Curiosity on Curiosity

Leonardo Da Vinci. Walt Disney. Srinivasa Ramanujan. Abraham Lincoln. Michael Faraday.These names have left an impression in indelible ink on the parchment of history. They all have one thing in common: they were all self – taught, a feat only possible through curiosity and a love of learning.

Curiosity is the desire to obtain new knowledge, either to stimulate positive feelings from intellectual interest or remove the negative feelings that come from information deprivation. Cicero defined it as “an innate love for learning and knowledge without lure of profit“, and argued that Odysseus was drawn to the sirens because they appealed to his intellectual curiosity and not his sexual desires.

Odysseus tied to his ship’s mast to avoid succumbing to the siren’s song, which he wanted to listen to. His crew wisely plugged their ears with wax.

Historical Importance

Interestingly, a culture’s attitude towards curiosity has had an important role in shaping it’s technological progress. In historian Toby Huff’s book “Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution“, he argues that around the middle ages, eastern civilizations such as that of China suffered from a curiosity deficit, and although the knowledge of certain key innovations such as the telescope spread there, it did not spark further innovation in the same manner as it did in Europe.

Ian Morris builds on the relative ascendancy of the West in “Why the West Rules“, noting that the relatively smaller width of the Atlantic (3000 miles across) to the Pacific (8000 miles across) made it easier for ships to trade and explore, and probably contributed to China’s lack of incentives to look beyond its own borders.

The 3 Stages of Curiosity

John Dewey  – The American philosopher and educator proposed three stages of curiosity

  1. The child’s hunger to explore and probe its surroundings
  2. Social curiosity, as a children realize other people are useful sources of information and probe them with endless questions
  3. Curiosity transformed into an interest in problems provoked by an observation of things and accumulation of material

Dewey did not think everyone would reach the final stage, noting that

“In a few people intellectual curiosity is so insatiable that nothing will discourage it, but in most its edge is easily dulled and blunted. Some lose it in indifference or carelessness; others in a frivolous flippancy; many escape those evils only to be incased in a hard dogmatism which is equally fatal to the spirit of wonder”

The insatiable intellectual curiosity that Dewey describes may well be a trait called “Need for Cognition”. Psychologists use a scale of NFC to distinguish between individuals who like their mental life to be as straightforward as possible to people who derive satisfaction from intellectual challenge.

The cognitive benefits of curious mind

In a study published by Rush University Medical Centre in 2013, 294 elderly people were enrolled and tested on their thinking and memory skills each year. The participants were also asked about how often they read, wrote and engaged in cognitively demanding tasks. After taking the physical effects of dementia into account, subjects who made a life-long habit of reading and writing had their rate of mental decline slowed by 32%.

Munger and Buffett’s mental acuity even in their 80s and 90s is unsurprising for this very reason: their entire life has been built on curiosity and being learning machines, and they continue to do so to this day. I would wager that both of them, along with many prominent investors, would rate highly on the Need for Cognition scale.

Epistemic vs Diversive Curiosity

Ian Leslie’s book “Curious”, describes curiosity in three forms:

  • Diversive Curiosity, the attraction to everything novel, manifesting itself as a restless desire for the new and the next. It is an essential part of the exploring mind, encouraging us to seek out new experiences and people. However, it also makes us susceptible to the influence of ever shortening news nuggets and social media.
  • Epistemic curiosity, a deeper, more disciplined type of curiosity, particularly modern in that it has evolved and grown in influence since the printing press (and later the internet) made it easy to spread ideas.
  • Empathic curiosity, about the thoughts or feelings or others; it is this curiosity that drives the study of the motivations of other people: why do they behave as they do?

Curiosity cannot exist in a vacuum

If curiosity is the spark plug that gets the learning machine going, it is the frequent injections of knowledge that keeps the machine fueled. It is a feedback loop, where the answer to questions generates even more questions. This is what George Loewenstein’s Information Gap Theory of curiosity says:  information fuels curiosity by creating an awareness of ignorance, which gives rise to a desire to know more.

We can thus conclude that the the relationship between curiosity and knowledge is symbiotic, both are required for either to thrive. It also reinforces the importance of building a repository of knowledge in the first place: not only is it the fuel for curiosity, we can’t hope to reason everything from first principles.

I see first principle thinking much like seeing the world in machine code or viewing things at the elemental level: It does much for enhancing your clarity of how things work. However, as any programmer would attest to: it would be impossibly hard to actually write modern programs in machine language, and we need higher level languages and compilers so that we can work in something that more closely resembles natural language.

Similarly, heuristics, prior knowledge, and mental models play this role for us: They reduce the cognitive overhead required to make decisions. It is for this reason that I view alternative educational systems with a mix of approval and skepticism: I do agree that rote memorization without understanding is meaningless, but the other extreme is equally bad, because expecting curiosity to germinate without some base of knowledge is also futile.

Serendipity in knowledge acquisition

The Pareto Principle manifests itself in knowledge acquisition, where the best 20% of the books you read in life are going to account for 80% of the concepts. Here’s the catch: you probably won’t know which ones in advance, and knowledge acquisition is a lifelong process. Sure, you can pick up classics that have stood the test of time, but our world is changing rapidly, and there are going to be ground breaking changes coming from technology that hasn’t been invented yet, and thus the books for which do not exist yet.

Personally, the way I read is extremely serendipitous, often a combination of books sourced through references within books I have already read, twitter recommendations and reading lists of leading personalities in various fields, blogs or podcasts. Many of my interests today: investing, economics, business, history and behavioral science have been cultivated through a combination of curiosity and this serendipitous style of exploratory reading.

Unknown unknowns and the Johari Window

During his tenure as George Bush’s Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield famously said

“As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” 

He was referencing a technique known as the Johari Window

Much of knowledge lies in the 4th quadrant, an area known as the unknown unknown. Taleb calls the collection of unread books an “anti-library“, and it is a constant reminder that as the perimeter of our knowledge increases, so does our appreciation for how vast the ocean of knowledge really is. It may seem daunting, but an innate curiosity to find out what lies beyond the horizon is what spurs us to raise anchor, leave safe harbour and sail towards the unknown expanse.

References / Further Reading


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