December 11, 2021

Mental models

Is lack of curiosity an age-related condition?

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?

Read Time 3 minutes

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.”

“Well, how?”

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.

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  1. It’s interesting to me that this popped into my email today as I begin my module on curiosity in Judson Brewer’s Unwinding Anxiety App. Curiosity (the beginner’s mind type) for what is happening in your mind during any given moment ( e.g. present moment awareness) is a key step to his program. I really wish you would bring him in for a podcast. He’s phenomenal. And I don’t usually say that about people that only use their first name on a website. But he has credentials a mile long, is a big mindfulness guy involved with the likes of Joseph Goldstein and the 10% Happier crew. I bet you guys would do a great podcast on habit loops and how to manage them.

  2. In answer to your query, I point you you Richard Feynman’s “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out”, a collection of essays on science. Somewhere in there he says, “I’m totally comfortable not knowing things. The fun is in trying to figure it out.” I recall Hannibal Lecter instructing Clarice to “Always go to first principles”, a phrase Elon Musk also uses. Curiosity is one of the most important things to nurture in children. It should have its own series of classes in our curriculums.

  3. Not sure I agree that when curiosity is initiated by something that is puzzling or ambiguous it leads to a mental state that is aversive. Aversive for him, maybe.

  4. This is completely relevant to the COVID situation, which has laid bare the terrible aversion to ambiguity that has killed scientific discourse and process.

  5. Zebras may be striped to confuse a predator attacking the heard. The predator may not be able to keep a single weak animal in its crosshairs. Or maybe black and white is a better night time camouflage.

  6. Why do kids ask so many questions? Because they erroneously assume adults have the answers. I often think, “I wonder why . . . .” but I don’t have the time to research the answer, and I don’t have a big person with all the answers.

    Kids are aways trying to classify facts. Once when I worked at a newspaper, another reporter brought his son, 5, into the office. The kid looked around and said, “Boys have black phones, and girls have green phones.” That day it happened that two men had black phones and one woman had a green phone. Apparently the kid also wasn’t great at statistics and sample sizes. But some adults make similar errors.

  7. One of the joys I have as a rancher (more precisely described as the husbanding of a High Plains shortgrass prairie ecosystem) is seeing new things every day. I’ve been doing this job on this land for more than two decades, and I have amassed a great deal of experience. My “ranching on this patch of prairie” knowledge is well-nigh encyclopedic, and stems from both experience and formal college based training and continuing education.

    That said, I’m indescribably grateful that nature throws new stuff at me every day. The best surprises seem to come when I’m feeling particularly masterful, which is humbling and beautiful.

    As an aside, I followed the cherios paradox link. My Kindergartner shifted from asking to explaining when he ran into new (expert) knowledge at school. His verbal explanations are awesome and showcase the way he is sorting and catagorizing information and concepts. Amazing.

  8. Novelty, mystery, the pleasure of discovery, of meaning, of putting the pieces together…. All of these we are wired for and all of these can give us pleasure – a neurochemical reward. That we have the desire and the capacity to understand is profound, and a product of our evolution.

  9. I don’t remember being deeply curious as a kid. My prevalent memories as a youth were that of my familial situation, thoughts orchestrated around why my dad wasn’t in my life and why my mom strongly disapproved of him.

    Now, that those questions have been “answered” and concluded, I’ve experienced newfound curiosities in my adulthood. There are those types of questions such as Ohms law and electron flow, which tend to result in disappointment. But, there are others that continue to befuddle and retain an intrigued state of mind. Why do I remain present within my own formed family, when a beckoning to be nomadic and free of responsibilities tempts? Do I really “love” my children, or is the relationship confused with what’s ultimately a love for oneself? Speaking of love, there’s yet to be a sufficient definition for love, the best I’ve seen is that it cannot be defined with words. So how does one know love, outside of vocabulary?

    I think deep curiosity occurs when free, when one can meet the normal demands and overcome heavy psychological obstacles then one is free to experience a curious relationship with life as it remains.

    And typically, childhood fosters such an experience, free of the dutiful tasks we are dealt when birthing a family of our own, when confronted heavily with the reality of death and pain, that we know is most likely inevitable.

    Even then, death and pain can spur a new curiosity, what is pain, specifically physical pain? Besides the body’s signaling that something is askew. If God does exist, and if for example, God is similar to what the Judeo-Christian orthodoxy describes, then why does it exist, is their a greater purpose for its existence?

    My daughter will ask a question, to then continually follow up with “why”, until I find myself saying “I don’t know.”

    With questions, once boiled down, I find myself continuing to take the fork in the road that leads down to life meaning and purpose. Is there another path? To be curious for curiosity’s sake?

    And if so, what is the significance of being curious, does curiosity exclude itself from another mere pleasure, distracting ourselves from the inevitable?

  10. A bit of humor! It maybe at 78 I am still asking as many questions as a kindergartner but only Google tries to answer!

  11. It happens that I went on a safari this year with my wife and some adult friends, and one of us (I don’t remember which) asked that very question about zebras (one possible answer: zebras hang out in the trees at dawn and dusk when lions are active, and there the stripes are very good camouflage indeed). It was a very natural question to ask as we drove around gazing at them, no children needed.

    Perhaps this is one of the ways travel keeps us young. It refreshes our point of view and gets us curious about things we’d long ago stopped thinking about.

  12. Could the “aversion” be what we are experiencing now with so much polarization between politics and vaccinations? We are living in a time promoting diversity, and with diversity comes curiosity. Where is the curiosity and thus diversity, when hearing others’ thoughts around topics that are opposite of ours?

  13. Greetings!

    I think that the influence of weather and seasons to epigenetic do not study as well as it should.
    People, of course, are not plants, but the cyclical expression of genes, as I see it, is also in people. In addition, the expression of genes, depending on the season – it seems to me – entails the production of proteins responsible for typical “behavioral patterns”, that when tied to constellations, as to periodic time landmarks, it entailed the development of astrology and an erroneous causal relationship between character types and further fate and stars … If you have data on this topic, I will be glad to study the issue deeper, if no – how do you like the idea?

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