What role does our environment play in our capacity to be curious? Is the environment I place myself really affecting my level of curiosity all that much? If so, what can I do about it? Let’s explore the environmental aspects of cultivating curiosity.
So what is part of a curiosity environment? Below we’ll explore the following:
- Novelty – Encountering new people and environments can be a major source of finding something to be curious about.
- Media – Types of media are increasingly a huge part of our lives. What kinds of media (books, audio, visual, etc.) invite more or less possibility for inquiry and discovery?
Ah, something new!
Remember back to the first time that you traveled by yourself away from your home. Maybe you were a child traveling to see a relative, going to boarding school or a summer camp, or an adult going to a university. Being in a new environment probably provided a sense of uncertainty, but it hopefully also have opportunities for curiosity.
As we think about how to place ourselves in an environment rife with curiosity possibilities, reaching toward what is new or novel can be an exciting path. So how can we make our environment richer, containing fresh opportunities for curiosity?
Remember when you reflected about how people associate a sense of curiosity with children? This is a major reason people associate curiosity with children – they are in new situations all the time. And here’s the rub – no matter how much you have already experienced, how many places you have been, people you have met, ideas you have explored, there is always more.
This is an encouragement to find more opportunities, and therefore more possibility of interacting with new people and environments! So – take a class or do some volunteer work – travel cheaply by doing work along the way or by staying with strangers – or stay for a time in a new city by housesitting or renting an interesting room. There are so many possibilities!
“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something.”
– Neil Gaiman
Fresh social interactions are like magic. Being around different groups of people can provide opportunities for exposure to new ideas, conversations, and viewpoints. Research by Sandra Matz at the Columbia Business School indicated that those who had a higher openness of experience (part of the Big 5 personality traits) were also more likely to have variable social gatherings.1 This means that those who interacted with different social groups in various settings had a sense of openness. For example, someone who had multiple groups of friends with whom they might go bowling, movie-watching, dining, and international traveling likely has a higher amount of openness than someone who has had the same group of friends for a long time and does the same activities with them.
The Familiar Being New
Having a new experience doesn’t necessarily mean interacting with an entirely new idea or object. Indeed, as the reports of numerous former American high school students can attest, The Great Gatsby is better experienced several years after it is assigned. Have the words or the content physically changed? Of course not! The reader, however, may have changed and interacted with the same book differently, gaining a new experience.
What else could you return to?
- What friendships did you have in a former phase of your life, and how could they still bring you value today?
- What were you truly interested in when you were a teenager? (Guitar? Science fiction? Drawing? Pottery?) You might find that exploring these paths again can lead to both a reconnection and an exploration!
“Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.” – J.S. Mill, On Liberty
Mediums – Ways of Interacting with Information
Mediums are the form in which content is presented. When you are browsing for something new and interesting, how are you choosing to explore? You may have a different experience depending upon the medium of information you choose. In the end, how can you satisfy both your attention and your curiosity?
In the book Amusing Ourselves to Death, social critic Neil Postman explores the history of different mediums, such as print, video, and conversation, how we interact with them, and why different mediums provide different qualities of entertainment, imagination, and critical thought.
In many ways, how we choose to consume information and entertainment will dictate our ability to understand, reflect, and believe what we are presenting ourselves with. Especially in moments of critical inquiry, choosing a medium that will most serve our capacity for curiosity will help us come to more robust conclusions and deeper understanding.
As we explore different mediums please keep in mind that a medium’s capacity to induce curiosity is distinct from how interesting, entertaining, aesthetic, or creative it is. We’ll be primarily exploring the curiosity side of these mediums; if you appreciate and find meaning in these mediums for other reasons, that’s great too!
Furthermore, the categories for these mediums are generalized, meaning that there are specific cases that do not fit one category or another, or statements about a category that do not apply equally to all parts.
“The medium is the message” – Marshall McLuhan, Canadian Communication Theorist
Reading – Books, Essays, Blogs
Reading has been a human practice for thousands of years. As text has become more ubiquitous and literacy rates have increased, reading has become deeply tied to our culture and our daily lives.
“I read and read and read. I probably read five to six hours a day. I don’t read as fast now as when I was younger. But I read five daily newspapers. I read a fair number of magazines. I read 10-Ks. I read annual reports. I read a lot of other things, too. I’ve always enjoyed reading. I love reading biographies, for example.”
– Warren Buffett
Reading Assisting Curiosity
- The attention of the reader is required – any time spent here is focused
- Easy for the reader to go back and find past information
- Easy for the reader to stop for a moment and reflect upon what they just read
Reading Limiting Curiosity
- Cannot be sped up
- Relies upon how much of an abstract or visual thinker a person is
- Can’t be done as a background task while doing other things (cooking, driving, etc.)
Sometimes reading can be a challenge. Reading requires time, attention, and patience, and often asks the reader to practice delayed gratification. Furthermore, research on fiction reading has indicated that emotional transportation into the story increases empathy.2
Even if you cannot find time to tackle longer reading projects, there are substantial ways to immerse yourself in text: sign up for newsletters and blogs, read short story collections, or start written correspondence with a loved one.
Listening – Conversation, Oral Storytelling, Podcasts
Listening with the purpose of understanding can be all around us – on the radio, hearing the stories of friends, even TED talks, which are admittedly videos, present information primarily in an auditory format. Looking back in history, oral storytelling was the dominant form of cultural transmission for tens of thousands of thousands of years, perhaps existing as long as human language. When we listen to a conversation we are also able to engage our minds in considering the claims and concepts that are presented. If we are furthermore in a position to also respond we can then directly inquire about our objects of curiosity.
Listening Assisting Curiosity
- Learning can be assisted through sound design – transitions, cues, recorded clips
- The timbre and tone of voices can give a rich emotional connection
- May be listened to while doing other activities – exercising, driving, cooking, walking. Curiosity can be sated in all parts of life
Listening Limiting Curiosity
- What the person gains is very different if they listening attentively, or if their attention is drifting
- Without a visual surface, many complex topics are difficult to describe through sound
- Difficult to go back and find a key bit of audio information again
Podcasts With Intriguing Ideas:
Podcasts are a new spin on the old idea of radio episodes and plays, and many can be fantastic tools for exploration – try some of these out!
Design, creation, and addressing the question “Why is this the way that it is?”
Science, philosophy, and storytelling
Unusually in-depth conversations with people who are using their careers to solve the world’s most pressing problems
Discovering human behavior through the social sciences
Complex conversations on a little bit of everything, current events, the near and far future
Alie Ward takes time to interview researchers and others who have a huge focus in their lives. Look here for whole episodes about niche topics such as pain, gravesites, cider, and opossums.
Watching – Television and Video
Taking in visual information opens up entirely new possibilities for understanding. In entirely different ways than other mediums, visual stimuli can produce wonder, awe, and raw emotion in powerful and significant ways. While interacting with movies, tv shows, or advertisements has many powerful benefits for quality entertainment, how it affects our ability to be passively curious is significant.
Watching Assisting Curiosity
- Many different ideas can be expressed quickly (a picture is worth a thousand words)
- Images are often unmanipulated, you can often trust that the content of the image happened
- So much of the world can be learned from actually seeing the things happen
Watching Limiting Curiosity
- Images can seem unbiased because it captures something that happened
- The experience of images will keep going onward without the viewer whether they understand or not
- It is easier to distract or divert the viewer’s attention in images than in other mediums
Watching TV Shows
Whether it’s through broadcast tv, cable, an internet streaming service, or even through virtual reality, watching ‘television’ is an incredible way to engage with stories. But if we put stories for the purpose of entertainment aside, how does this medium give us opportunities to learn more about the world, ourselves, or each other?
A goal for many who watch news on the television is likely to keep up-to-date on current events and gain some understanding of what is going on in the world around them. Indeed, Americans spend an average of 70 minutes each day taking in the news, with over 30 minutes spent each day watching news on the television.3 However, with the average length of a television news story being only 41 seconds, it seems doubtful that this is an effective way to learn any in-depth or detailed information about any topic in particular.4
With this in mind, consider that watching the news on television, while providing information, does not provide much opportunity for reflection – it’s always on to the next story!
Visual Mediums Can Influence Our Curiosity
Let’s take a closer look at how images are distinct from other forms of media, and how our brain reacts to them. In particular, let’s consider how advertising affects us.
Imagine that you are told the description of an advertisement that your friend saw:
Two young people are sitting at a counter, a man and a woman. They are both holding bottled sodas, and laughing casually. The woman has her hands around the man’s arm, and the man is looking fondly at the woman. Next to the image are the words: ‘happiness.’ and ‘Coca-Cola.
Seeing the image and reading about or hearing about the image seems experientially quite different. The presentation of this image is not there for your interpretation and does not call upon your questioning. No explicit claims are being made that may be refuted. That these people are smiling in a Coca-Cola ad is not up for much debate. It is simply recognized, and self-evident to a viewer. Whether it is true or not, it is not there to be analyzed, only experienced.
So how does this relate to other visual experiences? Similarly, the plot of a TV show will move onward, regardless of whether a viewer is processing or understanding a previous scene. And with new stimuli being constantly proffered, the inundated viewer will be taken along for the ride.
This is not to say that visual forms of media are not interesting, valuable, informative, or creative, nor is this an indictment against those who create them. It happens that, for a person to consume visual media, they can choose to be passive. Patience, focus, discernment, and understanding are often not required to enjoy the content (though they are certainly helpful!). A message will be apparent with minimal participation from the viewer. With these tools for investigation left aside, a person’s curiosity will have more difficulty thriving within some visual mediums.
There have certainly been a few times in history in which the self-evidence of images have been powerfully used to start conversations:
The Vietnam War – The new ubiquity of photos changed the perception and direction of the United States’ war against Vietnam. Through photography, the American public had access to the brutality of war in a different way, which caused more interest in the purpose and intent of the war itself.
Earthrise – This picture, taken by astronaut Bill Anders of the Apollo 8 mission in 1968, depicts the Earth taken from orbit around the moon. The distanced and fragile vision of Earth in this photo has often been credited with helping start the environmentalist movement and the creation of Earth Day.
When you are choosing to explore media be aware and be conscious of what you are choosing and what you are looking to gain. If you are looking to explore an idea or topic then take a moment to choose something that you think will keep your attention and give you opportunities to process and think while engaging with it.
In the podcast Your Undivided Attention Tristan Harris interviews author Natasha Dow Schüll on how social media is designed to grab your attention.
Culture critic Neil Postman reflects upon different mediums for spreading information and how these mediums affect us.
There’s the old phrase ‘you are what you eat,’ and it might also be said that you become your environment. If you can choose to place yourself within an environment that brings you opportunities for curiosity (novelty) while also giving possibilities for attention, patience, reflection, and disagreement, then this can serve you well in your journey of exploration.
- Matz, S. C. (2021). Personal Echo Chambers: Openness-to-experience is linked to higher levels of psychological interest diversity in large-scale behavioral data. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000324
- Bal, P. M., & Veltkamp, M. (2013). How does fiction reading influence empathy? an experimental investigation on the role of emotional transportation. PLoS ONE, 8(1). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0055341
- Waldman, S. (2011). The information needs of Communities. page 226-230 fcc.gov. Retrieved October 20, 2021, from https://transition.fcc.gov/osp/inc-report/INoC-Executive_Summary.pdf.
- “Youtube and News” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (2012) https://www.pewresearch.org/journalism/2012/07/16/video-length/