Activating curiosity

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March 6, 2017 by Kate Bowles

As our investigation of research practice kicks off again, we’re once more looking at the history and value of curiosity to research professionals.

One of the things about curiosity is that it seems to operate best when we’re not looking for it. It’s a state that comes along in a fairly unforced way, and when it is fully activated, curiosity to know the answers to even trivial questions can activate our brains to be more effective at grasping and retaining peripheral information. In other words, curiosity is a form of mental activity that generates capacity and focus.

UPDATE: since I wrote this blog post, I’ve come across a beautiful story from photographer and historical thinker Alan Levine, about the secrets beneath a chair that is of personal value to him. Take a moment to read Alan’s generous and moving discussion of the practice of curiosity in everyday life.

But its cousin is procrastination. One minute you’re wondering how tall a celebrity is, and the next moment it’s all the way down the wikipedia rabbit hole to the 2007 attempt to trademark the term “NSFW”, which was abandoned in 2009. And sometimes this is about curiosity, fully realised, but sometimes this kind of rabbit holing is a symptom of boredom. This is the distractible state that we associate with targeted internet advertising. It’s not that you really want to know how former child stars look now, or what happened next when this car crashed, but that you’re prepared to let the internet distract you into knowing.

Distraction is something we’ll have to tackle later, as it’s key to understanding the prospect of successful project planning. For now, the state of curiosity that we’re more interested in is relatively intense, and if you want to understand more about its value to researchers, have a think about the related theory of flow.

Flow is a mental state of acute attentiveness that has attracted the interest of happiness researchers:

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discovered that people find genuine satisfaction during a state of consciousness called Flow. In this state they are completely absorbed in an activity, especially an activity which involves their creative abilities. During this “optimal experience” they feel “strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities.” In the footsteps of Maslow, Csikszentmihalyi insists that happiness does not simply happen. It must be prepared for and cultivated by each person, by setting challenges that are neither too demanding nor too simple for ones abilities.

For all researchers, and indeed for anyone with a task to complete, it can really help if the task is cultivated to be both creative and sufficiently difficult that you can’t do it while keeping open too many mental tabs.

BCM212 blogs are firing up this week with new posts on curiosity and learning. We’ve asked writers to frame their thoughts on curiosity in personal terms, to connect to the next value that we’ll be discussing: reflexivity.

Blogs that caught my eye and made me think this week:

Chantelle wrote about having shelves that are too full in her cabinet of curiosity. I so know this feeling. It’s hard to organise those shelves into thoughts. And I loved this honesty because sometimes I think we mistake huge assemblages of trivia for knowledge. I do.

Jade found a great resource over at Edutopia, and hooked this up to her experience and observations as a student teacher. How do we foster curiosity in learners, in the confines of a managed curriculum that treats all students as the same? This applies just as much to professional development as to high school, and it’s one of the most urgent questions facing universities.

I was really interested to read Ben’s thoughts on how information retention, autism and curiosity might work together, and how education systems might actually be very poor at managing this capability. This is something I don’t know much about, and I’d like to find out more.

Thomas raises the core ethical question about internet curiosity: that things you’ve seen, can’t be unseen, and that finding stuff out can make you feel “isolated and wary“. I have had this experience. There are also things I know not to look at because I find them almost viscerally unsettling, and at the same time I know that slightly queasy feeling that I might be about to look anyway.

Lauren links curiosity to passion — in this case, the passion for novels that has shaped her blog, and is the reason I think that she has the beautiful Zora Neale Hurston quote about curiosity up there. This is an important dimension to curiosity that’s different from the wikipedia rabbit hole. This is much closer to a kind curatorial or collecting impulse, the wish to know all there is to know about a specific thing. I’m this way about sharks, as you’ll all come to learn.

I could go on. I’ve been reading widely, and I really love what BCM212 writers have begun to do here. I was finally motivated to dust off my own blog which has been a bit abandoned of late because I’ve been unsure what to write about, given the state of the world. I’m also cheering on two new BCM graduate bloggers, who have started new blogs for their emerging BCM Honours research projects. Check them out and ask them questions: Angus Baillie on ASMR, and Giverny Witheridge on family stories of dementia.

And if you’re curious to know about the featured image on this post, it’s a piece of paper that fell out of a book I was holding last week. It’s a word in Arabic, with a possible English equivalent underneath, and it’s in the handwriting of the cousin I wrote about in my blog. So I have spent some time wondering how long ago she wrote that note to herself, and why, and an Egyptian friend of mine has been helping me translate it.



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