We all know the saying that curiosity killed the cat. Yet, curious people are much more likely to pursue innovation, excel in their careers, and question assumptions that most of us take for granted.
In “Curious: The Desire to Know & Why Your Future Depends on it” Ian Leslie argues that we very much need to care about our level of curiosity, to the extent that our lives and future actually depends on it. In this book, Ian unpacks the concept of curiosity and provides practical examples of how to become more curious.
Why is curiosity important?
Curiosity is one of those concepts that many of us know about but have a set of misguided conceptions what it is. For example, “We confuse the practice of curiosity with ease of access to information, and forget that real curiosity requires the exercise of effort” (p. 19).
Curiosity often gets a bad framing and we often equate curiosity with “weird”. In fact, curiosity is seen as a danger to established order at worst or as a luxury, and hence we do not make the proper investments to foster curiosity as a society.
For example, our school and education systems are often focused on training people to a particular type of job or teaching them a particular set of skills rather than teaching them to think in new ways and to value the process of learning (see here on why becoming a generalist is often helpful).
Neuroscience has shown that curiosity is connected to caudate nucleus in our brains, “a part of the brain associated with both learning and romantic love” (p. 39). This is an area of brain that is packed with neurons that “traffic in dopamine”, the feel good chemical that we experience in our brains when enjoying amazing food or pleasurable activities.
Learning then sits on those same pathways that are driven by our desires for pleasure. This partly explains why for many curiosity is driven by an urge to know more that result in those feelings.
The 3 different types of curiosity
Not all curiosity is the same however and we use often 3 different kinds in different ways:
1. Diverse curiosity = “a restless desire for the new and the next” (p. 16)
2. Epistemic curiosity = “a quest for knowledge and understanding”
3. Empathic curiosity = “curiosity about the thoughts and feelings of other people” (p. 18)
All of the three types are important but for different reasons. For example, many of us practice diverse curiosity every day as we browse through different social media platforms and news websites in search of something novel and the next thing that we “must” know about.
But diverse curiosity gets us only so far. Epistemic curiosity is the next level up: people who have epistemic curiosity find out about things: they cultivate learning and have an unending quest for knowledge. They want to learn why things are as they are, why they could be changed and are often lifelong learners. They also learn about many different things rather than focus just on one discipline or one genre.
People with clear epistemic curiosity are for example Leonardo Da Vinci who wondered about so many things and undertook quests to understand something better. His diaries are full of entries about e.g. understanding the contours of a cave, listing people who can help him to get access to particular places or knowledge. He learned a lot about different genres, forms, shapes, people and was able to blend much of this knowledge in innovative ways.
This makes sense as “in a complex world, it is impossible to know what might be useful in the future. It’s important, therefore, to spread your cognitive bets” (p. 43). In essence, it pays to know a lot about different issues also because you never know what information is needed.
Emphatic curiosity signals the social quality of curiosity: we strive to understand how another person is feeling, and trying to see things from their perspective. This increases our ability to learn and understand how the world works and why different people see it differently.
The sweet spot of curiosity
But where is the sweet spot of curiosity? Ian notes that this is where information gap, and our awareness of it plays an increasingly important role: “In order to feel curious – to feel desire to close an information gap- you have to be aware that there is a gap in the first place” (p. 71).
We need to be able to recognise that there is a gap in the first place, that we do not know.
Yet, we are often inhibited by our own confidence bias in advancing curiosity: we think we know enough and lose the desire to know more. Incuriosity happens when we know nothing (we are not interested) vs when we think we know everything (we know already enough).
The sweet spot for curiosity is then when we know a bit on a topic and want to learn more.
But this means putting aside our confidence bias and accept that we do need new and more knowledge on the topic. By recognising we have an information gap in our knowledge means that we are more likely to pursue learning and not fall under incuriosity.
Is the AI the end of curiosity?
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is now heralded as the answer to our curiosity. For example, there are increasingly important discussions on how machine learning and different methods can extract new insights across vast databases and spot trends and underlying patterns at scales and speed that human brains cannot do.
With the worry of so much automatisation coming our way, and the capabilities of AI, are we going to see an end to the need for human analysis and curiosity?
Ian notes that being curious is something innately human, something that is unlikely to be replicated by machines at this point:
“Digital databases cannot yet replicate the kind of serendipity that enables the unconscious human mind to make novel patterns and see powerful new analogies, of the kind that lead to our most creative breakthroughs. The more we outsource our memories to Google, the less we are nourishing the wonderfully accidental creativity of our unconscious” (p. 215)
Indeed, the way our brains work is amazing, being able to absorb so much diverse information and making connections, especially when no longer consciously trying to solve something, that has led to amazing innovations simply by connecting different ideas.
Curiosity and climate adaptation
I would think that pursuing all 3 different kinds of curiosity will remain central to the human experience and capabilities that we need going forward in the future. Especially in a future with a changing climate and new mega trends that will change the way we make decisions and why those decisions are made.
Cultivating curiosity can help us to cross knowledge silos and to learn more about how things can be seen from different perspectives and challenge our assumptions about why things are as they are.
Curiosity as a skill, and way of thinking, is and will remain central to fields such as climate change adaptation.
By using our diverse curiosity, we can launch quests in epistemic curiosity to better understand the diversity of adaptation actions and discover new patterns, differences and similarities in explaining for example adaptation “success”.
Likewise, empathic curiosity is central for us as adaptation professionals because it can dig deep into the underlying and fundamental assumptions that each of us holds as to what adaptation is, how it should be done in a particular way in a particular context, or why the discussion on adaptation indicators is futile for some, and exciting and progressive for others.
By cultivating curiosity, we open the door for innovation and creativity, and might just feel great in the process as our learning urges provide us with those dopamine hits.