The fascinating, undying power of curiosity

Oscar Wilde: “The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing.” © Tutu

Could curiosity be the most important human attribute? It lets us transform chaos into questions, boredom into wisdom, and allows us to find pleasure in the mysteries of the Universe.

Songs are getting shorter because of Spotify. Placebos work even when they are not being taken. Teenagers with acne get better grades than those without.

How do we know? Throughout this year, a curious journalist called Tom Whitwell has been noting down the odd things he learned. This week, he published a list of discoveries. They make marvellous reading.

Want to know more? Good, that shows that you are curious, that you want to make sense of the world. That is to be expected. Fresh ideas excite us.

A 1964 study showed that infants as young as two-months-old are more interested in new patterns than shapes and forms they have seen before. From an early age, we all want to discover more.

This makes sense. Our minds have evolved in order to keep us and our families safe and healthy. Learning from the world means exploring our surroundings and questioning what happens. If you never ask which animal ate your neighbour, then you are unlikely to find out that lions are dangerous.

Astrophysicist Mario Livio defines two major “flavours” of curiosity. On the one hand, there is the survivalist instinct, which he calls “perceptual curiosity” — the feeling of uncertainty and intrigue that compels you to find out what made that noise under your bed.

On the other hand, there is “epistemic curiosity” — the pleasurable and exciting anticipation of learning something new.

It is this seemingly inexhaustible pursuit of knowledge that has pushed humanity towards many of its greatest achievements. The very enterprises of art and science are sublime edifices of curiosity.

They are an entire planet’s attempt at answering the most compelling of questions, from the Large Hadron Collider’s colossal pursuit of the Higgs Boson to Michelangelo’s dextrous depictions of the divine.

If in any doubt about the importance of curiosity, just think of the societies that actively attempt to curtail it. From Medieval Europe to ISIS today, oppressive regimes militarise ignorance. They encourage disciples to believe that all that is worth knowing has already been found out.

Curiosity means challenging the status quo. It also allows us to overcome social divisions. As the surgeon and writer Atul Gawande puts it, “Curiosity is the beginning of empathy.” Could it also be humanity’s most important attribute?

Killing the cat

No, say some. Curiosity is merely a luxury. People only have time for wisdom and wonder once they already have food and shelter. You can survive being bored for a month. You cannot stay thirsty that long. Furthermore, our modern propensity for distraction shows a darker side to curiosity. Our smartphones trick us into scrolling forever and an abundance of information online numbs our ability to be creative.

Not so fast, say others. Curiosity is the essence of what makes us human. Science will never be complete, art can never be perfected. Curiosity is our most powerful instinct because it is infinitely rewarding. Unlike sugar or Netflix, we can never grow tired of it. Our ability to ask questions when faced with the great unknowns only makes us stronger and wiser.

You Decide

  1. Do you think that you can ever be too curious? Imagine a situation where asking why is the wrong thing to do.
  2. Do you feel more interested in the subjects you learn at school or the ones that you explore in your spare time?

Activities

  1. In pairs, take turns making a statement and then proceeding to ask each other “Why?” questions. For example, “There is an election next week.” “Why?” “Because the Prime Minister called for one.” “Why?” “Because he didn’t have a parliamentary majority.” “Why?” See who can keep going for the longest.
  2. Imagine an entire day without having any curiosity whatsoever. For each action you can think of, describe what it is that makes you do it.

Some People Say...

“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.”

Plutarch (46-120AD), Greek-Roman biographer and essayist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The word curious comes from the Latin for “to care” or “to worry”. Curiosity is also linked to triggering a release of dopamine (the pleasure chemical) into the brain.
What do we not know?
A precise definition of curiosity: whether it is a genetic trait; whether people can have more or less of it, or if it can be learnt. We also do not know to what extent other animals have curiosity.

Word Watch

Placebos
Harmless substances pretending to be medicines, that do not have any actual effects. Placebos are often used to test the effectiveness of drugs.
Astrophysicist
Someone who is trying to understand how the things in the night sky work.
Intrigue
A mysterious or fascinating quality.
Epistemic
To do with knowledge.
Inexhaustible
Doesn’t stop; without limits.
Sublime
Of very great excellence or beauty.
Edifices
A large structure or building
Large Hadron Collider’s
The world’s largest and highest-energy particle collider, and the largest machine in the world used to test scientific theories
Higgs Boson
An elementary particle in physics finally discovered by the Large Hadron Collider in 2013. Controversially called “the God particle”.
Michelangelo
Florentine renaissance artist famous for his statue of David and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Dextrous
Showing skill, especially using hands.
Disciples
Followers.
Status quo
The existing state of things.
Propensity
The tendency or likelihood to do something

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