Cultivating Curiosity [Index]

Cultivating Curiosity [Index] January 15, 2013
“Don’t you understand? If curiosity kills the cat in the game… it dies in real life!”

Back in September, Bob Seidensticker of the Atheist channel took on a challenge to try 40 days of prayer, and he asked some of the Christian Patheosi what we thought he needed to do to give it a fair shot.  While other people talked about thankfulness and humility, I kinda ended up talking about Live Action Roleplaying (LARPing).  But seriously, I find this approach helpful for considering ideas and worldviews I disagree with, and short circuiting antagonistic feelings that may keep me from looking at all the data.  Here are the posts on that topic, followed by some questions for readers:

  1. LARP Your Way to Truth – I found some good advice on giving scary-if-true scenarios a shot on LessWrong, but I needed a new tool to be able to carry them out
  2. Just Give Me One Good Reason Not to Change My Mind – After questions from an atheist reader, I explain that LARPing and curiosity is a way to gather data, not a proof of a counterfactual’s truth
  3. Turns out someone was actually converted by the LARPing strategy – Roleplaying as the very Catholic Nightcrawler made one kinda Pagan girl interested enough in how Catholicism held together to keep reading, until eventually, she tumbled into the Tiber
  4. Get in the Game – Eli of Rust Belt Philosophy asks whether by correcting one epistemological error mode, I’m introducing a more pernicious one
  5. “Just one more thing” on LARPing – In which Columbo solves mysteries by “believing” the criminal’s account and understanding it in enough detail to spot the contradiction

I still find the LARPing model helpful, but that’s because it’s a mode of thinking that’s already a habit, so all I have to do is try to translate my current problem into this frame and see if anything useful results.  I would guess it would be less useful if you didn’t have experience playing pretend, writing (fan)fiction, spending a lot of time with speculative fiction, etc.  But people probably have other curious ways of thinking that might be helpful modes to try.  I’d be quite interested in readers’ answers to these questions:

  1. What does it feel like to be curious?  How would you describe it to someone who spoke a foreign language if you were trying to get them to recognize the feeling so they could teach you the word?
  2. What activities/kinds of problems seem to always make you solve them in a curious frame of mind?
  3. Are there any thoughts/activities that tend to break you out of a curious way of thinking?
  4. Is there anything you do when working with/mentoring other people to try to jar them into curiosity?
  5. Are there any fiction characters (or real people) who seem to embody curiosity or who you might pattern yourself after to kickstart a feeling of curiosity?  (Yes, someone’s already suggested the Doctor).

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  • Mike

    1. Being curious feels like the night before Christmas morning, when you can’t wait to see what’s downstairs waiting for you to be discovered. I’d open my eyes wide and keep looking around and underneath the person until they clued in – then I’d point to something else and do it again.
    2. Moral/philosophical quandries; because I like thought experiments especially and I think they’re indispensible and good for the imagination.
    3. Watching TV shows does nothing for my curiosity. Kind of ironic I think considering many people think they have the opposite effect on them.
    4. Try to surprise them by pointing out the logical yet surprising conclusions of their assumptions. Point out incongruities in things. Similarities. Ironies.
    5. My dad. He was like the dad in Big Fish.

  • Kristen inDallas

    I think there’s something to the idea of pageantry/showmanship in provoking curiosity. For you it’s the larping, for me the performance is more 19th century magician. Back when I used to teach Chemistry and Physics to mostly disinterested highschoolers. I found that doing a ‘magic trick’ on fridays tended to get more of them in curiosity mode than anything else. So instead of just a plain transfer of heat-to-metal science expiriement, I’d add a top hat and flair and be able to “read” which one of several quarters they’d been holding by x-ray eye-examining the serial number through a closed fist. So two things help spawn curiosity I guess
    1) A top hat
    2) telling a bald-faced lie they know *can’t* be true and making them wonder how I got it to work anyway.

  • Joe

    3. Having to take care of routine tasks around the house and at work break me out of the curious mood.
    4. Engaging in a heated debate only to forfiet prematurely even though I think I can win. This leaves the person wondering about arguments I could have used and hopefully curious enough to find the truth on their own.
    5. My spiritual director is always full of joy and loves to meet and minister to new people. He is so personable most people don’t realize he is sort of “reading” or directing their soul till long after talking with him.

  • TheresaL

    1. Curiosity creates a restless feeling with a strong sense of longing. A desire to discover or figure out the unknown. With someone who speaks a foreign language, obviously hold an object hidden in your hand, and put it in a box and lock it. Make a show of putting the key in your pocket. Let them hold and shake the box to figure out what is in it. Or write something on a piece of paper, seal it in an envelope, and then have someone else try to peer through the envelope to see what is written. You could come up with a lot of these mystery tasks until they get the sense of curiosity.
    2. Reading a good novel which you can’t set down because you want to know what happens next. Or a good cliff-hanger type ending to a “to be continued” TV show. Or cracking a code or figuring out how to solve a puzzle. Tasks like geometric proofs and o-chem mechanisms also made me curious – the how do we get from here to there.
    3. Too little sleep will make it harder for me to be curious. My mind can’t focus enough. Also, I’m cautious, so anything that gets too dangerous will overcome curiosity for me. For example, I wouldn’t try heroin because I was curious about it.
    4. I’ve found that the less you know about something the less curious you are about it. So providing a few interesting facts can help spur curiosity. If I’m reading aloud, I might try asking where someone thinks the story is going, or what a character is going to do about this or that problem. With my 19 month old, I can increase curiosity by delaying gratification, for instance holding down the flap in the book for a few seconds before letting go so she can lift it and see what’s underneath.
    5. When I was a kid, Nancy Drew was a model of curiosity for me. Nowadays, I have a friend who has a very curious nature, and we nourish the trait in each other.

  • jenesaispas

    1. I think the simplest way of putting it would be a thirst to know something/forknowledge.
    5. Harry Potter and many of his friends.

  • I’ll answer #5 immediately and think about the others and answer later if I come up with anything worth while.
    5. Scully & Mulder; Over Here!Walter Bishop (Fringe); Thomasina Coverly (Arcadia).
    Mulder may seem more curious than Scully, but I’m not sure he is. Both of them want the world to be a particular way, and this tendency to read an explanation on the world seems to dampen their curiosities. That being said, both are genuinely curious when they don’t have something blocking them (Scully gets excited when she thinks she has made a scientific breakthrough, for example).
    If you haven’t seen Fringe, I’m not sure how I can convey Walter Bishop’s curiosity. He’s a mad scientist and he has a childlike joy when discovering new and amazing things. (Granted, part of that child-like nature is because he’s mentally ill.)
    Thomasina is the best kind of curious (too my thinking): she wants to know how things work, and she’s neither particularly discriminating about the topic nor particularly shy about the consequences of an idea.

  • Nathan

    1. When I’m curious I feel a sense of my own limits as a human being. But It’s not scary for me it just points me more to God. The way I would describe it is a haunting melody played by what is making me curious that reaches into my soul and spurs me to answer.
    2. Really It’s Philosophical problems, and problems from my Electrical Engineering classes. Just as soon as I see something that smacks of intelligent design, the pondering begins. Also really good stories, orks of fiction like the Alexia Tarrobotti Novels.

    3. What comes to mind first is Music. There is sort of a curi-lessness in it, maybe because I have been playing for a long time now , but I just feel like my heart is speaking over my head you know.

    4. I ask questions. I’m a fan of the Socratic method I’ve been in Catholic school almost all my life and that’s the MO of all of them pretty much. When I help people I always try and have them figure out what they need to do next. It’s about teaching them HOW to learn and not what.

    5. Now that you mention it I do feel like Cpt.Picard of the Enterprise has that element to him. As well as Bilbo Baggins even though he tries not to be.

  • Is curiosity ever a bad thing? Is it ever a bad idea to want to experience or learn something?

    A serious question.

    • I’d say no, but the pursuit of satisfying curiosity absolutely can be. I am thinking, for instance, of when someone is curious about a private matter and will not stop prying into it until their curiosity is satisfied. In so doing, they disrespect others, violating the others’ privacy and perhaps agency.
      On a broader (and fictional) scale, Mad Science might be an obvious answer–when curiosity leads to actual destruction–but I think nosiness is an example most of us can better understand (and are maybe more tempted by). (The two overlap when social scientists and/or medical researchers violate ethics concerning human subjects.)

    • deiseach

      If you’re asking yourself “What could it hurt?”, then I think maybe you should stop and consider “Hmm. What could it hurt?” before gratifying your curiosity.

      Also, some things may not be good to try just because they have bad consequences. Maybe you really want to know what it’s like to be the inmate of a super-max jail, but committing axe-murder to get there is not the way to go about it. Okay, being serious: from family experience, I would very, very, very strongly say “Don’t smoke. Not even trying one just to see what it’s like. Don’t begin, because you may not be able to stop even if you want to, and I can tell you from witnessing it first hand that lung cancer is a bloody awful way to die.”

      Here ends the public health announcement.

      • Also, some things may not be good to try just because they have bad consequences.

        Right. But the specific issue here is whether having certain knowledge can itself have bad consequences.

        I mean, I suppose the paradigm case would be the Garden of Eden and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. (Kind of surprised no one’s mentioned it, actually.)

        • Oh, so you’re asking if having knowledge can have bad consequences by itself. I would say that this is a different question than asking if curiosity is bad (after all, if we say that knowledge can be harmful, then it would probably be reasonable to say that you cannot always assess whether an unknown piece of knowledge will be harmful). However…

          Maybe to some people it would be. As much as it’s popular these days to talk about “gritting your teeth” and pursuing “what’s true, not what’s comfortable,” psychological fragility is real and it is probably the case that people suffering the consequences of, say, trauma could be harmed by knowing certain things, at least until their treatment has progressed. (So, for example, digging through that family history might be something to postpone until your therapist suggests you’re ready for it.) I don’t think any piece of knowledge is likely to be intrinsically harmful, but it could be harmful to certain people depending on their psychological health. On the other hand, there might be certain kinds of knowledge that will tempt you to do things you ought not to do, but as long as you are a capable moral agent, I’m not sure this constitutes as harm.

    • Well, there is the obvious worry that the pursuit of truth could take one away from other goods in an imbalanced fashion. If you’re helping support a family, for instance, you might need to forsake some truth (even important truth) so that people don’t starve.

      On a less immediately applicable note (at least for many of us) I think I’ve read somewhere that magic and deals with Satan were, according to some Christian authors, the result of an excessive desire to know. (Hey, Satan’s supposed to be the smartest non-God thing around, so it makes sense that you’d go to him for something.) The theme is picked up in a Faust or two somewhere.

      And I just resisted the desire to insert an HPMOR reference. Ok.

    • Cat who walks by himself

      I don’t think feeling curious or wanting to know things is bad ever, but how you satisfy your curiousity can be bad. You shouldn’t experiment on people without their consent, for example, and I’m not keen on research on animals unless it’s really necessary to minimise human suffering. You also shouldn’t pester people to tell you things if they say they don’t want to tell you (unless you’re a police officer) or read their private diaries or open their letters.
      There’s the safety issue as well. Especially with young children, curiousity can lead them into danger. Like if they stick their fingers into an electrical socket.
      Nontheless, curiousity has lead to many great adavances for our species and so we should incourage it in most situations.

  • 1. To me, curiosity is manifested by an intense desire to figure something out; intensity can be a fast burn (like me staying up at night trying to design a board game based on LDS missions, or figure out how Eohippus could have evolved to be bipedal and sentient) or slow (questions I return to again and again, without finding much satisfaction).

    2. If a problem seems to be designed to require a “trick” answer, I’ll probably lose interest before I begin. However, if I feel that through contemplation and learning I can actually come to understand a problem or question, then I will pursue it.

    3. If I lose the idea that I can understand something enough to think clearly and productively about it, I tend to also lose interest. Often this can happen when I realize that things are much, much more complicated than I previously imagined – beyond the point where I feel it’s useful or enjoyable to pursue something in my spare time. Further, if I’m around people who aren’t willing to brainstorm or reconsider ideas, I have a harder time maintaining my curiosity.

    4. I ask a bunch of questions about something they have passion about but haven’t really considered all that well. I ask a LOT of questions. And always leave time for an answer – an answer that I might very well not have.

    5. Any of the non-human main cast characters in Star Trek: Spock, Data, Odo (I believe), the Doctor (The holographic one on the USS Voyager, not the Time Lord! and he’s played by a Yalie), Seven of Nine (sometimes). Maybe this is part of where my fascination with sentient non-humans comes from: I’m curious about curious people? Haha!

  • Laurel

    1. Curiosity is more than just wondering what an answer to something is – it involves desire, longing and a search for meaning. It tickles your mind with a longing to know and understand. A passion for truth?
    5. Morgon of Hed in Patricia McKillip’s Riddle of Stars trilogy and Bilbo.

  • Mike

    Sometime too much curiosity kills the cat. Sometimes I don’t want to be curious about something anymore; I just want to hold on to it and let the waves of doubt wash over me.


  • What does it feel like to be curious?

    Wow, this is fascinating! I gotta understand it!

    How would you describe it to someone who spoke a foreign language if you were trying to get them to recognize the feeling so they could teach you the word?

    Miming seeking, peering, digging to get at something, astonishment, and then joy at finding it.

    What activities/kinds of problems seem to always make you solve them in a curious frame of mind?

    Reading, especially if I read about something that is a new or unexpected take on something of interest to me. That makes me want to look into it so I can see where it’s coming from.

    Are there any thoughts/activities that tend to break you out of a curious way of thinking?

    Activities that are too programmed or scheduled, or that give the appearance of being just a retread of something I already knew, or just a restatement of something else. Also if I don’t feel well or am in a bad mood.

    Is there anything you do when working with/mentoring other people to try to jar them into curiosity?

    I actually teach math, and I try to drop in trivia, humor, and ways in which math has unexpected links to seemingly unrelated areas. It’s hard going, since I teach remedial math, mostly, but when it works, it works well!

    Are there any fiction characters (or real people) who seem to embody curiosity or who you might pattern yourself after to kickstart a feeling of curiosity?

    Mr. Spock, of course! For TNG fans, Captain Picard. The late, great Carl Sagan always exuded enthusiasm and curiosity.

  • Tom

    1.What does it feel like to be curious? How would you describe it to someone who spoke a foreign language if you were trying to get them to recognize the feeling so they could teach you the word?

    Something turns in my head and suddenly I am given a small, quiet wonder about something. Depending on how much I know about a subject, my thinking either grows faster or relaxes, moving through possibilities. I make a mental note to find out more soon.

    3.Are there any thoughts/activities that tend to break you out of a curious way of thinking?

    Things I do not like to do, which is a list far to long for this comment.

    4.Is there anything you do when working with/mentoring other people to try to jar them into curiosity?

    I might try, but I’m not particularly good at influencing people.

    5.Are there any fiction characters (or real people) who seem to embody curiosity or who you might pattern yourself after to kickstart a feeling of curiosity? (Yes, someone’s already suggested the Doctor).

    Gaz or Hudson from Call of Duty 4 and Black Ops.

    Also, that guy in the LARPing picture has terrible form. I mean really. I want to cut his arm off just looking at him.

  • grok87

    “What does it feel like to be curious? How would you describe it to someone who spoke a foreign language if you were trying to get them to recognize the feeling so they could teach you the word?”

    The foreign language reference made me look up the etymology of “curiosity”:
    from Latin curiosus “careful, diligent, curious,” akin to cura “care”

    A little surprising how the word evolved but to me it ties back to the idea of curiosity as a feeling or emotion connected with “caring.” If you care about some subject of study, say mathematics, then you will find yourself thinking about it, being curious about it, fooling around with it persistently (diligently!), another related word might be cultivate, as in cultivate one’s interest in something. So I think the original sense of the word is quite different from how it is used today. Sometimes people say “I was just curious” to mean they had a passing idle interest in something:

    A: Why did you buy that magazine with Celebrity X on the cover?
    B: Oh, I was just curious…

  • Iota

    1. I use a different language day to day so “curiosity” for me is a twice-removed word…

    The thing I think of is zainteresowanie, which most respectable learner’s dictionaries would probably translate as “interest”.
    Zainteresowanie is what happens when someone or something makes you look up, focus your eyes, tilt your heard just so and ask, with all honesty “Wait… what? Why? But how?” and then listen, examine, tinker with stuff. If you ask questions but already know what answers you want, you aren’t zainteresowny.

    The Polish word that would be translated more literally as curiosity is ciekawość. The problem is that this word can both mean you are genuinely surprised by something and that you think something is just odd or use it sarcastically. We do sometimes say Ciekawe co z tym zrobisz (trans: I wonder how you’ll solve that) when we clearly aren’t wondering (we already “know” you’re going to do an awful job).

    2. Language and communication – if I listen attentively I will almost always catch myself wondering about the exact way people say certain things. I think other people are (potentially) the most interesting thing in existence simply because, unlike inanimate objects, written texts and so on, they are alive and think thoughts aren’t mine.

    3. Anything that is honestly rote and routine for me. Bonus points if it’s something I “have to” do but see no point in doing. Also, things that cause me to feel moral disgust (see below, in answer to Crude).

    4. Ask open questions, request demonstrations, get people to do and explain things to me even if I think I know things better than they do (or at least have my own answer ready). Key thing: you have to be really interested in how/why THEY do things this way and not your way. Interested in them and their cognitive process or what they are doing. Price: if they ask me back, I have to answer as honestly as I can. You can’t keep piling questions on other people without answering theirs. And if you want to jar THEM into thinking with YOUR questions, you have to permit them to jar YOU into questioning. This is also why, unlike Nathan, I’d never call what I do “the Socratic method” – I’m afraid I’d much be too happy casting myself always as Plato’s Actually-know-it-all-Socrates.

    5. I can think of people who made me question things (my mentors) but none of them simply “embody” curiosity. I’m not even sure it would be a good thing to embody just this trait.

    @ Crude,
    > Is curiosity ever a bad thing?
    I’d say yes. And I’d follow Deisieach and say – if you aren’t seriously questioning your need to question things, we have a problem. “What could it hurt?”, “Is this a good idea?”, “Should I really be doing this” are very legitimate questions. Because it just might turn out you possibly shouldn’t.

    > Kind of surprised no one’s mentioned it, actually.
    Most explanations of the parable that I personally heard didn’t imply Adam and Eve sinned by being curious but by something else, say being distrustful, believing that God has an ulterior bad motive to keep them away from the fruit. In a sense, they made up their mind. Significantly: in the story in Genesis Eve doesn’t consult with God after she talks to the serpent. She doesn’t go “Hmm, the serpent told me this and that, I wonder what God would say, I’ll go ask Him”. Or even: “Hmm, I have this desire to know things the way God knows things, which I think eating the fruit would satisfy, I’ll go ask God about it”.

    Of course I might be biased.

  • Cat who walks by himself

    1. It feels like I’m hungry for delicious butter cookies made of truth and they’re just out of reach. It makes me rub my chin and go ‘hmmm’ to myself.
    2. Sudoko. Debates about religion. Questions about who would beat who in a fight.
    3. Maths. Sorry, I just hate it. Also, things I have don’t before and films I know the endings to.
    4. Ask them questions. Open-ended questions, like ‘what do you think would happen if…?”
    Hint at things I know that they don’t with a smile on my face and encourage them to guess.
    5. Kiki from Sluggy Freelance. The baby elephant from Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Just So’ stories. Mulder and Scully from the X-files. The Mythbusters team.

    Which belief systems have you larped so far? Do you intend to try the major religions like Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism? What about lesser-known ones like Sikhism or Jainism? Wicca? Neo-paganism? Scientolgy?
    Do you think some things might be dangerous to larp? I’d be wary of Scientology, personally, since it’s a cult where you have to pay money to learn anything. I wouldn’t want to risk being sucked into that. Some Christians say that fooling around with the occult is dangerous, so larping theistic satanism or trying witchcraft would be tempting fate, to them. Do you think it’s ever dangerous to try to understand someone else’s mindset?