In the 1960s Brian Smith was growing up in an apartment over a shoe store in a poor but lively neighbourhood of St Louis, Missouri. The part of town in which his family lived was crowded and busy, full of cars, restaurants, bars and nightclubs. In the evenings, the red light of a neon sign for Red Goose Shoes shone through the window into their living room.
One evening when he was about ten years old, Brian and his younger brother Paul were playing in their parents’ bedroom. They started rummaging through the dresser drawers. While doing so they came across a large, solid object tucked under their father’s underwear. Lifting up the clothes, they discovered what it was: a gun. The brothers were transfixed. They let themselves touch its cold metallic surface, feeling little shock waves of excitement travel up their arms.
Brian picked the gun up. It was unexpectedly heavy. Holding the weapon’s muzzle towards his face, he could see that its cylinder was loaded with bullets. The brothers were fans of TV programmes like The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid, and in their parents’ bedroom that day they staged pretend gunfights. One brother would take turns to point the weapon at the other, who would then take the shot, falling dramatically to the ground. Then they put the gun back in the drawer, being careful to replace it under the clothes, exactly as it had been found.
For weeks after that, the gun in the drawer was the boys’ secret, one they vowed not to share with anyone else. Then one evening, Brian and his siblings (there were four in all) found themselves alone in the house for a short period. Brian was watching TV in his parents’ bedroom. It was a warm evening and the window was open. Though he tried not to, Brian kept thinking about the gun, just a few feet away. In the end, he recalls, ‘My curiosity got the better of me.’
Brian went to the dresser, retrieved the gun from the drawer, and walked over to the open window. Pretending to be an assassin, he pointed the weapon at the people walking along the sidewalk opposite his apartment on their way to a bar or restaurant for the evening. He imagined pulling the trigger, and simulated a recoil gesture, just like the ones he had seen people make on TV when they fired a shot. He dared to cock back the hammer of the gun, thrilling to the sound of its click. He took aim at the Red Goose sign, resting his finger lightly on the trigger. Then something happened. BOOM! The red neon goose suddenly went dark. Disoriented, Brian saw smoke coming from the muzzle of the revolver. He looked out of the window. Down on the sidewalk, pedestrians were scrambling for cover and trying to work out where the shot had come from. Brian ducked out of sight. He replaced the gun in his parents’ dresser drawer, and sat back down in front of the TV, his heart racing. What the hell just happened? He was terrified that he had shot someone.
His brother came into the room. ‘What was that big bang?’ ‘I don’t know,’ said Brian, eyes on the TV, heart hammering. When his brother had gone, he took a surreptitious glance out of the window. He couldn’t see any bodies in the street. His mother came home complaining about some idiot having fired a gun outside, but she didn’t mention any casualties. No ambulance sirens sounded. The cars and pedestrians resumed their flow, Brian’s heart gradually resumed its normal rate.
Brian and his brother were lucky, as were the pedestrians who nearly got in the way of the bullet Brian fired that day. In 2013, a nine-year-old boy in Decatur, Ohio was playing with a loaded handgun he had found in his parents’ bedroom when it discharged, killing him. According to the paediatrician Vincent Ianelli, there were 122 unintentional firearm deaths of children in America in 2007, and an additional 3,060 non-fatal shooting accidents, and the numbers have remained about the same since. Most of these children would have been repeatedly warned, at school and at home, that guns are dangerous, but still could not resist picking them up. Self-preservation is our most deep-rooted instinct. But curiosity is powerful enough to override it.
The day they picked up the gun, Brian and his brother had been seized by ‘diversive curiosity’ – the desire for novelty. Children vibrate with diversive curiosity; it powers their unceasing explorations. It’s the desire to see what happens when I put my hand in this flame, or dirt in my mouth, or a gun in my hand. In our adult lives it generates a restless desire for new information and new experiences. Just as it made us peer into rock pools as children, as adults it makes us refresh Twitter streams.
Diversive curiosity follows no particular process or method, but slides from one novel object of attention to the next. Boredom is furiously averted or deferred, new information and sensations are constantly sought out. It is impulsive and irresistible; it seizes us. In a variation on the famous marshmallow test, in which a child is presented with a treat and asked if he can resist eating it for five minutes, experimenters ask children not to turn around to look at an attractive toy behind them, and observe whether they can resist the temptation to do so. Few can.
It’s not just children. St Augustine told the story of Alypius from Rome, who detested and was utterly opposed to gladiatorial shows. On the day of one of these shows, he bumped into some friends who virtually dragged him along to the amphitheatre. Stubbornly, Alypius closed his eyes as the show began. But when the crowd roared he was ‘overcome by curiosity’ and took a peek. He was, recounts St Augustine, scarred for life.
Diversive curiosity can be a strength, leading people to take in more from their environment. But it can quickly become aimless, distracting and frustrating. In a 1993 study, researchers interviewed thirty people about their mail delivery, and found that while people looked forward to their daily post with anticipation and impatience, most reported almost always being disappointed by the actual mail they received. In the era of email and social media, this compulsive cycle of anticipation and disappointment is repeated dozens if not hundreds of times a day.
Though he calls it simply ‘curiosity’, the eighteenth-century thinker Edmund Burke captures the nature of diversive curiosity perfectly:
The first and the simplest emotion which we discover in the human mind, is Curiosity. By curiosity, I mean whatever desire we have for, or whatever pleasure we take in, novelty. We see children perpetually running from place to place, to hunt out something new: they catch with great eagerness, and with very little choice, at whatever comes before them; their attention is engaged by everything, because everything has, in that stage of life, the charm of novelty to recommend it. But as those things which engage us merely by their novelty, cannot attach us for any length of time, curiosity is the most superficial of all the affections; it changes its object perpetually, it has an appetite which is very sharp, but very easily satisfied; and it has always an appearance of giddiness, restlessness, and anxiety.
It’s odd to hear Burke rail against curiosity like this because he himself was what we might think of as a deeply curious man, interested in everything from the meaning of beauty to the living conditions of Britain’s colonial subjects. But as we shall see, curiosity’s connection to learning took hold relatively recently – in fact, it started around the time that Burke was writing.
Diversive curiosity is where the hunt for knowledge begins; in the desire for new information, sensations, experiences and challenges. But it’s only a beginning. If there’s something oddly familiar about Burke’s description, that’s probably because it might be used to describe the way we often use the web: clicking from link to link, searching for the new thing without ever stopping long enough to learn or absorb what’s in front of us. In our digital world, diversive curiosity is constantly stimulated by ever-present streams of texts, emails, tweets, reminders and news alerts that stimulate our hunger for novelty. In the process, our capacity for the slow, difficult and frustrating process of gathering knowledge may be deteriorating.
When he was thirty-eight Alexander Arguelles concluded, regretfully, that he knew too many languages. It was 2001 and he had just returned to South Korea after a month’s stay in St Petersburg, where he had taken one-on-one lessons in Russian with a private tutor for six hours a day. By the time he left St Petersburg he felt able to hold his own with natives of the Russian tongue. But when he got back to his small house in the Korean countryside and sat down to read Turgenev and Dostoyevsky in the original, he found himself in over his head. His grasp of the Russian vocabulary was insufficient to appreciate the greatest works of that language. A painful choice confronted him.
Ever since he was a boy, Arguelles has been endlessly hungry for languages to learn. Born and raised in New York, as a child he travelled widely with his family across India, North Africa and Europe, staying for a while in Italy. His father was a self-taught polyglot, and Arguelles grew up observing him switch effortlessly from language to language depending on who he was talking to. His father, whom he remembers as an intimidating figure, didn’t encourage him to take his lead. But Alexander had been bitten by the linguistic bug.
Learning languages certainly didn’t come naturally to him. He made slow progress with French at school and nearly gave it up. But he persisted, and eventually found that he enjoyed the challenge of new languages. When he was fourteen he started reading German writers and philosophers in translation, like Goethe and Immanuel Kant. He knew he would have to learn German to a high standard if he was to read them in their native tongue, and so really understand, at the deepest level, their ideas. At university, more languages gave up their mysteries to him: French, Latin, Ancient Greek and Sanskrit. Arguelles became fascinated by the idea of having an encyclopaedic mind – one that gave him a panoptic view of the world’s accumulated wisdom. He set his heart on learning as many languages as he could.
After graduating, he went on to study the history of religion at the University of Chicago, where he signed up for classes in Persian and Old French, though they weren’t relevant to his doctorate. One day, Arguelles was summoned to the office of his advisor, who asked him why he was attending Persian classes instead of devoting his time to the study of religion. Arguelles answered candidly: he just loved learning languages. His advisor shook his head. You will not be taken seriously as a scholar, he said, with that attitude. You have to choose.
Arguelles was forced to drop Persian but got away with continuing to study Old French, Old German, Old English and Norse. After Chicago he moved to Berlin where he held a post-doctoral fellowship in German philology. His passion for language again held sway, consuming more energy that his official course of study. Arguelles was determined to become as fluent in German as a native speaker. He abolished English from his speech and even from his thoughts. He asked acquaintances to correct every mistake that he made, looked up every new expression he encountered, and met a professional phonetician every week to perfect his accent. After a while, he stopped worrying about how to speak German and simply began to live in it.
His fellowship enabled him to travel widely across Europe, and he used the opportunity to learn yet more languages. He discovered that languages which seemed quite different on the surface shared hidden similarities; each new language became like a variation on a theme rather than a new entity to be learned from scratch. The languages in his head began speaking to each other. Swedish revealed itself to be a combination of languages he already knew: Norse, Old German and English. After three weeks of study, he was able to hold his own in complex conversations with native Swedes.
Not that it ever became easy. ‘There is no secret,’ he says, except ‘hours of concentration.’ Arguelles didn’t only have to study hard to learn more languages; he had to develop a new personality. A naturally reticent man, he forced himself to become garrulous, seeking out conversations he would otherwise have avoided, with natives of whichever language he was learning.
Arguelles still craved ‘a real linguistic challenge’. He decided to attempt mastery of Asian languages, and took up a post at a university in South Korea (he had read that Korean was considered to be the most challenging of all Asian languages for a Westerner to learn). The campus was on an isolated hill amidst pine and bamboo forests and rice fields, and Arguelles’ room had a view of the Pacific Ocean. For the next five years he settled into an almost monastic routine, going to sleep at 8 p.m. and rising at 2 a.m., studying for sixteen hours each day. He learned Korean, Mandarin, Japanese and Malay-Indonesian. He explored the Celtic and Slavic families, made forays into Finnish, Zulu, Swahili, Ancient Egyptian and Quechua, and became at home in Arabic and Persian.
It was only after his trip to Russia that Arguelles realised that he would have to abandon many of the languages he had begun to learn, in order to go deeper into the ones he already knew.
The stories of Brian Smith and Alexander Arguelles appear to have little in common. But they are both examples, albeit unusual ones, of the same thing: the deepening of a simple urge to explore into an enduring desire to learn.
There are two sides of curiosity. One compels us to turn over stones, open cupboards and click on links; the kind that can make the high-minded professor prise open the pages of the glossy magazine in front of her and the teenager slip a cigarette out of his mother’s pack. The other makes us want to spend time finishing long novels and pursuing interests that have nothing to do with our self-interest, like learning dead languages. What distinguishes one from the other is the accumulation of specialised knowledge.
Brian Smith never mentioned what happened with the gun that night to any of his siblings. He escaped any repercussions, including what he knew would have been a fearsome punishment from his mother. But the incident left its mark on him in another way. He turned his dangerous curiosity about guns into an enduring desire to learn about them, and became educated about them in a way that went far beyond the cursory explanation of their dangers offered to most kids at school. As an adult, Smith became a police officer in Chicago, and gained special expertise in the use of firearms. Over the years he trained thousands of law enforcement officers in their operation, including a team deployed to protect Hillary Clinton when she was first lady. Now he is retired from the force, Smith looks back on that evening and reflects on the dangers of ‘untutored curiosity’. Alexander Arguelles started out wanting to learn languages because being multilingual seemed like an exciting prospect. He soon found that the more he learned, the more he could explore. As he grew older, his curiosity deepened into a desire to absorb the wisdom of the world’s finest minds. Without a knowledge of guns, Brian Smith’s desire to explore them was dangerous; but then again, without a desire to explore he might not have accumulated the expertise that he did. Epistemic curiosity represents the deepening of a simple seeking of newness into a directed attempt to build understanding. It’s what happens when diversive curiosity grows up.
Epistemic curiosity is hard work; it involves sustained cognitive effort. That makes it tougher, but ultimately more rewarding. Just as the resistance offered by a tungsten filament to electrons generates light in a light bulb, it’s the very difficulty of exercising epistemic curiosity that brings illumination.
In its raw, impulsive form, curiosity deserves its reputation for danger, as Brian Smith will attest. The explorations that toddlers make can lead them into trouble – that’s why adults put gates at the top of the stairs. High diversive curiosity is counted as a risk factor for drug addiction and arson; experts say that one the reasons children start fires is that they are overwhelmed by curiosity to see what something looks like when it is set alight.
‘There’s absolutely no financial gain to knowing languages,’ Arguelles told an interviewer recently. ‘It’s a waste of time and energy.’ Why do we take risks to achieve knowledge that has no immediate use or benefit? Economists find this hard to explain, because it doesn’t fit their models of human behaviour. It’s also hard to understand from an evolutionary standpoint. If our primary goal is to survive long enough to pass on our genes, why are we born with this apparent need to put our well-being at risk, or at least to create difficulty and uncertainty where before there was none? To put it another way, why is Homo sapiens such a curious animal?
Imagine a human hunter, armed only with a rudimentary stone weapon like a slingshot, looking for an animal to kill and eat. First, he has to find it, and then he has to get relatively close to it, because his weapon has a short range. Then he has to kill it before getting killed himself. It is a complex problem. Solving it requires knowledge.
The hunter has to know how to read animal tracks, so that he can work out which animal has left them, in which direction it is moving, and – judging by their freshness – how far away it might be. He may also be able to glean clues as to the age of the animal, its sex, size and physical condition. Then, when he is closing in on it, he has to deploy his knowledge of animal behaviour to predict its next move – for instance, whether snorting or salivating indicates that it is about to attack, or take flight, and in either case, how fast the animal is likely to move. It’s unlikely that this will be a solo mission – he’ll probably be hunting in a group. But that only makes things more complex; now he has to know what the roles of each member of the group is, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and who he can and cannot trust.
Knowing stuff was always important to the survival of humans and their forebears, particularly because they were physically weaker than some of their adversaries, and at some point in their evolution humans evolved capacious memories, which meant they could afford to make speculative investments in knowledge. Rather than simply seeking out the information they needed at the time they needed it – when they were hungry, for instance – they could gather and store information for use at a later date. One exploratory expedition could yield information that might be used many times over during their lifetime – or never at all.
Stephen Kaplan, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Michigan, describes the early human as ‘a farranging and yet home-based animal’. The more information about her environment a human acquired, the more likely she would be to survive and pass on her genes. Gathering that knowledge meant venturing out into the unknown, to spot new sources of water or edible plants. But doing so meant risking one’s survival; you might become vulnerable to predators, or get lost. The individuals more likely to survive would have been those adept at striking a balance between knowledge-gathering and self-preservation.
Perhaps as an incentive to take a few risks in the pursuit of new information, evolution tied the act of curiosity to pleasure. Most of us know what Copernicus meant when he described the ‘unbelievable pleasure of the spirit’ he found in learning. Neuroscientists have located this pleasure in one of the brain’s chemical messengers. Scientists at the California Institute of Technology asked undergraduates forty trivia questions while in a brain scanner. After reading each question, the subjects were told to silently guess the answer, and to indicate their curiosity about the correct answer. Then, they saw the question presented again, followed by the answer. The questions which stoked their curiosity were stimulating their caudate nucleus, a part of the brain associated with both learning and romantic love. The caudate nucleus is closely packed with neurons which traffic in dopamine, a chemical that surges through our brains when we enjoy sex or food. As the brain has evolved, it seems to have bootstrapped the urge for intellectual investigation onto the same pathway as our most primal pleasures. The caudate nucleus has also been implicated in our responses to visual beauty, and there may be a deep connection between our aesthetic predilections and our hunger for knowledge. Numerous studies have shown that when people from different cultures are presented with pictures of landscapes, they prefer those that show scenes from nature, and in particular, those that feature water sources – rivers, oceans, waterfalls. That suggests we are unconsciously assessing how we might get along were we dropped into the environment we’re looking at.
But what’s really interesting is that the most consistent and universal predictor of preference in these studies is mystery, scenes that hint at something the viewer cannot see – a winding path leading off into the distance, or dense foliage with a hint of a gap through which one could pass. The reassuring presence of something we know is good for us gives us pleasure. But so does the promise of what lies beyond, the information we don’t yet know.
About 60,000 years ago a small population of humans journeyed out of Africa and struck out for the unknown. They left their primate cousins behind, along with the ecological niche they had shared with them. Nearly all animals are confined to their niches: gorillas do not seek to leave the jungle and make a home in the river; mackerel aren’t foolhardy enough to see if they can make it on the land; tree frogs stick close to trees. But when humans left the savannah, they took up residency on coasts, in deserts and forests, on mountains, plains and ice caps; even in outer space. In all these places, they built specially designed shelters and invented new ways of getting around. They made themselves at home.
What makes us so adaptable? In one word, culture – our ability learn from others, to copy, imitate, share and improve. When humans learned to communicate using oral and, later, written language, ideas, knowledge and practices – how to carve a fishhook, build a boat, make a spear, sing a song or carve a god – could replicate and combine like genes. But unlike genes, they could jump from one mind to another across distances of time and space. Culture freed humans from the limitations of their biology; according to the evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel, when humans discovered culture they achieved a momentous shift in the balance of power ‘between our genes and our minds’. Humans became the only species to acquire guidance on how to live from the accumulated knowledge of their ancestors, rather than just from their DNA.
Humans can learn from peers – ‘horizontal learning’ – and from parents and elders – ‘vertical learning’. We can also learn from our ancestors. This ability to pass on knowledge, not just to each other, but down generations, is what makes us so adaptive, inventive and imaginative. Knowledge builds on knowledge, ideas on ideas. That we no longer have to invent the wheel enables us to invent the automobile. As Pagel puts it, ‘Having culture is why we watch 3D TV and build cathedrals while our close genetic relatives, chimps, sit in the forest as they have for millions of years cracking the same nuts and stones.’
A cultural animal must be a curious animal. Evolution has selected for the ability to absorb culture as surely as it selected for our instinct to run away from angry bears. As the developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik says, ‘For human beings, nurture is our nature.’ Epistemic curiosity – a desire for cultural information – was one of the traits that enabled humans not just to journey out of Africa but to put down roots in every corner of the world. Diversive curiosity makes us want to know what lies on the other side of the mountain; epistemic curiosity arms us with the knowledge we need to survive when we get there. Every human society is, in Mark Pagel’s words, a ‘cultural survival vehicle’, rich in accumulated knowledge. Every baby is born with a powerful urge to explore it.
Once they have acquired what they need to know in order to get by, some adults cease striving to learn from those around them. Others continue to explore with the ardour of a child. On a page from Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks is a to-do list. Here is an edited version, in translation:
- Calculate the measurement of Milan and its suburbs.
- Find a book that treats of Milan its churches, which is to be had at the stationer’s on the way to Cordusio.
- Discover the measurement of the Corte Vecchio [courtyard of the Duke’s palace]
- Get the Master of Arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle.
- Ask Benedetto Portinari [a Florentine merchant] by what means they go on ice at Flanders?
- Draw Milan.
- Ask Maestro Antonio how mortars are positioned on bastions by day or night.
- Examine the crossbow of Maestro Gianetto.
- Find a Master of Hydraulics and get him to tell you how to repair a lock, canal and mill, in the Lombard manner.
- Ask about the measurement of the sun, promised me by Maestro Giovanni Francese.
Perhaps the first thing that you notice about this list is the dazzling diversity of Leonardo’s interests. He is eager to learn about everything, from the distance of the sun from the earth, to the workings of a crossbow, to ice skating in Flanders (and in between investigating them he will ‘draw Milan’ – and, perhaps, paint the Mona Lisa).
Life would be more straightforward if we knew what we need to find out; if we were told at birth, exactly what we need to know to be happy. But in a complex world, it’s impossible to know what might be useful in the future. It’s important, therefore, to spread your cognitive bets. Curious people take risks, try things out, allow themselves to get productively distracted. They know that something they learn by chance today may well come in useful tomorrow, or spark a new way of thinking about an entirely different problem. The more unpredictable the environment, the more important a seemingly unnecessary breadth and depth of knowledge becomes. Humans have always had to deal with complexity; felling a woolly mammoth is not simple. But now that we live in larger, more varied, faster-changing societies than ever before, curiosity is more important – and more rewarding – than it has ever been.
This applies to who we need to know, as well as what. Another striking thing about Leonardo’s list is how many house visits he will have to make. His curiosity makes him highly sociable. Montaigne wrote of how travel to different regions and countries allows us to ‘rub and polish our brains’ against others, and Leonardo seems keen to polish his brain against as many others as possible. Out of the fifteen tasks in the complete list, at least eight involve consultations with other people, and two involve other people’s books. It is easy to imagine Leonardo eagerly approaching each expert, intent on drawing out their knowledge, beginning each conversation with ‘Dimmi . . .’. People who are deeply curious are more likely to be good at collaboration. They seek out new acquaintances and allies in the process of building their stock of cultural knowledge.
In the next chapter we’ll look more closely at the curiosity of babies and children, and at why some of them are more likely than others to grow into adults who share Leonardo’s passionate curiosity.
Excerpted from Curious by Ian Leslie. Copyright © 2014 by Ian Leslie.
First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Quercus Editions Ltd, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.