I’m not sure whether I was a curious child. I have better memories of hiding under the kitchen table, sitting in a tree in the woods or hunkering in the closet for a nap than I do of peppering the adults around me with questions. And there are no stories told, in that way that we rely on the stories others tell to help construct and refine our memories, of my having had any particularly noteworthy tendencies toward curiosity. I suppose if I were truly curious about the answer to that question, I could ask. I haven’t.
And maybe it isn’t that I’m not curious to know but more that I’d rather not learn that I wasn’t curious when I’d rather harbor the the hope that I was and that nobody thought to tell those stories.
For what it’s worth, I did start more than my share of fires as a child, burning random collections of things on the flat roof of a church not far from that tree I used to sit in, which Ian Leslie notes is a potential indicator, explaining that “high diversive curiosity is counted as a risk factor for drug addiction and arson; experts say that one of the reasons children start fires is that they are overwhelmed by curiosity to see what something looks like when it is set alight.”
It could be true. Even as an adult, with what I would consider a reasonably decent level of curiosity and desire for knowledge, I don’t exercise curiosity by way of articulating questions so much as just going after the answers. I wouldn’t have asked how quickly the pink tissue-like paper we scavenged form the dumpster behind the office supply store would burn. I would have just told my friend Ginny to hold it still while I lit the corner.
In his book, Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It, Leslie expounds on the difference between diversive curiosity — that which “makes us want to know what lies on the other side of the mountain” — and epistemic curiosity — the type that affords us the “knowledge we need to survive when we get there.”
Diversive curiosity is common in children. Leslie cites the work of psychologist Michelle Chouinard, who asserted that children asked more than a hundred questions an hour. She concluded that asking questions is not the occasional occupation of a child, but that it is “a central part of what it means to be a child.”
Chouinard observed that as children mature, the nature of their questions changes: they no longer seek mere information (what and where) but begin to seek explanations (how and why). This is where curiosity moves from diversive to epistemic, and at this point, it’s estimated by Harvard professor Paul Harris that between ages two and five, kids ask in the range of 40,000 explanatory questions. Such frequency, he believes, “shows that questioning is an incredibly important engine for cognitive development.”
Leslie notes that questions are a “technology that children use to travel for insights.” The key, he explains, to keeping that curiosity alive as we mature and begin to believe that we have acquired all the information we need to get by, is to keep ourselves in what he calls the “curiosity zone.” Leslie cites research that suggests that if we know absolutely nothing about a subject, we are unlikely to develop a curiosity about it, because it’s just too overwhelming to think about. But if we already know a lot, we are also less inclined to learn more. So the sweet spot is that delicate space you’ll find “next door to what you already know, just before you feel you know too much.”
Confidence and security can be another factor in locating that sweet spot. “Fear kills curiosity,” Leslie explains, finding that children who experience “profound physical or emotional uncertainty” expend all of their cognitive resources on survival, leaving little leftover for playful exploration. At the same time, he notes that curiosity does require “an edge of uncertainty to thrive.” Feeling too comfortable, or overconfident, can drain any motivation to exercise curiosity.
I haven’t played with fire in a good 35 years, and managed to put whatever curious energies I do possess to better use before they turned me into an actual arsonist. I don’t know that it was fear that killed my curiosity toward the flame as much as having reached the end of what I wanted to know about it. A person would have to think that of those 40,000 questions there would be another one or two worth pursuing.
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We’re reading Ian Leslie’s Curious together. Are you reading along? Perhaps you would share your thoughts in the comments. Do you consider yourself to be a curious person? What kinds of things make you curious? What kinds of things make your curiosity wane?
We’ll be reading reading together on the following schedule:
February 22 – Part One: How Curiosity Works
March 1 – Part Two: The Curiosity Divide
March 8 – Part Three: Staying Curious
Photo by Magdalena Roeseler, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by LW Lindquist.