Late in life: How to stay hungry, stay curious

Curiosity takes an interest from what to why to how. It’s an easy enough trait to develop, but it is also a trait that needs nurturing or it could atrophy.
Was there ever life on Mars? Could that life someday be us? Questions like these drove NASA to send its Curiosity rover to the Red Planet. (NASA / JPL-CALTECH / MSSS)
Was there ever life on Mars? Could that life someday be us? Questions like these drove NASA to send its Curiosity rover to the Red Planet. (NASA / JPL-CALTECH / MSSS)
Published on Mar 19, 2021 07:01 PM IST
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ByVanessa Viegas

It’s a fundamental human trait – the desire to decode. It’s what led Man to fire, agriculture, language, and on to industry, cities and space.

While humans are naturally curious, the subject and degree of curiosity differ, depending on the person and situation. Curiosity also comes in different flavours. There’s perceptual curiosity, which is aroused by novel or strange stimuli. It exists on a continuum between fear and satisfaction, causing a person to seek to learn something to solve an immediate problem, such as combating bad breath or finding food.

There is diversive curiosity, which tends to be superficial or impulsive — what does that button do; who is Robert Pattinson dating? Empathic curiosity, about what another person is thinking or feeling.

And then there’s epistemic curiosity, which comes from a desire for more knowledge. This is the curiosity that drives inventors and innovators, prompts them to ask why… why did the apple fall and not float; how did this fungus kill everything else in the petri dish; why not make rockets reusable and then use them as shuttles for tourism?

Epistemic curiosity is the backbone of science and academia. It’s special among the curiosities because it takes an interest from what to why to how. This kind of curiosity, however, needs nurturing.

Curiosity changes as you age, says Ramji Raghavan, social innovator and founder of the education non-profit Agastya International Foundation, which works to spark curiosity in science among economically disadvantaged children and their teachers. “You have to make an effort to renew it or it atrophies over time.

How? “Any exciting experience can be packaged into ah!, aha! and haha! moments,” Raghavan says. Curiosity doesn’t have to be scientific; it can be nourished through anything you are interested in.

If you enjoyed a new movie or TV series (or hated one), for instance, feeling that feeling as it unfolded is the ah! moment. “That is the first stimulus you get,” Raghavan says. “If you progress to ask how and why, you experience the aha-moment, which means you’re nurturing a curiosity, satisfying a gap in information. And when you keep doing it for fun that’s the haha element, the reward for engaging this curiosity.”

If you can ask yourself, of the movie or web series — why did I like or hate it, what did others think of it, do I agree, why or why not? -- then you have taken an experience and an interest, and developed it into a line of controlled enquiry. Perhaps you will look up other work by the filmmaker or actor.

Now, a fleeting hour or so has spawned a body of knowledge, information and opinion. The movies and shows you watch next will have heightened context. Your opinion, when you next voice it, will be informed and likely more intelligent.

“Curiosity increases retention and breeds confidence,” Raghavan says. And it breeds more curiosity, because your mind is now more well-stocked.

Curiosity also improves critical thinking and can lead to innovation and spark imagination. The more curious you are, the more productive and creative you are likely to be.

The thing about curiosity is, it’s always had its enemies — convention, social censure, outdated religious belief. A recent addition to this list is the internet.

While the internet offers unbridled access to information, it is also widely believed to be making the average human lazier. Or, as Ian Leslie, author of the 2014 book Curious, argues, it’s making us less likely to develop fact into understanding.

Epistemic curiosity is a choice. And it all boils down to asking yourself the same questions about different things — why, why not, then what? “Keep an open mind,” says Raghavan, “and you never know what might spark it.”

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Monday, November 29, 2021