Aesthetics / Childhood / Cognitive Science / Education

Into the Unknown 4.jpg

In your normal environment, a lot of what you encounter is already so familiar that you barely notice it. Let’s assume there is a tree in your street that you see every day. After some time, you will not notice it consciously again. If somebody asked you to describe the street, you might not be able to remember it. But consider you have gone out in the morning, then you come home in the evening and somebody has cut down that tree in the meantime. You will immediately notice something is different, even if you might not be able to tell exactly what. So you have some implicit knowledge about your familiar environment, but as long as the environment does not change, you will not even notice it. You may be able to walk or drive home and think of something completely different and the things you see around you will not come into your consciousness. Somehow, what you see is compared with what you expect, and as long as everything is as usual, it does not raise into consciousness.

Only if there is a difference to what you subconsciously expect will your attention turn to it. You may also turn it to something deliberately, e.g. if you are looking for the post box to drop a letter, but normally, if you are in your familiar environment your attention will only be turned to things that are new and unusual. Everything else is in the background.

But if you enter a street or quarter or park where you have never been before, your mind is switched to a state of heightened alertness and attention. You get into a state of excitement. If you are traveling to another city or another country, entering an area that is even more foreign to your experiences, this effect becomes even stronger. When I talk about traveling here, I don’t mean traveling to a holiday club resort or to a place where you have spent your holidays twenty times before. You must go into the unknown. To some extent, such an effect can also be achieved by reading a book, by getting to know new people, by experiencing great art or listening to unusual music. Or you might go hiking or bike riding and go to a place that you are not familiar with. You might go into a museum. You might also look at small things that you don’t notice normally, finding the unknown in the micro world. You might look through a microscope.

To travel, in such a broadened sense or int the literal sense of the word, then means to leave the known and familiar. You are entering an area where many things are unexpected. Your knowledge is not adapted to what you experience. You get thrown into a state of heightened wakefulness. You experience surprise, fascination, curiosity. There might be a certain amount of stress mixed in. Your mind will have to work hard now to grasp all the new impressions and to make sense of what you see. In some environments, curiosity might be mixed with a feeling of danger, justified or unjustified. You might have to reflect on what you experience and what you do, and call into question what you know and what goes without saying. Understanding things or managing new situations, on the other hand, gives you a feeling of success.

The time is interesting and exciting; time seems to run fast because you are never bored, but looking back it feels long because you experienced so much. In your comfortable familiar environment at home, on the other hand, you might feel bored and sometimes it feels like time is creeping. Later, looking back, it is as if the time has vanished. Since nothing new has happened, your memory did not store anything and after a short time, you cannot remember any specific thing again. Probably this is why time seems to go faster when you grow older. The amount of novelty encountered is reducing.

Going into the unfamiliar, on the other hand, makes life more intensive, even if some unpleasant experiences might be mixed in. And while experiencing the new, the unexpected, you will learn. You will learn to see, to hear, to smell and to taste, you will learn to think new thoughts and look at the world in new ways, do things differently and get new ideas by observation or exchange with others.

The world now feels again as it used to feel when you were a child, when everything was new and thrilling and a lot of interesting things were happening. And like a child, you learn and your mind expands and grows.

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(The picture, showing some mcroorganisms, is from

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