June 21, 2013 7:12 pm

The Shrink & The Sage: How important is curiosity?

The instinct can transform the world into a magical place to explore and wonder at
An illustration depicting curiosity©Laura Carlin

The Sage

An illustration depicting curiosity©Laura Carlin

I would like to say that I have a healthy curiosity but, judging from many people’s reactions, perhaps it’s more of a pathological condition. Call it Pointless Inquisitiveness Disorder. It’s the compulsion to ask why, whether, how, really, even when it doesn’t much matter what the answer is.

“Really?” is the one that really seems to get to people. Someone expresses an opinion, I’m not sure whether or why it is true, and off I go digging to get to the bottom of it. Is it really wrong to pronounce “Galician” with the Spanish “th” sound? Have the pizzas at PizzaExpress really got smaller? Is it really so unusual for it to be so cool at this time of year?

People tire of this for two reasons. First of all, they often assume I’m attacking them when I’m really just interested in the truth of the matter. Second, they can’t be bothered going into detail about trivia.

Now I accept they may have a point. But it’s very difficult to maintain a thriving curiosity without it being somewhat random. In his essay on curiosity, philosopher David Hume noted that there is a pleasure to be had simply in the “invention and discovery” of truth, whatever it might be. The curious will find themselves drawn to anything that stimulates this delight.

Hume did think that there must be some importance in the truths we discover for the process to be of “considerable enjoyment”. But it would be a mistake to assume we always know what is important from the start. Curiosity leads us to question what we take for granted, and one of the things we take for granted is an assumption of what matters. That’s one reason why academics need the room to pursue research for its own sake.

I accept it might seem unlikely that much will hang on the history of pizza sizes or the pronunciation of a particular word. But finding out is at worst a harmless side-effect of a useful disposition. And I still think that when you look a bit deeper into almost anything, you’ll find there’s more of interest there than you might think.

. . .

The Shrink

Recently, on a short educational walk, I got in touch with my inner birdwatcher. It was a humble achievement, learning to spot two or three more bird songs than I could previously. But it was extremely gratifying to discover and name even a couple more things in the world.

OK, birds may not be your thing. But there’s something out there to stimulate anyone’s innate curiosity. We are all supposed to have this – some more than others, for sure – but even the curiosity of those who are most blessed with it can become dulled by what seems like the monotony of everyday life.

Curiosity correlates with all sorts of good things – health and happiness are the ones people are usually interested in. But, even more than other qualities, curiosity matters for its own sake. It may seem obvious but it can transform the world into a magical place to explore and wonder at, and is therefore the best antidote to creeping monotony. It can provide an enriching lifelong thread of investigation around which our life revolves.

But what about curiosity’s deadly effect on the proverbial cat? There’s certainly an unhealthy side to the instinct. This side is about being nosy and meddling, taking pleasure in gossip, keeping a beady eye on people instead of simply showing an interest in what concerns them.

There can also be an excess of curiosity. We are, inevitably, fascinating to ourselves, and learning what makes us tick can be an absorbing task. It can also be useful, a necessary first step towards change. But being too self-absorbed is no fun. A constant focus on spinning our own stories is likely to alienate us from others and end up making the world a less interesting place to live.

I don’t know if curiosity is the crucial virtue. There are many other candidates: mindfulness, compassion, gratitude, resilience, self-control. But starting to question things more, saying “I wonder” a little more often, developing an attitude of inquiry into ourselves and the world around us may just breathe life back into our daily grind.

The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email shrink&sage@ft.com

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