Can curiosity be cultivated? Can you practice it like a skill? Psychologist Daniel Berlyne, who spent much of his career studying curiosity and arousal, thought so. He wondered “…why, out of the infinite range of knowable items in the universe, certain pieces of knowledge are more ardently sought and more readily retained than others”1, and thought about what needed to change within a person or their environment for them to be more curious. He helped create a foundation that others built upon, whose work we will explore.
In other words, what you understand curiosity to be, how you choose to express it, and how open you are to new experiences all have to do with you. To understand how to cultivate it, let’s look again at what curiosity is and how it might be expressed.
If we notice how we currently express curiosity we can hopefully see opportunities to practice more curiosity in the future. There are ways that you might consciously choose to react and interact to your environment, as well as curate tendencies within yourself.
Looking ahead, we’re going to look a little more into why surprise can be an excellent teacher, and how imagining ‘modes’ of curiosity (truth, dare, and wonder) can help you think about the ways that you are already curious.
“With respect then to curiosity, the teacher has usually more to learn than to teach. Rarely can he aspire to the office of kindling or even increasing it. His task is rather to keep alive the sacred spark of wonder and to fan the flame that already glows. His problem is to protect the spirit of inquiry, to keep it from becoming blasé from overexcitement, wooden from routine, fossilized through dogmatic instruction, or dissipated by random exercise upon trivial things.”
Why Being Surprised is Important
Alright, so how can we cultivate curiosity?
Research into human curiosity has been a growing subject in the last several decades, with different definitions being offered or improved upon over time. For now, let’s consider psychologist George Loewenstein’s idea that curiosity is a noticed information gap – curiosity occurs when a subject notices an incongruity between what they observe and what they experience.2
Curiosity may be provoked by a person noticing a gap between something they observe and what they understand.
Below, we’ll explore the ideas of:
- What the act of noticing looks like
- That there must be something to be curious about
- What a gap looks like between observation and understanding
Noticing a curiosity opportunity requires a person to be aware of what is around them. They must be able to see when what they observe is different from what they currently understand. In some ways, this might simply look like an increased sense of awareness, and in some ways this can look like more formal education in logic or bias.
Check out this amusing and famous attention test conducted by psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons.
Something to be curious about
Humans crave stimulation. We need something, even if familiar, to occupy us. And if we do not expose ourselves to novel or uncertain situations, we find less opportunity to be curious. The familiar has no newness to experience, and stagnation, while comfortable, remains the same day after day. Finding or choosing an environment with subjects of curiosity will provide opportunities for growth and practice.
What are examples of this ‘something’ in the cultivation of curiosity?
- Those who complete their undergraduate degree are often advised to go to a different university for their master’s degree? Why? One reason might be that being in another location with different ideas can help the student be exposed to more intellectual possibilities.
- When a medical doctor encounters a new condition that a patient has, they have two steps forward to learn more: investigate more about that particular patient’s condition or investigate more about other people who have had the patient’s condition. Either path can lead to something to be curious about.
A Gap Between What Is Observed and What is Understood
To be curious, there must be the possibility for a gap between what you currently understand and what you see in the world around you. After noticing this gap, we must be willing to acknowledge and explore this gap to experience curiosity. So what can a ‘gap’ look like?
Each day at work your coworker is calm and sometimes even has an enjoyable dry wit.
Today, however, your coworker hasn’t cracked any jokes and seems a bit agitated.
Opportunity for Curiosity:
Gently ask them what they have been doing that day, or if there is anything that is bothering them.
As a child you were told that moss grows on the south side of trees, and can be a useful way to orient yourself while hiking.
You are walking through a forest and notice that the moss tends to grow on the east side of these particular trees.
Opportunity for Curiosity:
Get in touch with a local biologist or nature center, or try to find articles online that explain how moss grows on trees.
You think of yourself as a ‘good roommate’. You think you are clean, quiet, and communicative.
A roommate who moved in a few months tells you that living in the same house as you is frustrating.
Opportunity for Curiosity:
Perhaps what your roommate values in someone they live with is different from what you think is valuable. You can ask your roommate what is important to them.
Pick one of the following topics, and allow your curiosity to take you away!
- On an island in Scotland, some sheep have adapted to only eating seaweed
- Since the invention of nuclear weapons, there have been over fifteen nuclear war close calls that have involved everything from training accidents, solar flares, and clumsy miscommunications.
- If your mother or father has a particular profession, how likely are you to also have that profession?
Want to start exploring something? Wikipedia has a way to access a random article – just click here
“Surprise exists in the map, not in the territory. There are no surprising facts, only models that are surprised by facts. Likewise for facts called such nasty names as “bizarre”, “incredible”, “unbelievable”, “unexpected”, “strange”, “anomalous”, or “weird”. When you find yourself tempted by such labels, it may be wise to check if the alleged fact is really factual. But if the fact checks out, then the problem isn’t the fact, it’s you.”
– Eliezer Yudkowsky, Think Like Reality
Pursue Modes of Curiosity
There are many different ways to be curious. Skilled philosophers, like explorers in unfamiliar territory, have been exploring the limits of human understanding for millennia, and have lived into various forms of curiosity throughout their journey. Philosopher Eric Schwitzgabel splits philosophers into three broad categories: Truth, Dare, and Wonder. This idea may be well adapted to how people choose to be curious.
Different people may find a certain mode more comfortable or interesting for them and use that model as their chosen method of exploration. Alternatively, all modes may shine within a single person, with Truth, Dare, and Wonder all exploring different angles upon the same focus of curiosity.
All three are a reaction to a recognized lack of understanding and go about their exploration differently. Which one speaks the most to you?
Valuing the rigorous and unrelenting pursuit of knowledge above all else, exploring through truth can be a delightful and unforgiving method of expressing curiosity. Like an architect testing new structure types, a person focusing upon truth will methodically test the shape and weight of their focus of curiosity against the foundations of their current understanding. Focusing upon inconsistencies and exploring implications, the truth seeker’s attention to small logical details might uncover small but surprising revelations.
It may be worth noting how rarely truth reveals itself as a climactic epiphany. Multitudes of humanity’s greatest accomplishments in math and science, for example, happen quietly between colleagues over books and coffee mugs. As Eric Schwitzgabel points out, “Truth philosophers would rather be boring and right than interesting and wrong”.
Ever wonder whether or not 1+1=2? Most people don’t. Bertrand Russell, however, spent three years of his life and almost 2000 pages attempting to rigorously prove this idea in his 1910 book Principia Mathematica with Alfred Whitehead. He never was able to absolutely prove 1+1=2 according to his own standards, but it lead to rich discussion in the fields of math and philosophy.
Historian Howard Zinn spent much of his life fighting and writing about what he believed to be true and attempting to inform others. From his service in WWII against fascism, his later anti-war stances, and his popular book A People’s History of the United States, Zinn’s focus on the truth earned him admiration and ire from many.
Sacha Pfeiffer spent 18 years working at The Boston Globe as a journalist and was a part of the team that reported on clergy sex abuses in the Catholic church. Throughout her life she has covered everything from private foundation financial misconduct to shoddy home construction, seeking to shine a light on what might otherwise have been unknown.
Examining what you believe and thinking about what might make it valid or invalid is a valuable way to explore your orientation to truth. In each of the following areas, reflect upon what you believe to be true, and then decide what evidence, if it existed, might change your mind.
- What place does art education have in public schools? What is evidence that could drastically change your mind?
- Would it be worthwhile if countries had open borders? What is evidence that could drastically change your mind?
- Is it ‘ok’ to eat animals? What is evidence that could drastically change your mind?
If you enjoyed this, try applying this idea to any range of controversial issues, like this list on Wikipedia.
If truth-curiosity isn’t your style, it might be easy to interpret those who have truth as their primary mode of curiosity as taking substantial amounts of time to discern the quality of a single detail, or a pedantic urge to make things fit together. Consider that this is a person expressing their curiosity.
“The aim of science is to seek the simplest explanations of complex facts. We are apt to fall into the error of thinking that the facts are simple because simplicity is the goal of our quest. The guiding motto in the life of every natural philosopher should be, ‘Seek simplicity and distrust it.”
A person who dares curiously confronts their understanding, and the understanding of others, with wild possibilities. Provoking with an impenetrable what if?, a person who dares might be able to find interesting ideas that are further afield and land upon entirely new geographies to explore in the process. Schwitzgabel again: “Dare philosophers reach instead for the bold and unusual. They want to explore the boundaries of what can be defended.”
Those who think with daring may find themselves further afield than the average person and may feel more comfortable holding unconventional views and performing actions that are vastly different than what is the norm of their time.
Nellie Bly was a journalist and inventor who wrote on women factory workers and was a foreign correspondent in Mexico. In 1887 she went undercover in a women’s mental institution to uncover abuses there. She also traveled around the globe in 72 days, a feat for the time.
Practicing dare sometimes involves radically challenging your own beliefs about yourself and about the world. So let’s try it out! Take a look at the following views, identify three that you find strange, uncomfortable, or disagreeable. This will be different for everyone!
To Prevent Crime, Cameras Should be on Most Street Corners
The Voting Age Should be Lowered to 15
Free STD Testing Should be Available in High Schools
Some Books Have Dangerous Ideas and Should be Banned
Video Games are a Sport and a Valuable Form of Art
Men and Women Should Have Different Roles in a Romantic Partnership
You Plan to Freeze Your Body After You Die, Hoping to Be Revived Someday
Opera is a Beautiful and Unsurpassed Artform
All of these views are held by some people in the world. Now that you’ve selected a few views, pick one of them individually. Imagine that you hold this view – that you think it is correct/right/good/valuable/interesting.
- How would this change your outlook on life?
- What sort of activities would you do that are different from what you do now?
- What other views might you also have if you have this one?
Next, explore the other two views you picked out before. Hopefully, by exploring a few viewpoints you can broaden your sense of what sort of thoughts are possible, even if you don’t agree with them.
From the outside, especially if dare isn’t your style, dare could look like argumentativeness or foolishness. Also, consider that the person may be expressing their curiosity and exploring the edges of what currently seems plausible.
Sometimes, when we look at the world, we can’t help but feel a sense of awe and wonder. How the world fits together, how the things that we care about fit together, or might fit together, is sometimes just so neat. There are so many possibilities, and maybe some of them are true, and some of them aren’t, but in the meantime, it’s fascinating to think about them. When hearing a new idea or belief, a person acting from a place of wonder won’t attempt to refute or challenge it, rather, they might think “Well, they might be wrong, but on the other hand, what would it mean if they’re right?”
Bill Nye – yes, the science guy – spent only five years performing as a science educator for children and was a source of enchantment for generations of children. Since that time, he has been a science advocate, causing his wonder for physical phenomena to spread to adults and children worldwide.
With a style that is perhaps between dare and wonder, musical composer John Cage explored the boundaries of what music can be. Examples of his exploration include chance-controlled music with the I Ching, or his (in)famous piece, 4’33’’.
Having a sense of wonder often involves viewing the familiar as unfamiliar, or seeing something from a different perspective. To practice this, let’s try going on a ‘Wikipedia Walk’. Take one of the following topics on Wikipedia, perhaps one that you are unfamiliar with:
Next, browse the topic for a little bit, and click on another interesting topic. Do this three more times and see where you end up, and how different topics are connected together!
From an outside perspective, a person who ascribes to wonder as a primary method for exploring curiosity can seem bizarre, quirky, or non-rigorous. From the inside, however, this person is in pursuit of an experience of discovery and awe, and just might want you to join them while they play.
As you grow into the person you will become, what modes of being are you choosing, and are those modes more or less curious? As you interact with the people you know and your projects over the next few days, think about what patterns you have for living into curiosity, and if those patterns fit any of the above.
- BERLYNE DE. A theory of human curiosity. British Journal of Psychology General Section. 1954;45(3):180-191. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8295.1954.tb01243.x
- Loewenstein, G. (1994). The Psychology of Curiosity: A review and reinterpretation. Psychological Bulletin, 116(1), 75–98. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.116.1.75