Cooper: The wonderful world of wondering

A couple of columns ago I wrote about the importance of science and the scientific method. I wrote of my deep concern that we are teaching our children that they can disregard proven facts and conclusions and just pick a truth like picking the color of their rooms.

A couple of columns ago I wrote about the importance of science and the scientific method. I wrote of my deep concern that we are teaching our children that they can disregard proven facts and conclusions and just pick a truth like picking the color of their rooms.

Unsaid were my thoughts that in this environment, new ideas and visions would float without tethers of fact or anchors of conclusions much like the unhooked astronaut destined to float through space and disappear. Good brains would wallow in half-truths and we would miss the opportunity for new discoveries.

Then I had a much needed reminder of the joy of discovery. I happened to read two articles reporting on two different areas of study that sent my mind, as if by involuntary reflex, into the wonderful world of contemplation. Both were studies that led with answers and ended with questions. I call it participatory science.

One reported in the science section of The New York Times (Zimmer Aug. 14, 2014) dealt with the fact each of us has about 100 trillion bacteria and other tiny microbes inhabiting our body. We all know we are very buggy. What we didn’t know is that some of these bacteria may be influencing our behavior!

I am certain the evolutionary biologist who co-authored the paper — “What are the means, motive and opportunity for the microbes to manipulate us? They have all three” — would not appreciate that I the reader burst out laughing at the thought.

Who knew that … “certain types of bacteria (in our gut may) thrive on chocolate and (may) be coaxing us to eat chocolate?” At least that’s the suggestion of one of the researchers in explaining the high number of people who crave chocolate, even going so far to imply that the obesity epidemic might be due to bacteria that have come to dominate our appetites for their own survival.

It gets worse or funnier depending on your perspective. The article goes on to describe the research by a neuroscientist in Ireland who … “suggests that a healthy microbiome (the scientific name for this buggy stuff) helps mammals develop socially. Germ-free mice, for example, tend to avoid contact with other mice.”

This could explain the failure of Howard Hughes to connect with others or, on the other hand, the success of Anthony Bourdain who eats bugs.

Just wonder. For the bacteria, it’s all about survival and for us it may be about falling in love. Hungry microscopic germs are busy releasing dopamine and serotonin to get us to share bugs just at the moment we meet someone and fall madly in love at first sight.

Until just recently when a few studies began connecting the dots, our medical scientists ignored our internal bacteria unless they caused deadly epidemics. Lightning inspiration probably struck when daydreaming brainy scientists realized there was a vast area of body chemistry to be revealed in trillions of bacteria bent on survival.

Why now? Beats me … but I will seriously think about it when I stop laughing.

The ‘reset button’

Which brings me to the second article, an opinion piece, “Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain” (Levitin, New York Times, Aug. 9, 2014) in which the writer weighs managing the millions of bits of information we process every day from multiple resources against having time to daydream or laugh at ourselves.

Seems our brain has two “dominant modes of attention,” one that concentrates on tasks and one that allows a mind to wander. The first gets things big and small done. The latter makes connections seemingly out of the blue. The writer makes the point that we would do neither well without the other.

We just don’t or can’t do them at the same time. We have something on our brains called an “insula” that acts to switch one mode on and the other off. If we focus too much on processing information whether from facts or messages on Facebook, we will not have the time to learn what we really think.

There isn’t a parent of a couple of toddlers that doesn’t know that feeling when we end the day too tired to think or tense to let our minds wander. I can’t think of many people who haven’t at one time in their life called for balance in their life.

Little did we know balance is allowing the “insula” to do its job and switch us off our tasks some of the time. Wander and wonder we must in order for our poor overworked concentration to rest and have that flash of understanding about great discoveries or about ourselves. Concentrate we must to bring to life the great discoveries of our minds or integrate that flash.

The alternative is to be and think what thousands of bits of information tell us to be or think. The alternative is having our insights and ideas floating like space trash. Great scientists do not separate rigid research from inspired thought in the scientific process.

How else could we know that we may be losing control of our bodies and social lives to trillions of self-aggrandizing bugs in our bellies?


Bertha D. Cooper is retired from a 40-plus year career as a health care administrator focusing on the delivery system as a whole. She still does occasional consulting. She is a featured columnist at the Sequim Gazette. Reach her at