Wild Neoteny on Wild About Utah

Jul 12, 2018

“Hey, stop the truck!” my wife called from the passenger seat, her nose pressed against the window. I already knew what this was about; she was out the door before the dust had cleared the hood, kneeling in the grass. While she hovered over something newly found with purple petals, I stared out across the high, open meadow of blooming wildflowers, the urge to run surging into my feet. 

I turned at her exclamation several seconds later, half a football field of colored space between us now. Arms spread wide; grins from ear to ear. In a field of wildflowers, we were kids again.

 

Scientists call it neoteny, the retention of juvenile features in the adult of a species—basically, the harboring of a playful nature into adulthood. The research into the benefits of play, especially outdoor play, is becoming more replete by the day. In humans, play puts the right hemisphere of the brain into gear, that portion responsible for artistic and creative notions, imagination and insight, and holistic thought. The cerebellum and frontal lobes light up as well, increasing attunement to coordination, executive functioning, and contextual memory development. Neoteny, scientists say, is the key to a species’ adaptability and, therefore, its survival.

Wild neoteny could be the term used to describe the human affinity to explore one’s natural surroundings, to wander off into the hills in search of something new and interesting, to learn the nuance of a place and to gain some intimacy with it—to call it home. We do that, I think, when we go on hikes into the wild hinterlands, catapult ourselves down the turbulent waters of our rivers, or climb the rock faces we stumble upon. It’s an adrenaline rush to be sure, a high on life as they say; but it’s also an act of survival—and of remaining human.

 

Robin Moore, a professor at North Carolina State University, says “the natural environment is the principle source of sensory stimulation….” “Sensory experiences,” he says, “link [our] exterior world with [our] interior, hidden, effective world.” The outdoor environment is a medium of human connection where, as Moore puts it, the “freedom to explore and play…through the senses…is essential for healthy development….” Dr. Stuart Brown, clinical researcher and founder of The National Institute for Play, behooves us in his Ted Talk on the subject to explore our individual histories of play. If you close your eyes and imagine yourself at play, where are you? The open water, a deep forest, a mountain peak, or maybe a field of wildflowers?

In his national bestseller, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv calls nature a “reset button.” It is the place where we are reminded of ourselves and our purpose. Australian musician Xavier Rudd sings, “Take a stroll to the nearest water’s edge/Remember your place.” It’s often proffered that in a time of industrial expectation and hyper-communication, we need the wild spaces more than ever. There’s some truth to that; but I think I’d go play there anyway, even if it wasn’t to escape the quote-unquote, “workaday life.” I’m most human when I’m running through a field of blooming wildflowers.