Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.
I believe myself to be a curious person, but I like most also believe that being a curious person is a positive thing so to bring in a level of healthy self doubt my reason for believing I’m a curious person is because I’ve been repeatedly told it not just as a child but as an adult, I also have more interests than the average person. With a smaller sample size I’ve noticed among my peers most stopped learning once they left school/college and most never saw learning as a form of entertainment or hobby. My range of hobbies is diverse and focused on learning or observation, all of this I believe qualifies me to self identify as a curious person but enough of me sucking myself off for all to see, because in all likelihood I’m actually incredibly average, I just do different things I don’t have some ability that others lack just things others don’t do/think - I believe anyone is capable of being a curious person, it just requires identifying how curiosity is harmed and how it can be cultivated.
Why is curiosity the outlier?
When we think of people who have curiosity we view them as the outlier, why are they curious? but we all can think back to a time in which we had that same curiosity, for most it will have been destroying a tv remote to see the insides, following a bird through the woods to see where it’s going and what it’s doing, for nothing more than curiosity - but yet when confronted with adults that retained that curiosity we ask why are they that way? but I think the much better question is why are we no longer like that? not what gave them curiosity as an adult but what took ours away.
Self defeating mindset
I also want to talk on a more personal level about a friend, she’s one of my closest drinking buddies (though due to covid we’ve not seen each other in a long while) we usually end up talking in the taxi ride to the club or at some point or another getting pissed and talking - she always mentions how intelligent I am, how stupid I make her feel (by contrast) and how she wishes she could be as smart as I am - the reason she isn’t? because she doesn’t believe she can be I don’t think I’m intelligent I think I’ve been exposed to a lot of things, I don’t think my brain is unique or better than average at processing things, I don’t think my retention is above that of the average person, I don’t believe I’m smarter or more intelligent than the average person. I think I’ve just learnt more things due to my curiosity.
What acts against curiosity?
I think the two major things working to stifle curiosity are (1) Insecurity (2) reward orientated learning
My (online) friends group has quite a strong and often toxic debate culture, one thing I’ve noticed is that group can be split into two categories, the ones (a) that accept when they’re wrong and try to learn more about why they’re wrong to strengthen their beliefs or opinions and a second set (b) that will often times lie to avoid admitting they’re wrong - Now I want to avoid criticising one group or another personally since I’m talking about my friend who I care about and want to avoid a holy-than-thou attitude coming across - I’ve spoken to both sets and even been public about which set I believe people fall into, this post isn’t some hidden way for me to talk about how I’m better than my peer group because I don’t believe that.
The reason I give that personal example is because I think it is relatable for most people. The issue however is learning and curiosity is a constant state of insecurity, you’re often shown just how wrong you are about a lot of things or how you’re an adult who doesn’t know very foundational things (I still don’t know subtraction truly, I just subtract them and if it ends up being a negative number I either ignore or honour the negative depending on what feels correct) and privately this can be difficult however to be a curious person it must be made public, you’ll have to ask people questions and publicly test yourself, so now you have to face often being wrong publicly or admitting to lapses in your knowledge I recently started to learn the guitar and that’s shown me how little I know about sound, I didn’t have any idea guitars needed to be tuned for certain songs, I thought tuning a guitar meant just setting it once, once a guitar was tuned it could play and song perfectly - when I mentioned this to friends I was ridiculed (lovingly) because each of them understood it intuitively without ever even trying to learn to play the guitar how you approach these moments will either help or harm your curiosity, if you retreat and feel shame then deep down some part of you must feel as if it’s bad to have lapses in knowledge or to not know everything, but living with a sense of curiosity will repeatedly show you that you know almost nothing about anything.
I think the way to overcome this is the same as most shortcomings, conditioning each day write down one thing you do know and five you don’t, then try and find a friend who might know something you don’t and ask them, the more basic it is the better, this will feel uncomfortable but you’ll realise nothing bad really happens and that there’s nothing wrong with not knowing things, to paraphrase something I read once, being stupid isn’t bad, staying stupid is.
(2) reward orientated learning
A very important part of nurturing curiosity is learning, curiosity needs it to develop but during schooling two things seem to be universally taught that we need to unlearn
- (1) There are correct and incorrect things to learn
- (a) Trying to satisfy your curiosity will lead to punishment.
- (b) Learning has to be active and has a (low) limit.
- (2) The goal of learning is to help you towards a clear and often material reward.
- (a) The outcome of learning should be decided before learning is started.
- (b) Learning has no inherent value.
I will address each of these in parts, illustrating each in what I believe are widely applicable anecdotes
There are correct and incorrect things to learn:
This idea is brought in very young, through being told to stop wasting classes time with stupid questions at the time it seems harmless and practical, the amount of time is limited and certain things have to be taught - but children are naturally curious and I think it’s a fair assumption if when that curiosity is exercised it’s met with dismissal and in some cases resentment that’s clear to even a child it will lead that child to exercise it less, especially if that resentment and dismissal is mirrored by the childs parents - this ties in (a) pretty cleanly, I remember being yelled at for watching a bee and asking questions related to it instead of paying attention in maths (even though I already completed the work) this overtime will enforce (b) since in a lot of situations it isn’t because you’re wasting the classes time, it isn’t because you’re not doing your work - it must be something else, I think in most the idea your capacity for learning is low and learning cannot be done passively, it always requires effort and you’re effort is limited, but learning can most certainly be done passively - a common example is in the observation of birds now it’s pretty well known that mallards fly in an almost standard (for ducks) V formation, you most likely also know that the mallard formation also has some kind of hierarchy, leaders and those being lead - But do you remember being taught this? I think for most they learnt this from observation then had some kind of confirmation, or perhaps you didn’t know this at all, lets say that’s the case I think by just exposure (i.e seeing mallards) you would learn without conscious effort not only what a mallard is (though you wouldn’t know the name of it) but also the fact they fly in a V formation you would learn through no conscious effort perhaps you would even learn they do so to help one (or two) mallards guide the entire group - or at very least if asked why do they fly in a V formation? you would be able to figure it out through using things you learnt passively, not by intently watching mallards but by just having them in your field of vision repeatedly and occasionally noticing them.
The goal of learning is to help you towards a clear and often material reward:
Why have you learnt anything? the answer taught to us repeatedly is for a clear goal, when you need to start reading, you learn to read; when you need to start exercising, you learn about exercise; you learn things when you need it, obviously the example of schooling should already be in the front of your mind since schooling is the longest and most intense form of learning any of us will experience - it also very strongly enforces this ideal in us the reason you’re learning mathematics isn’t because it’s a very functional thing to know, the reason you’re learning english isn’t so you can better understand others and communicate with them, you learn these things because almost every job requires a qualification in both. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing jobs should want you to have foundational skills and knowledge but I’m saying there are much better motives for learning these things than some vague idea of employment in the future on (2b) learning is never seen as an inherently enjoyable activity, it will be hard for me to argue it is especially the type of learning we’re talking about here that requires a period of ‘retraining’ to gain your curiosity back so I will give an anecdotal example that might apply then hope that if you undergo a period of ‘retraining’ you come to feel as if point (2b) is correct, the anecdote is this post, throughout reading it you might’ve found parts you agree with or disagree with but I’m hoping you will disagree or agree with at least one part not through actively thinking about it but through passively doing so, you saw something then your brain began thinking about it whilst you continued to read forward until a conclusion of agreement or disagreement was reached, a completely passive but thought out opinion was formed, passive learning.
What nurtures curiosity?
I believe the nurturing of curiosity doesn’t have to happen from an early age but can be nurtured at any age but to achieve curiosity you need to be in the correct environment free of mindless distractions. I think curiosity always arises from a lack of things to think about to give this a fair consideration I’d like to propose you go to some natural spot, the less man made things you can find the better (lacking that just a place without people) set a timer on your phone for 30 minutes then don’t pick it up or distract yourself with anything until the timer hits zero - You’ll notice two things, one an increase in observation and a seeming decrease in thinking (though this is more an increase in attention and decrease in distracting thought) now since curiosity is a very abstract feeling you’ll be the only one to know if this induces curiosity but I believe firmly it will. The point is to prove curiosity isn’t constant and you can experience a state of curiosity which will hopeful overcome the mindset of “I’m just not a very curious person” and convince you curiosity is something worth pursuing.
Knowing what you’re curious about
This is an important one, perhaps the most like most new things I believe theres an uptick and then levelling out, at first you will likely adopt a lot of things you’re curious about but this I believe is a conflation of interest and curiosity; curiosity in something doesn’t require a practical outcome but just exists to satisfy itself, the reason to pursue the curiosity is to satiate itself whereas interest will require something more at least in my view.
Now that’s been established to find out what your curious about doesn’t take (and I doubt could be achieved by) a rigorous system. I think the best approach is through making a list of activities you might enjoy, from that do some new activities and keep in your mind you’re looking for something that enhances or encourages your general curiosity but to try and be a little more helpful I will list mine and when less obvious why I believe it enhances my general curiosity.
- Hiking (daytime and overnight)
- Bird watching
- Mycology (at purely an identification and hobbyist level)
intuitive learning and self correction
Intuitive learning is just my way of expressing the earlier concept of the mallard observations, you’re learning intuitively (sometimes passively) but an important addition to this process, not just for your own sake but also for curiosities sake is self correction, until you confirm what you learn intuitively as fact you should consider it fiction.
To conclude I believe curiosity is a very important part of being human and anyone who wishes to, even “people who aren’t curious” can cultivate and maintain a curious mindset.