Wonder Walk: 

  • Take a different path that you normally would take an unexpected past so that you can maybe get that that sense of expectation violation
  • Try to find places that will make you feel small- perhaps a high Vista, tall trees, the sea, anything that will give you that sense of vastness of the world. 
  • And then the last might be if you can’t go big go small look for tiny details while you walk see if there are things that you might have otherwise not noticed and that you would have taken for granted. 
  • Even if you can’t go outside, that’s okay you can take a Virtual Wonder Walk. Research shows that you can watch a four-minute Drone footage and that will even trigger some of the benefits of Wonder and awe. This is a technique that’s been used in prisons and hospitals and nursing homes- people who aren’t able to regularly access nature and it can be very powerful. This is the sort of thing you can even do with your team. If you’ve got a zoom Marathon, take a five-minute break and show them some Drone footage of a drone going over the Grand Canyon or perhaps some you know video of going into space and see if people don’t return to that meeting feeling more energized and feeling more buoyant.
  • Gratitude

Gratitude is very powerful in and of itself- but this form of gratitude isn’t just being thankful. It’s a deep reverential sense of gratitude. A lot of people get this from religious practice, but it doesn’t have to come that way. It’s anything that makes you feel smaller, a small component part of a bigger system. There are lots of different ways that we can connect into that reverential gratitude, but what that does is really starts to Prime you for being Wonder prone.

Monica always likes to end her presentations with two things- a quote and a call to action. She believed that this quote from Einstein encapsulated all she had to say: 

He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe is as good as dead. His eyes are closed

She followed this with a call to action: to open your eyes and follow Wonder.

If you’d like to follow Wonder with Monica, you can follow her on social or you can find her at follow Wonder.com.

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