If you listened to the beginning of my podcast with David Nutt, you got a taste for the kinds of questions my children ask me. My seven-year-old son was hanging out in my office, where I keep several racing helmets. He was trying them on and engaging me in conversation and wanted to know why the drivers wear them.
“To protect the brain,” I tell him.
“What does a brain look like?”
I Google and show him some anatomical images of the brain. He’s not impressed.
“It just looks like a slimy thing,” he tells me. A pause. “But is this where my thoughts come from?”
“Yes, that’s where your thoughts come from.”
He had me at a loss. I then went down a rabbit hole trying unsuccessfully to find a good video for kids explaining the nuts and bolts of how the brain forms thoughts. How does this slimy blob inside my head make me think? my son asks. A great question…and I didn’t have a good answer for him.
On another occasion, my son asked why zebras have black and white stripes instead of green and brown or something more camouflaged. Another great question, and again, I had no clue. With one look at a zebra, the question seems obvious, so why hadn’t it ever occurred to me? Another rabbit hole. Finally, I hit upon 2019 reports by the NYT, the BBC, and The Atlantic on a fascinating experiment that tried to answer this very question.
What is it about children that makes them ask so many curious and thoughtful questions that adults can’t answer, or never even think to ask? If I’d been keeping score, I doubt I’ve had answers to more than half of my kids’ questions. Or maybe it’s just that the questions I can’t answer become more seared into my memory than the ones I can. I really can’t recall them asking me questions about mTOR or the 1988 Formula One season, which would be much easier for me to accommodate.
When I think back to my son asking me about the brain, I had a pretty good handle early in the interrogation. Why helmets are used in racing and what a brain looks like, for example. They keep asking why until the root cause is determined. However, we don’t have root-cause answers to the majority of naive questions in biology and science. Children have no problem probing and exposing this.
As Mario Livio, author of Why? What Makes us Curious, tells the NYT:
“The curiosity we feel when we see something that is surprising or puzzling or ambiguous, that doesn’t agree exactly with our previous knowledge or presumed knowledge, is not the same as the curiosity we feel as the love of knowledge — what drives research in science, for example. The first one is associated with a state of mind that is aversive. It’s an unpleasant feeling, which we try to get rid of.”
Maybe children have the benefit of not being clouded by previous or presumed knowledge? The fewer preconceptions you have about the world around you, the less likely your appetite for knowledge will put you in an aversive state. Perhaps, as adults, we’ve learned to avoid this unpleasantness by avoiding even the thought of something puzzling or ambiguous? This is suggested by the fact that, even as adults, we still don’t know why zebras have black and white stripes, but we no longer think to ask.
And why, then, is scientific inquiry so rewarding instead of aversive? (Though admittedly, this very much depends on whom you ask.) I understand that curiosity which embodies our love of knowledge is a pleasurable experience. But scientists are often confronted with observations and evidence that don’t agree with prevailing wisdom. Does this induce an aversive state?
Good scientists fit their theories to the evidence, and bad scientists fit the evidence to their theories. Niels Bohr, the famous physicist, told a group one day when an experiment took an unexpected turn, “How wonderful we have met this paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.” Hardly the words of a person with an emotional aversion to surprising findings. Richard Feynman has also echoed this sentiment. “We are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible,” he said, “because only in that way can we find progress.” (Feynman didn’t say whether or not this is a pleasurable experience.) If we take one lesson from these renowned scientists, perhaps it should be that the best science is that which creates as many questions as it answers; that which inspires childlike curiosity; that which keeps us asking, “why?”
So now, like a naive child, I’m ending this with more questions than answers. However, I believe there’s something to be learned from their line of inquiry.