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 turn chaos into questions; boredom into wisdom, and helps us find pleasure in the mysteries of the Universe.

Songs are getting shorter because of Spotify. Teenagers with acne get better grades than those without.

How do we know? Throughout this year, a curious journalist called Tom Whitwell noted 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. Fresh ideas excite us.

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

Learning from the world means exploring our surroundings and questioning what happens. If you never ask which animal ate your neighbour, you are unlikely to find out that lions are dangerous.

Astrophysicist Mario Livio defines two major “flavours” of curiosity. There is the survivalist instinct, which he calls “perceptual curiosity” — the feeling of uncertainty that makes you want to know what made that noise under your bed.

Then there is “epistemic curiosity” — the exciting anticipation of learning something new.

The endless pursuit of knowledge has pushed humanity towards great achievements. Works of art and science can be seen as sublime edifices of curiosity.

If you doubt the importance of curiosity, think of the societies that try to restrict it: from the Church in Medieval Europe to ISIS today.

Curiosity means challenging the order. It also allows us to overcome social divisions. 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. Our smartphones trick us into scrolling forever and too much information online numbs our creativity.

Not so fast, say others. Curiosity is part of what makes us human. Science will never be complete, art can never be perfected. 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.

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.

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 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

Curious
Wants to know about the world; why people, things are the way the are.
Astrophysicist
Someone who is trying to understand how the things in the night sky work.
Epistemic
To do with knowledge.
Sublime
Of very great excellence or beauty.
Edifices
A large structure or building
Attribute
Characteristic or quality.

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