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Weekly dose of wonder: The glorious sounds of chickens

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Americans need to feel more wonder in their lives. This is what scientists who study emotions are realizing - that more wonder can help our mental health and sense of well-being. So with this in mind, we at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED are launching a new series called Weekly Dose of Wonder. Each week we will bring you a short story somehow related to wonder. The story might trigger this emotion in you, or it may give you an idea for how to go find it in your own life. And for our very first inaugural installment, I am joined by NPR health correspondent Michaeleen Doucleff. Hi.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: All right, so wonder - as I was preparing to talk to you, I was thinking, I know what wonder feels like when I feel it, but I'm not sure how we would actually define it for the purposes of this conversation. So just explain what wonder is.

DOUCLEFF: On a basic level, it's what's called a positive emotion, meaning in general, it makes you feel better. And it's very similar to another emotion called awe. And both of them are what you feel when you encounter something that is so vast, so extraordinary that you literally stop what you're doing and think, wow, what is this? You can't explain it entirely because it doesn't fit neatly into your knowledge for how the world works. It's mysterious. You know, and the classic example is looking up at the night sky and just feeling like, wow, that's so big, right?

KELLY: Yeah.

DOUCLEFF: But it's not just the night sky, you know? You can feel wonder even from a moving experience with another human being.

KELLY: Right. So it can be something really vast, like the sky or the ocean. But wonder can also be a response to something very small.

DOUCLEFF: Exactly. So those things are physically vast, right? But you can also feel it with something conceptually vast, like a petal on a flower. If you stop and really look at it, you really try to understand how that petal is made, you may start to realize there's way more to this tiny thing than you previously had thought. In fact, I have a great example of this, something that's been bringing my family wonder every day. And it's something we encounter all the time, but many of us know very little about it. To show you what I mean, I'm going to take you to my backyard...

KELLY: OK.

DOUCLEFF: ...On a Friday afternoon with a bunch of neighborhood kids.

KELLY: Here we go.

HAYDEN: I'm doing Baby.

ROSY: I'm doing Yellow.

DOUCLEFF: That's my daughter Rosy and her friend Hayden (ph). And Baby and Yellow - those are the names of two...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKEN SQUAWKING)

DOUCLEFF: ...Chickens. Six months ago, we started raising a dozen chicks.

ROSY: So one of the chickens is stuck in the gate.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKEN SQUAWKING)

DOUCLEFF: We got the chickens not so much for their food...

HAYDEN: Michaeleen.

DOUCLEFF: Yeah.

HAYDEN: I found an egg on the ground.

DOUCLEFF: Oh.

...But rather because these little critters are good for our mental health.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKEN CHIRPING)

DOUCLEFF: They give us a reason to go outside every morning and every evening. And they're a huge source of wonder. They do all these mysterious things.

What's wondrous about chickens?

ROSY: Having a dirt bath. Yeah.

DOUCLEFF: Tell me about the dirt bath.

ROSY: So they basically dig a hole, and then they rub their bodies in the dirt.

MATEO: It's actually mostly because they, like, try to get rid of mites.

DOUCLEFF: That's Mateo (ph). He's 11. And he says even though chickens have tiny brains - like, the size of two peanuts...

MATEO: They have, like, personalities all different.

ROSY: I said that.

MATEO: It's like every single one is different.

DOUCLEFF: And what type of personalities? Give me an example.

MATEO: I have one right here. It's Marshmallow. She loves humans.

DOUCLEFF: And then there's Marmalade.

MATEO: Marmalade - she can be feisty. And then...

HAYDEN: Look. This is Marmalade.

DOUCLEFF: There's feisty Marmalade.

MATEO: Yeah. Marmalade...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKEN SQUAWKING)

MATEO: ...Is very feisty.

DOUCLEFF: For me, the most wondrous thing is the sounds the chickens make. They typically sound like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKENS SQUAWKING)

DOUCLEFF: But right around the time the chickens were 5 months old, all of a sudden, we started hearing another sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKENS CLUCKING)

DOUCLEFF: I thought, what on Earth are they trying to say? So one day when I heard this special sound, I ran over to the coop...

(SOUNDBITE OF LATCH CLICKING)

DOUCLEFF: ...And looked inside.

Amazing. So right now there's two chickens laying. And a third chicken, Caramel, is making the noise.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKEN CLUCKING)

DOUCLEFF: And I realize this noise, this strange, glorious noise, is the sound chickens make when one member of the flock is laying an egg.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKEN CLUCKING)

KELLY: Wow. I'm now feeling a sense of wonder. I had no idea that every time I eat an egg, there must have been some chicken out there making that noise.

DOUCLEFF: Right?

KELLY: So explain, Michaeleen, from the scientific point of view, why is wonder good for us to feel?

DOUCLEFF: Yeah. So scientists have found that feeling this way does a bunch of things to our bodies and our minds. It makes you pause a bit, and that calms down your nervous system, that pause. And it can also reduce stress because it makes you think beyond yourself and your problems.

KELLY: Yeah. Do those benefits still kick in if I'm having to work to feel the wonder, like I wake up and I am not in the mood or I'm just not wired for this?

DOUCLEFF: Here's the thing I didn't realize - is that if you make a little effort to try and feel wonder each day, like, seek it out, work for it, as you said, you will actually get better at feeling it and feel it more often. And you don't have to do much. Just take a few minutes each day. Go outside, and try to really find something mysterious, beautiful or vast. And then neuroscientists say you'll actually rewire your brain, so you'll start feeling it more automatically without even trying.

KELLY: That is the wondrous Michaeleen Doucleff introducing us to this new series, Weekly Dose of Wonder. Thank you.

DOUCLEFF: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michaeleen Doucleff, PhD, is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. For nearly a decade, she has been reporting for the radio and the web for NPR's global health outlet, Goats and Soda. Doucleff focuses on disease outbreaks, cross-cultural parenting, and women and children's health.