A Passion for Reason: Wonder

Dear friend of Wonderfest,
My childhood hero wasn’t real. He wasn’t even fully human. Science Officer Spock, the supremely logical being of Star Trek fame, was half human and half Vulcan. He spent parts of many Star Trek episodes trying to suppress his emotions—or at least to control them. Perhaps Spock was not such a weird hero for a 12-year-old boy getting deeply involved with science … and with the emotional perils of puberty.
Given my still Spock-loving disposition, it is odd that, very soon, I will be giving a short public talk on one particular emotion. At Sunday Assembly in Oakland on April 27, I will present “A Passion for Reason,” and my subject will be the emotion called wonder.
Sunday Assembly is a new endeavor that some people describe as “church without God.” It was founded in 2013 by two British stand-up comedians, Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans. Some 30 congregations around the globe now preach the Sunday Assembly gospel: “Live better, help often, wonder more.”
Sanderson Jones will be attending this particular Sunday Assembly in Oakland, so I suppose I’d better do a good job with my little talk. Its title is borrowed from Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist at USC and the Salk Institute. Damasio’s Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (1994) argues that “biological drives, body states, and emotions may be an indispensable foundation for rationality.”
Our most rational selves, the part that makes “free will” decisions, seems to depend on our emotions. Damasio writes, “It is as if we are possessed by a passion for reason, a drive that originates in the brain core, permeates other levels of the nervous system, and emerges as either feelings or non conscious biases to guide decision making…”
… To guide decision making. I hope I am making the right decision—non-expert that I am—to speak at Sunday Assembly about the emotion of wonder. But it is this emotion that got Wonderfest started 17 years ago, that inspires today’s Wonderfest events, and that, perhaps a bit, leads you to be reading this newsletter.
The Mystery of Sleep
Wonderfest’s next wonder-inspired event is The Mysteries of Sleep, set for Wednesday, May 7, at StrEat Food Park in San Francisco. UC Berkeley psychology professor Matt Walker, an outstanding speaker, will tell us about the importance of sleep for learning, for memory, for creativity, and for the regulation of emotion. Maybe Dr. Walker (and a good night’s sleep) will help us to regulate — I hope to enhance — our experience of wonder.
Tucker Hiatt
Wonderfest Founding Director
P.S. If your scientific sense of wonder seeks a Saganesque balance with healthy skepticism (and whose doesn’t?!), you’ll love SkeptiCal, the Northern California Science and Skepticism Conference. Admission to great talks on science literacy, astrology, climate change, con games, psychological pseudoscience (and more) will cost only $40 until May 1. After that, the price goes up, so act promptly. SkeptiCal happens at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center on Saturday, May 31.