Curiosity

I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.
—Albert Einstein

Benefits of Curiosity

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny…'
—Isaac Asimov

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If some rich investor back in the day was walking past as Heron ho Alexandreus demonstrated his aeolipile...and happened to stop, and think, "hmm, that's funny..." history would be very different.

aeolipile.png

The aeolipile was a toy... a "curiosity". But had its mechanisms been fully investigated and its potential truly harnessed, the industrial revolution could've arrived 1600 years earlier. I don't know if you're familiar with quite how long 1600 years is. If you've ever ordered something off Amazon and had it arrive 1 day early, you'd be surprised. But if something arrived 584,000 days early -- particularly something big like "An Industrial Revolution" then you'd be absolutely astounded.

Humanity can go along living the same way day to day for a long time, then someone says... "that's funny", and a set of observations turn into a world wide transformation of everything.

I've been reading a whole suite of books such as "Mindset" by Carol Dweck, "Grit" by Angela Duckworth, "Peak" by Anders Ericsson & Robert Pool, as well as "Badass: Making Users Awesome" by Kathy Sierra, "The Power of Habit" by Charless Duhigg and many more in this category.

There is a lot of positive overlap: they agree on many things, and they often re-tell the benefits of certain things, each in different levels of detail and in very congruent ways (they do not disagree) -- they espouse that the following things are good:

  • Growth mindset
  • Grit (resilience, perseverance)
  • Sleep
  • Deliberate Practice
  • Habits and Routines

etc.

But here's a curious thing. They nearly all mention, at some point -- ONLY IN PASSING -- they briefly mention that a contributing factor to the results of many paragons of success is Curiosity.

It's particularly attributed to scientists (Darwin, Einstein, Feynman) but in the form of "powers of observation" over tiny details -- overlooked by others -- it's a virtue common to athletes, musicians, artists and people who overcome addictions.

Few books are devoted to it. Some psychological studies are attached to it, and some education research, but overall, it's not afforded a great deal of shelf space in any collection of works on self-improvement.

Feynman!

I wonder why. I wonder why.
I wonder why I wonder
I wonder why I wonder why
I wonder why I wonder!
—Richard Feynman

Feynman's curiosity was legendary. If there was a puzzle he had to solve it, he couldn't let it go. We could say he had grit, or some kind of inner drive, whatever it was: he had to solve that puzzle.

If it was caused by upbringing, then we have to look at amazing stories from his childhood such as this one:

One day, Feynman's father (Melville Feynman) drew (young Richard) Feynman's attention to a bird walking around and preening its feathers all the time. He asked the young Feynman why he thought birds did that.

The boy answered, "Well, maybe they mess up their feathers when they fly, so they're preening them in order to straighten them out."

The father suggested a simple way to test this hypothesis. He pointed out that if Feynman’s conjecture was correct, one would expect that birds which had just landed would peck (preen) their feathers much more than birds that had been walking on the ground for a while. The father and son watched a few birds and concluded that there was no discernible difference between birds that had just been flying and those that had not. Feynman acknowledged that his hypothesis was probably incorrect, and he asked his father for the right answer. His father explained that the birds are bothered by lice that eat a protein that comes off the feathers. There are mites that eats some waxy stuff on the lice's legs and in turn some bacteria that grow in the sugar-like material that the mites excrete. He concluded, so you see, everywhere there's a source of food, there's some form of life that finds it.

(as retold in 'Why? What Makes Us Curious' by Mario Livio. Originally told in 'What do you care what other people think?'.)

There's a few levels of profound in this story.

The father suggesting that they develop a simple, immediate and practical experiment, is the most wonderful part. How much better than just giving a glib answer.

They put the experiment into practice at once, using the simple power of observation. It's free! And it's transformative!

But the conclusion with its profound insight into the nature of the universe (and economics!) is a delightful pay off. It shows that the father could've used it as an exercise to show off his knowledge of the world. Instead he took the time to practice the power of observation.

I would read that anecdote again. I would even go to the trouble of typing it out by hand. In fact I just did.

Dangers of Curiosity

Curiosity killed the cat.
—Apocryphal snuff story about a domestic feline

Two of our ancestral forebears, a pair of early hominids, are walking through the African savannah when they hear a rustling in the grasses nearby.

One of them decides that this is not a good occasion for curiosity and leaps into the nearest tree, quickly ascending to the shelter of its tallest boughs. The other, a rather philosophical chap, decides to go closer for a look. What does he find? He makes an interesting discovery, he finds that snake bites hurt quite a bit and with his final breaths, he discovers that he is unlikely to pass his curious genes to any offspring.

Even today, it's possible for a malicious actor to take advantage of curiosity:

I first saw this problem on the Google Labs Aptitude Test. A professor and I filled a blackboard without getting anywhere. Have fun.

(more information here)

Two angels were about to destroy Sodom (a pretty dodgy burg) and warned Lot and his wife:

"Flee for your life! Do not look behind you, nor stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, lest you be swept away."

They fled... but Lot's wife could not resist... she turned to look. And was promptly turned into a pillar of salt.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lot%27s_wife

Curiosity wasn't so valuable on that day.

Beware the Sirens

In Greek mythology, the Sirens (Greek singular: Σειρήν Seirēn; Greek plural: Σειρῆνες Seirēnes) were dangerous creatures, who lured nearby sailors with their enchanting music and singing voices to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their island

Nope nopelly nopey-o nopey-no.

That ain't right. It weren't their music and singing. Nor was it (as the movies would suggest) their sexual allure.

What did the sirens sing? They promised:

Once he hears to his heart's content, sails on, a wiser man.
We know all the pains that the Greeks and Trojans once endured
on the spreading plain of Troy when the gods willed it so—
all that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all

They promised knowledge.

What drew men to be smashed to death on the rocks? Epistemic Curiosity.

Curious, all too curious

The pedagogy, meanwhile, insist that curiosity is something to be stamped out the of the insufferable children.

Curiosity is subversive. Something to be eradicated?

Some theories, why:

  • Because children have curiosity. (Children need to grow up)
  • Because it is not a team sport. (Disruptive in teaching situations, doesn’t scale)
  • Curiosity is disobedience. (Eve was curious. It kills cats.)

How To Be Curious

  • Is a person's level of "curiosity" determined by their mix of genes? Or perhaps by environmental factors during childhood?
  • Can diet or vitamins or medicine change our curiosity levels?
  • Is an adult's curiosity level fixed?
  • How is curiosity measured anyway? Is there such a thing as curiosity level anyway? Or is it entirely context dependents?
  • Even if curiosity levels are fixed (and measurable) is all curiosity equal, or can we make choices that will improve the effectiveness of our personal curiosity level?
  • Are there times when we need to be less curious?
  • Are there ways to direct our curiosity into more profitable endeavors?
  • Does curiosity get tired, or strengthened, through use?
  • If or when curiosity is depleted, what will replenish it? Just time, or particular activities or inactivities?

Here's a video of Susan Engel, author of "The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood"

The 5 Whys?

There is a 'root cause analysis' system called 'The 5 whys'

When something goes wrong, they ask you not to stop at asking "why?" just once.

For example,

Engineer 1: The system failed
Engineer 2: But why?
Engineer 1: The disk was full.
Engineer 2: Oh, OK. Well let's fix that. We're done here.
Engineers exchange a high 5.

The 5 Why's system suggests you go deeper.... much deeper.... much much deeper! How deep? FIVE whys deep!

Engineer 1: The system failed
Engineer 2: But why?
Engineer 1: The disk was full.
Engineer 2: Oh. But why.
Engineer 1: The logging system logged millions of errors.
Engineer 2: Oh. But why.
Engineer 1: Because it couldn't reach the network.
Engineer 2: Oh. But why.
Engineer 1: Because the network was unavailable.
Engineer 2: Oh. But why.
Engineer 1: Because the building is currently on fire.
Engineer 2: Oh, OK. Well let's fix each of those things. We're done here.
Engineers exchange a high 5.

I love and hate the "5 Whys" system.

Why?

Because it is a sort of "Diet-Curiosity" system. It is "Curiosity-Lite"

It says, instead of following a simple prescription of fixing the immediate problem, you should follow this other simple prescription. What it really intends is that you act in a curious manner.

And a curious manner won't proceed along the lines of 5 precise whys. The answers to the 5 why's will never produce a clean chain of reasons. One question will produce not just one answer, but multiple answers and multiple questions, each of which produces multiples questions and multiple answers. The result is a branching tangled nest of reasons. A directed graph of systemic issues, many of which will be intractable, and all of which are worth understanding at an extremely deep level before definitive solutions can be found. If you're expecting neat answers, you won't find them, and if you let yourself off the hook after just 5 whys, you'll probably end up down entirely the wrong blind alley. Also: you may not need all those answers or all those questions, the hunt may be futile. Systems are tricky.

It's better to say: be insatiably curious about the system.

But it's hard to digest that sort of message (I haven't found a way to package it up) so if people start with the 5 whys, and end up in a curious headspace, investigating and uncovering the strange inner life of the systems that affect them... then I guess it's a great place to start!

The 5 W's

The 5 Why's name may have been designed to evoke the name of an older concept: the 5 w's.

A journalist is instructed to make sure they capture the 5 w's:

Who, what, where, when, and why?

And the other 'W' is 'how?' though it's often beyond the scope of daily journalism.

This again is a sort of curiosity-lite, and perhaps a good starting point. It helps you to make sure your investigation is well-rounded, you're not fixated on just one aspect of the situation.

"It is both a personal bane and a professional blessing that whenever I am confused by some aspect of human behavior I feel driven to investigate further."
—Robert Cialdini in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

The Information Gap Theory

One theory about curiosity (from the world of psychology) is called the Information Gap theory.

An Information-Gap Theory of Feelings About Uncertainty (pdf)

This appears in a lot of places.

The children's game "Spot the difference" -- printed on pages aimed at keeping children quiet in restaurants everywhere -- could be called "Close the information gap"

Information Gap in Sports

When watching a sporting match you ask yourself "Will my team win?"

You might be able to make predictions about who will win as you watch, and this can be interesting to do: the predictions may change over time. The most "exciting" matches are ones where the answer is uncertain (or frequently changing)

An observation about tennis: no matter how far we are into a match, and no matter how much a particular player appears to be winning, it is always possible for the other player to win, as long as they start winning from that moment. They might have lost every set, have failed to hold serve even once, and be looking down the barrel of 5 match points against them. But if they win every point from that moment on, they will definitely win the match.

This is different to a timed game like football: a winning side can achieve an unbeatable position before time runs out. They can theoretically have such a big lead that even if they sat down on the field the other side would not be able to catch up. But scoring in such sports is so difficult that it's extremely rare (in a competition) for such a lead to be achieved, unless the final minutes, or final seconds.

Association football (soccer) is such a low scoring game that there is almost never a situation in which a team is assured of victory before the game finishes. A downside of this is that the most common score is a nil all "draw". The unrelieved tension only grows across games.

Headlines Employ This Stunning Trick

The information gap is exploited very obviously by headlines that are called "click bait." There are many different stock phrases that you will see (and new ones are constantly being created) and information-gap theory plays a large part.

When a headline says

You’ll never believe which celebrity loves cheese!

... you wonder "Which celebrity?" even if you don't care about cheese. That's the amazing thing about it.

Limits

Where do you lose interest in trying to solve a puzzle or answer a question?

There's a scene in John Wyndham's marvellous Chocky where the main character asks his father "Why does a cow stop?"

What he means by this is why does a cow's intelligence stop: why are cows smart enough to escape out of an open gate, but not smart enough to see that they could lift up the latch with their noses and escape whenever they want? Why do cows hit a point where their problem-solving ability just stops dead?

Asking Questions

I've decided lately that talking about "Curiosity" is a bit overwhelming for a lot of people. It comes with a lot of historical baggage and a big philosophical heaviness hangs over it.

Instead I like to talk about asking questions. And in particular I find the best thing is asking questions of yourself. "What are you doing right now?" is a good question to ask yourself. "Why are you doing that?" and "What are some things you've noticed about that problem?" is another right doozy of a question to put to yourself, when you're finding things a little tricky.

In the branch of therapy known as "ACT" they talk about probing your own mind in the manner of a friendly scientist. A friendly, approachable, caring scientist who looks at the thoughts you are thinking or the feelings you are experiencing and mutters

"Well, isn't that rather fascinating. I wonder why it is you're worried about that right now? I can begin to come up with a few hypotheses, but really I'll need to ask a few more questions before we can begin to really understand it. It's certainly quite fascinating and will be quite a journey. Are you ready? Let me know when you're ready."
A friendly, approachable, caring scientist who looks at the thoughts you are thinking or the feelings you are experiencing.

INTERROGATION

If you are too persistent or inconsiderate in your questioning, you become an interrogator. This includes when you are questioning yourself.

The reason why Russ Harris emphasizes a "friendly" curious scientist (in Happiness Trap discussed above) is to avoid this dark side of questioning.

You can ask questions gently and with empathy or you can sit the suspect on a hard chair under a bare light bulb and see how long they go on until they crack and spill their guts.

Be a friendly scientist, not a Nazi Dentist.

See also