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Wild About Utah: Brand New Eyes

At 16 days old, our little girl ventured into the mountains for the first time. In the high country, below a cathedral of jagged limestone peaks, we found a stroller-wide path far enough from the other summer-goers to make us feel as though we’d arrived somewhere new. 

For our daughter, she had. Brand new eyes that had been closed the entire ride up canyon were now wide, alert, darting back and forth, marveling at every new color, shade of shadow, and refracted shard of light. They finally settled on a bouquet of blooming rosehips and didn’t stray. We were bearing witness to discovery in its purest form: drinking in the world as it unfolds.

I’ve made a career of working with children in outdoor settings, educating them about the world’s natural wonders, and likewise being educated by each child’s wonderment at them. But it’s different when it’s your own child— when you’re witnessing their first experience with the world you’ve grown familiar with. It’s something more than a reminder to be ever-present. It’s a change of perspective.

In the first 90 days of life, a baby’s brain will grow between 60% and 70%, increasing in size as much as 1% per day immediately after birth. Neural pathways begin to form with each new stimulus, and in the natural world, there’s no shortage of those. When an infant is able to recognize patterns in those stimuli, neurons begin firing together, setting their sequences. Familiarity is forming.

The adult brain is no different, in fact. Neuroscience researchers have found that not only will adult neural pathways change their firing patterns in response to new experience but also that they will grow new branches called dendrites that add to the complexity of human experience and a human’s response to stimuli. You could call it neural nuance. We can still grow if we still look for new things it seems.

I sometimes wonder if my adult brain has begun to regress prematurely as I speed walk up a nearby trail, searching for some vista or peak or unclimbed ridgeline. My neural pathways have formed, patterns have been imbedded in the recesses of my mind, so I bypass the familiar stand of aspen trees and rocky outcroppings—perhaps missing something new in them I would have seen if I had stopped to search, to drink in the unfamiliar set in a known world. I’m learning from my daughter. Perhaps we can all learn from children—to see the world with brand new eyes.