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The Cure for Curiosity
What is higher order curiosity and how might we foster it?
Save the date! We are holding a back-to-school community event Tues, August 22nd at 7pm ET. Join Principal, Sean Gaillard, & Library Media Specialist, Andrea Trudeau, for a party celebrating community, prioritizing presence & self-awareness this school year. Plus, a tour of the latest from Engageable. You can register here.
Shifting to higher order capabilities is the playbook for how humans respond to societal change, like automation. As we shifted from tribal cultures to agrarian societies, our higher order capabilities began to emerge. And as we entered the industrial era, where automation became the biggest driver of societal change, we shifted from lower order to higher order skills with each new wave.
Now that we understand this playbook we can apply it to today’s wave of AI automation. AI arguably presents us with a change as large as the first wave of mechanical automation in the late 1700’s - notable since it was one of the shifts that actually took us time to economically adapt to (known as Engel’s Pause, pointed out by Paul Kedrosky).
That being said, higher order capabilities aren’t likely to be completely new human skills at this point, at least without some kind of technological augmentation. And given the sheer breadth of AI’s capabilities, they also aren’t likely to be a shift to existing, but now unused, cognitive skills either. It is most likely that a different emphasis within our existing capabilities will arise - which to me means engaging our meta-cognition more fully in applying our cognitive skills. Building stronger conscious narratives. It means more self awareness and reflectiveness. And specifically, it means awareness of the hard parts of applying those skills and capabilities - so that we can continue to contribute to what AI can’t or won’t be able to do for the immediate future.
This has us exploring how to push human capabilities to higher orders so we can work effectively alongside AI. As a start, we recently explored what higher order creativity looks like now that it’s clear AI is automating creativity at higher orders.
In this post, we’re going to explore curiosity through that lens.
What is Curiosity?
Curiosity is the strong desire to know or learn something. It is connected to the psychological trait of openness, but is regarded as having an extra drive to sustain discomfort, grow, and adapt. It is already a generally revered quality - essential to creativity, job, and company performance, happiness, leading a good life, and more. We didn’t always value it - thus the origin of the saying “curiosity killed the cat” and the whole biblical forbidden fruit thing. But likely in one of our prior societal shifts, it became a skill we valued. And that already gives us something to work with, from a conscious narrative perspective.
Of course, there is already lots of guidance on how to foster curiosity, too. But most of it can be boiled down to a message of: be curious. This is what curious people do! They ask questions! You should do that too! Once you read a few articles with this tone they start to feel a bit like telling someone with anxiety to be calm. It’s not wrong, it’s just not that helpful.
Educators speak often of trying to build a love of learning and the skill of lifelong learning, which both speak to curiosity. And there are also teaching methods, like inquiry, made to engage our curiosity fully in learning. There are some amazing educators I’ve met and worked with that practice it artfully - and I have huge respect for what they do. But it's a complex method to master - and that complexity has always limited the reach and effectiveness of this method.
So what makes curiosity unique amongst our higher order qualities? Well, it is a biological impulse. It is connected to our brain reward pathways - to that all-important neurotransmitter, dopamine. In most cases when we’re talking about reaching higher order thinking, we are talking about trying to manage or rise above our impulses - like the delay of gratification, for example. But with curiosity, it is the opposite. This is an impulse we want to fuel.
What’s the hard part?
The hard part is that we’re quite good at extinguishing it. It’s a fragile impulse. Our other impulses are more powerful and they interfere. Exhaustion and overwhelm are very successful in stripping it away.
As we all know, children are unambiguously curious - asking a million questions. Then over time, they get less curious. Their interests narrow and the boundaries around them harden. They stop asking so many questions. It doesn’t seem controversial to claim that few adults remain genuinely curious for a lifetime.
Traditionally, there are three major contributors noted for this gradual decline in curiosity as we age. As is the case with creativity, schools get a lot of the blame. And while, like creativity, there is some undeniable truth in this critique, when taken too far it denies a truth about curiosity. You need to know something exists for the impulse to be curious to arise. You need a pattern to draw from - some background knowledge, etc. You need to learn some things ahead of interest developing - ahead of that impulse arising. And school builds necessary background knowledge and exposure for curiosity to spring beyond pirates and forts, and into scientific research and advanced mathematics.
A second major contributor is culture - meaning how we value curious behavior, socially speaking. More recently we have come to value it, as noted above. But historically, we valued it less. And there are a large array of social influences that apply - whether it’s cool to be curious in your social circles, whether your company or school values questions being asked or views them as a challenge to authority, etc.
And third is the biological changes to our brain as we age. As our executive functions strengthen - a byproduct of synaptic pruning in our prefrontal cortex - it brings other, powerful impulses into the equation. The impulse to always be right. The impulse for things to be simple and easy. The impulse for perfection and to avoid failure. The impulse for safety. And more.
Historically, those contributors were all you had to overcome to be curious - and that was already too big a challenge for most. This is really where prior guidance misses the mark, to remain curious, you can’t just demand it. You can’t just use will power. Because it is biological, it’s a self-regulation challenge - you need to be able control these other competing impulses in order to strengthen curiosity. So the tools of self regulation - mindfulness, exercise, etc. - become very important.
The 4th Contributor
A fourth influence, of course, is technology. I have left that to last because its impact is complicated and rapidly changing. But in order to give this topic its due consideration, we first need to get a layer deeper into what curiosity is.
Curiosity is connected to our attention and our ability to recognize patterns. You won’t be curious about anything you don’t pay some attention to and you won’t be curious if there is no pattern or background information to compare against, as noted in the point about the role of schools.
As defined by the pioneering researcher in this field Daniel Berlynn, curiosity is triggered by novelty, surprisingness, complexity, and incongruity. He describes that it can be a trait or state based. Trait you can think of as passively wondering about something. State is more the kind that arises when you are actively engaged in something. He also claims it can be what he calls specific or diversive. Specific is when it applies to an interest you already possess and want to learn more about. And diversive is more like the kind that arises out of boredom or the absence of stimulation.
Much of what we call human talent comes from specific, state-based curiosity. It’s excellence in sports, engineering, art or even hobbies. It’s the drive to master something from insatiable curiosity. So without even knowing it, state-based is something we prioritize implicitly.
Yet it’s likely some of the most important breakthroughs in science, philosophy, and connection in life come from trait and diversive (for example, this is likely what contributes most to “Aha” moments) curiosity. Trait and diversive are naturally more open ended, and this likely fuels our ability to find new interests and likely even, to adapt well to change.
So all kinds of curiosity have some value to us.
And it is here the first clear concern on the impacts of technology arise. Technology - and I mean this generally to mean technology with the goal of human engagement - works by leveraging our specific curiosity (ie, our interests) and lowering the thresholds to get us into the state of being curious. This has the upside of keeping us constantly entertained - as well as engaged more fully while we are advancing a skill or learning some knowledge. Subjectively, it also seems to make us feel more curious as a result of this.
The downsides of this includes distraction - when we engage for too long with something that we wouldn’t consciously identify as a priority. It also induces biological changes in us that exhaust the supply of fuels for natural curiosity. And importantly, it brings with it a large reduction in the boring or under-stimulating experiences that promote diversive and trait-based curiosity.
With an exception we’ll discuss, this further weakens our natural curiosity. We are settling for a less strong, and less broad, kind of curiosity in exchange for whatever skill or knowledge that has been gained. This is beginning to be shown with the decline in the trait openness with heavy internet use (of which many of us fall under now).
It is often stated blankly that AI will increase human potential without any evidence as to how. That if we’re given the chance to ask unlimited questions of an infinitely patient AI, we will. It never gets discussed or challenged. And I’ve started to wonder if all the excitement about AI is really just the desire to be freed from the fragile impulse of curiosity to advance society. That AI represents the next step in engagement automation - one that will finally automate a person’s behavior to resemble a naturally curious one.
But this assumes that the highly engaging experience of using AI doesn’t bring our curiosity levels to new and historic lows. And it also assumes that the behavior being automated has the same value towards developing knowledge and skills as someone authentically, naturally curious - of which there should be at least some doubt.
There is a wonderful quote by Dorothy Parker that states “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” But all this has me wondering what of this quote will remain true at this point.
The exception noted above is that a small percentage of people seem to have much greater resilience to our curiosity. There is seemingly no amount of information or level of automated engagement that can diminish it. Burnout isn’t really a reality for them. All automated engagement does is fuel their curiosity further and further.
I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious. - Albert Einstein
Who are these people? These are the modern Einsteins of the world - the people who have truly figured out their passions. The people whose motivational reserves - and maybe biological constitutions - are so strong that it exceeds the negative impacts of automated engagement (at least so far). I should also note, there is also a growing correlation between this trait and various forms of neurodivergence.
The problem I see is using the exception as the rule. It’s plainly evident that too few have this resilience. This is why the advice to “follow your passions” so often fails to produce the same exceptionally curious people. It’s not a reliable model to follow.
And the thing is, we need broadly curious people, curious in all the ways we’re capable of, in order to have an optimal future with AI. Which to me means we can’t just depend on automated engagement or failed models for generating curiosity to continue to progress as a civilization. What we need is to start fostering a higher order curiosity - one that recognizes and addresses the challenges better than ever.
As a starting point, the priority of mindfulness and self-regulation towards curiosity here should be made more clear. Some kind of mindfulness routine should even be thought of as required in education and work at this point. And it can’t be just a once a week or even once a day kind of thing, it needs to be a routine that keeps up with the speed of mental exhaustion of modern life. Exercise and activity are also essential - especially for kids.
Like all good things in life, it also requires an understanding that negative experience and struggle are part of the curiosity equation. It requires regularly paying attention to and learning about something before you may have an explicit interest in it. It requires being ready to challenge whatever resistance you experience from a cultural perspective, either at work or school. And it also means intentionally creating space for boredom to occur - space that is essential for trait and diversive curiosity to emerge. The more we are taught to understand the necessity of these struggles, the more ready we can be to embrace them.
What we get out of life is not determined by the good feelings we desire, but by what bad feelings we’re willing and able to sustain to get us to those good feelings. - Mark Manson
And while we leverage automated engagement tools - as we absolutely should be doing to help us learn and perform at higher levels - we should regularly reflect on the interests they inspire. In light of the subjective feelings they can bring, we should learn to question our interests instead of holding them as inviolable. We should ask, what causes me to like____? Does this interest have the potential to motivate me to change and grow or is it just entertaining me? With a better awareness of how your interests make you feel, you can understand which ones have the potential to drive your curiosity to new heights, and which ones will leave you stalled and that you should move past.
With a strengthened understanding and awareness of what is hard about curiosity, and some systems to help us do these things reliably in our work, school and home lives, the real cure for curiosity could finally be within our reach.
The Optima List
The best possible list of opportunities
🗣️ Using a Coaching Mindset to Build Connection
This week’s episode of the podcast welcomes Lauren Kaufman, the Director of Literacy K-12 for a school district in Long Island, New York. With over 18 years in education, she has served as an assistant principal, elementary instructional coach, an elementary and middle school reading specialist, new teacher mentor coordinator K-12, creativity camp enrichment program supervisor, and a 2nd and 5th-grade classroom teacher. Lauren’s professional passion is to empower teachers to lead so they can share their gifts with others and develop lifelong literacy practices in all learners.
Listen as Lauren and host, Sara, discuss the qualities of a coaching mindset, including being present, patient, and recognizing that change takes time.
You can listen at the Spotify player below, right here in our Substack, or anywhere else you like to listen to podcasts.
🥳 Special Event for Back to School - Save the Date! 🥳
Join us in starting the year prioritizing presence & self-awareness - especially amidst the flurry of AI-preparedness & the need for adaptability. Let's give ourselves and our kids the gift of better engagement.
Featuring Principal, Sean Gaillard, & Library Media Specialist, Andrea Trudeau, and a tour of the latest from Engageable.
Tues, August 22nd at 7pm ET. You can register for the party here!
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