Forget the cat: curiosity has been killed!

April 29, 2007 at 9:37 am 9 comments

A curious catIn a recent post, I explored the loss of critical thinking skills. In this post, I want to extend my exploration by asking whether we have also lost curiosity. Once again, my thoughts are not fully formed and I’m asking more questions than answering them. And warning: VERY LONG post so if you’re not curious about curiosity, then read no further.

I have been bemoaning what no doubt many of us see as a hedonistic contemporary society that is stupefied by reality TV; a society that is complacent (paralysed?) in the face of poverty, increasing social unrest, terrorism, Affluenza, and the banality of Hollywood celebrity who appear to be more in, than out of, rehab.

We spend most of our time in the citadels aka corporations, where we are subtly (or not so subtly) taught not to ask questions; not to challenge the status quo; to accept that “this is the way things are around here”. As children, we explore, we discover, we probe, we sense, we ask “but why?”. Organisations do not seem to foster this natural inquisitiveness. Maybe a few words about innovation are muttered, but not curiosity. We don’t teach people trapped in the citadels the skill of curiosity.

So I was about to do a post that was basically a rant about how we are no longer curious; how we don’t have time to indulge in idle curiosity; how lowered educational standards have produced an educational system where students are spoon-fed in exchange for exhorbitant university or college fees.Then I decided to try and apply some critical thinking and so my initial thoughts somewhat changed.

But first…. my own curiosity was piqued when I read a blog post:

“Many people my age (20-something) have simply lost their curiosity. They’ve lost their desire to know what’s going on. To stay on top of the news. To be aware of the world extending beyond their general social circle. And that’s sad.

Have we gotten so used to the status quo that we are no longer interested in non-mediocrity? I thought this time of our lives was meant to be spent shaking things up, questioning authority, figuring out how messed up the world around us really was. Instead, I fear that we’ve folded up shop, accepted the reality-as-Bushworld-has-described-it and settled in for the long haul toward old age.

Do we still read newspapers for anything other than the daily crossword puzzle? Do we listen to the radio for anything other than the latest Maroon 5 single or football game? Do we surf the Internet for anything other than buying clothes, forming social networks, or watching Paris Hilton have sex? I’m starting to doubt it”

My first thoughts were: thank goodness it’s not just me getting older and muttering “younger people aren’t curious”. Here’s a 20-something individual observing the same thing – so what’s going on? Is the cat still alive but curiosity itself is dead and buried?

To find some answers, let’s take a quick trip back to ancient times. In the Garden of Eden, Eve disobeyed God, gobbled the apple and was unceremoniously kicked out of the luxuriant garden. In the panic of fleeing Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s wife turned to look back at the destroyed cities and was promptly turned into a pillar of salt. And Greek mythology tells us that Pandora couldn’t resist a peek, opened a box and released Evil, Sickness and Unhappiness. So in ancient times, curiosity was equated with a desire for knowledge that was beyond mere mortals and curiosity had a dangerous quality to it. Only God or the gods of Greek mythology could possess knowledge of curious and wondrous things.

By the time of Aristotle and Cicero, however, curiosity was no longer equated with seductive serpents hiding out in gardens or pillars of salt, and instead was linked to a passion or thirst for knowledge and learning. And over the last few hundred years, curiosity has become associated with scientific discovery; voyages of exploration across the seas and through the dark interior of Africa; cabinets of curiosity; the space race; technological advances.

Etymologically, “curiosity” shares its meaning with “cure” and ‘curiously wrought”, pointing to a general notion of care or careful attention. Obsolete English terms such as the ‘cure of souls” reflects the concept of caring for people.

And so our contemporary understanding of curiosity is linked with natural inquisitiveness; a sense of wonder; new experiences; experimenting; discerning a gap in knowledge; careful attention to people and things in the external landscape surrounding us. Our curiosity now even extends into the spiritual world as we seek to get in touch with those who have ‘crossed over’. But curiosity is surely tinged with anxiety, for to be curious means to explore and perhaps venture into the unknown.

Have you ever noticed how young kittens explore their world? They approach an unfamiliar object quietly, crouching and using their soft paws to probe the object. They spring back when anxious or frightened by the unfamiliar and yet continue to gingerly close in on the object in their determination to discover, conquer and reduce uncertainty. And yet, curiosity can be easily frightened again.

If we look at curiosity through the lens of the new sciences, curiosity is a space of tension between chaos and order – a zone of uncertainty where what is known and comfortable is temporarily suspended. In this zone, the curious person engages with new ways of seeing things; asking new or different questions; solving problems; recognising new connections; accepting disorder. It is a zone of temporary discomfort but one with enormous potential for creativity and knowledge generation. This is surely the same type of curiosity that astronauts and explorers experience as they venture into novel, unknown realms.

But is curiosity an innate human instinct that we’ve lost touch with or is it a result of social conditioning? If the latter, then what it is about contemporary society that seems to have caused a malady in curiosity?

Psychologist, D.E.Berlyne (one of the few I have found who has made a scientific study of curiosity) believes that curiosity is externally stimulated and that the curiosity drive is aroused by external stimuli, specifically complexity, novelty, uncertainty and conflict. But there is a balancing act – if the level of stimulation is too low, then there is no motivation to explore or learn; if stimulation is too high or confusing, then anxiety and fear results. The right amount of external stimuli produces inquisitive, exploratory behaviour.

Perhaps this is a key: contemporary society is staggering under the weight of information overload; Affluenza; hedonism; too much choice. We are so busy being connected and switched on, that we struggle to find the Off switch. And so our natural curiosity is stifled as we attempt merely to survive in an uncertain and increasingly threatening world. Is there too much uncertainty, too much unfamiliarity, too much complexity?

To ponder this further, I thought about one of my favourite spaces – museums – for surely museums rely on stimulating curiosity to attract visitors. Just visiting a museum to see a few miserable stuffed animals is not an attractor. So what are the curiosity attractors museums employ?

As Aristotle taught us: curiosity is a precursor to learning and museums are informal learning environments where attendance is not mandatory. The art of juxtaposition is the strategy museums seem to focus on – placing objects next to each other that, at first glance, appear unrelated; exhibits that tempt you to touch or explore the unfamiliar; spaces for children to solve problems; exhibitions that encourage us to reflect on the values and lives of early societies in comparison to our own.

A museum must cater for all types: the visitor who is interested specifically in Ancient Egypt but passes through other exhibits on the way; the wanderer, who drops in and out of all exhibits casually observing, connecting and learning; the serendipitous visitor who is perhaps not interested in anything specific, but explores the entire museum for hours, stopping here and there to discover unknown facts.

This caused me to reflect on Google as a virtual museum. If you know what information you need, you probably have favourite websites and blogs to visit; if you have a vague idea of what you need, you start off with one site, explore the links suggested and get lost in an exploration that may take up hours; and if you have zippo idea of what you need or want, you type in a keyword or two and leave it to serendipity.

So curiosity is stimulated by externality but surely curiosity is an innate human instinct as well? If we look at Roget’s Thesaurus, it tells us that the absence of curiosity is boredom, ennui, satiety, taking no interest, uninquisitiveness. What do we do when we are bored? Don’t know about you but I read; I write; I explore the internet – aka learning, seeking out, discovering, reflecting, connecting. So we all must have an independent exploratory drive or On switch. Has it been turned to the Off position and we’ve ended up with a society that is complacent about global warming; only curious about the private lives of celebrities; overwhelmed by choice, choice and more choice?

Perhaps curiosity is aroused by incoming stimuli as Berlyne suggests but we compare incoming stimuli with our past experiences; the patterns we’ve noted before; our cognitive understandings etc and then we find we don’t understand or cannot accommodate the incoming stimuli. This cognitive gap I think is the space for curiosity. To close or narrow the gap, we seek new information to integrate and assimilate and this helps us build a new cognitive map and increase our knowledge base. Given the etymological roots of ‘curiosity’, maybe people who pay careful attention and sense a gap or discrepancy are curious people.

If Berlyne is right and curiosity is stirred by an external environment that contains juxtapositions; raises intriguing questions; and helps you gather and process new knowledge and experience novel sensations– then curiosity must be a precursor to critical thinking and the first step towards knowledge acquisition. I’ve argued that critical thinking is a skill and so this poses the question of whether curiosity is also a skill that can be acquired.

It seems the men (and women) of the Enlightenment worked hard to acquire the skill of being curious. A Cabinet of Curiosities or ‘Wunderkammern was a central feature of a learned gentleman’s social and intellectual life and was filled with physical rarities or anomolies that defied being placed into known categories or taxonomies.A cabinet was a wonder chamber that displayed a vast range of objects such as plants, fossils, zoological specimens, exotica from colonial cultures, unusually patterned shells or stones. And the arrangement of items in the Cabinet allowed people to see new ways of associating relationships or objects. And so knowledge was constructed through an associative process. This is similar to how modern museums allow us to explore and discover connections.

Learned discussions and exchanges would take place between gentlemen in the coffeehouses and tearooms of the 17th and 18th Centuries. Human objects of curiosity were exhibited in travelling ‘freak shows” and people gazed at displays of preserved and sometimes grotesque body parts.

Objects of curiosity were often collected during the Grand Tour – the leisurely traverse of the Continent that a young gentleman undertook as a rite of passage. Often taking years, the Grand Tour was an active curiosity seeking adventure. Because of the tyranny of distance, the Age of Discovery was populated by thrill seekers eager to discover new lands; physical explorations of classical architecture on the Continent; private displays of Cabinets of Curiosity; people gathering in coffee houses to digest the latest curious and wondrous thing. It was clearly an Age of Curiosity.

What is the 21st Century version of the Grand Tour or the Cabinet of Curiosity? Is curiosity an active seeking of something? If so, then because our world is stuffed full of digital information and abundance, perhaps we are now merely passive seekers. Everything is at our fingertips via the PC and the Internet; we can meet other humans on MySpace or Facebook; we can take any voyage of discovery we like just by sitting and clicking.

And so it is a new reality we face. Maybe we are still curious but it’s a different type of curiosity. It is no longer fuelled by discovering new lands or scientific curios; it is fuelled by a thirst to know our identity in a postmodern world. Maybe curiosity has returned to a need to reconnect ourselves with nature and the environment. So it’s an internal process rather than a public one of displaying curiosity.

The Age of Discovery was a public space of curiosity: explorers physically walking, sailing and mapping the world; Newton dropping apples to learn about gravity; Galileo staring into the night sky observing planets and their satellites. Perhaps our so-called Modern Age is too smug with its reliance on science and we no longer feel the need to engage in the public space of curiosity. And so we have turned inward and discovered the New Age, the Age of Aquarius, the Age of Me and My PC. The accumulated knowledge of society is available at our fingertips on the internet to be called up Just in Time. We are no longer compelled to be curious as in the past. But we seem to be compelled to be curious about conquering of the self for beauty, health and spiritual well-being. Curiosity now equates with curiosity about me, the individual – self-knowledge.

Mmmmm…okay not sure where I am at this point in my rant. I’ve only just started thinking about all this. In the meantime, I’ve put together the thinkingshift-guide-to-being-curious.doc, which encompasses ideas and tips on how to foster curiosity in ourselves.

I’ll finish this post with a couple of things. Michel Foucault in the Masked Philosopher spoke eloquently about curiosity. He said:

“The word (curiosity) pleases me. To me it suggests something altogether different: it evokes “concern”; it evokes the care one takes for what exists and could exist; a readiness to find strange and singular what surrounds us; a certain relentlessness to break up our familiarities and to regard otherwise the same things; a fervor to grasp what is happening and what passes; a casualness in regard to the traditional hierarchies of the important and the essential.”

And here’s an excerpt from an excellent poem on curiosity by Alistair Reid.

may have killed the cat; more likely
the cat was just unlucky, or else curious
to see what death was like, having no cause
to go on licking paws, or fathering
litter on litter of kittens, predictably.

Nevertheless, to be curious
is dangerous enough. To distrust
what is always said, what seems
to ask odd questions, interfere in dreams,
leave home, smell rats, have hunches
do not endear cats to those doggy circles
where well-smelt baskets, suitable wives, good lunches
are the order of things, and where prevails
much wagging of incurious heads and tails.

Face it. Curiosity
will not cause us to die–
only lack of it will.
Never to want to see
the other side of the hill
or that improbable country

where living is an idyll
(although a probable hell)
would kill us all.

Only the curious have, if they live, a tale
worth telling at all.

Entry filed under: Critical thinking, Curiousity, Rant, Reflections, Society, Useful resources.

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. sam  |  May 3, 2007 at 6:46 pm

    love this.

  • 2. ryan  |  May 10, 2007 at 11:11 am

    Hey pal,

    May be it’s not necessary be the case. Or it’s been always the case. May curiosity been always aware by a few, and among the minority, only a few of those who studies and develops an in depth insight in this intellectual capability.


  • 3. Donna  |  November 22, 2007 at 4:12 pm

    I very much enjoyed reading this and agree with your opinion
    that curiosity is now focued on the body, identity, and self.

    Do you see our focus on ourselves as a need to reconnect with nature?

  • 4. kristin  |  April 26, 2008 at 8:27 pm

    it wasn’t an apple, it was a fruit.

  • 5. thinkingshift  |  April 26, 2008 at 11:38 pm

    Kristin yes this is true, Eve did not eat an apple. I chose to use the term apple as most people believe it to have been an apple. But it was a fruit from the tree of knowledge (Genesis 3:1-13 NIV). If I remember my Bible study from Uni days (and anyone feel free to correct me) the confusion re apple occurred because the Latin word for “evil” is malum. The Latin word for “apple” is the same – malum.

    I can’t remember the translation or when it happened (I’ll try to find it) – but in an early translation of Genesis, the word malum appeared in the phrase “…tree of knowledge of good and evil”. So from this point onwards, apple was mistakenly referred to as the fruit because of the confusion over the Latin word “malum”.


  • 6. Jerry Baker  |  July 6, 2008 at 4:30 am

    Robert Graves, in his book “The White Goddess,” characterizes the apple tree as a tree of death and resurrection. That is influenced by the fact that it must go through a dormant period, (resembling death), in order to bear fruit.

    If I remember right, Graves discusses a custom of burying people in apple orchards, apparently connected with resurrection.

    When my ancestors came to Iowa, in the 1850s, it was a frontier, and the dead in my family were buried in the apple orchard on our farm. That practice was followed until 1877, when my great-grandfather was the first one that was buried in a cemetery.

    The fairy tale of “Sleeping Beauty” is about a girl who took a bite of a “poison” apple, and “died” or slept for 100 years. She was then “resurrected” or awoken.

    There’s an interesting blog that’s named “Curiosity Cafe.” My own blog is named “Curiosity and Serendipity.”

  • 7. thinkingshift  |  July 6, 2008 at 4:45 am

    really great story about your ancestors Jerry 🙂 Will check out your blog thx!

  • 8. Krishna  |  November 23, 2009 at 8:08 am

    Amazing rant, man!
    But if you might like to hear an alternative to the falling curiosity in our world.
    First, wouldn’t the falling curiosity rates really be helpful to those who are curious? If you may agree with me, for now, that those who show the most curiosity are the ones who are at the top, while those who follow are the less curious ones. If this is true then, that would mean that in our current age, those individuals who do show curiosity are less in number than ever before, and does that not make this our world so much easier to control? Which means, if you are one who is curious, you will be the one in power.
    And second, do you really believe it is only now that people have become less curious? Imagine the lives of peasants and the working classes from any era, and think then of how different they are from this era? I, personally, cannot think of them all too different. In the past, they worked, and followed what they were told, and now, they work, and followed what they are told.
    Sorry if I wrote something unnecessary, but thank you for that lovely read.

  • 9. Ali  |  April 25, 2011 at 11:12 pm

    I was at a similar place as you- feeling like I need to rant about the loss of curiousity in the people of our Age. I too realized that simply ranting would mean nothing, it would be empty if I didnt even pursue my own curiousity on the matter to the point of doing some research, finding other opinions, and educating myself further on the matter. My goal is to bring back curiousity.

    Personally, I feel that curiousity is an innate natural quality of life- human or otherwise. Afterall, we have to be curious in order to survive, because as was mentioned, curiousity is the precurser to learning, and without learning we would all die very, very young. However, at some point as we age, we seem to lose that curiousity. Why? That is my major question. Why? What makes us lose the curiousity? Your post helped me to form my ideas around this a little better. I disagree that we are so overwhelmed by an overload of information that we feel intimidated and thus do not pursue our curiosity- though that may be true for some, i don’t believe it is true of the majority. Well then, why? Maybe it is a combination of being able to find sensory input so easily from other media- i.e. television, video games etc that we no longer feel a drive to exert ourselves in our curiousity but would rather just sit at home and numb ourselves. Maybe it relates to the seeminly prevalent idea that parents and teachers try to instill in the young that hard work, smart planning, and an education are necessary for a successful life (which, while true in a sense, is total bullshit in the way it is meant and recieved by the large majority of people). Anyway, personally I just felt I had lost my drive and interest in life, felt depressed, isolated, lonely, and in a deep state of despair. Sex bought me back to curiosity (sexual exploration is a great motivator :O) and I am thankful for that, because curiosity has bought me back to life. I think we should all strive to be more like children- to follow that which piques our interest. Stop being so ordered, stop trying to plan for life and mold life around your plans, and instead build yourself up so that you can take whatever life throws at you, and follow the bright lights.


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