As people we always want to know things. We are incurably curious you might say.
We want to know about what the neighbours are doing, what the latest celebrity gossip is, what the headlines are, who won the presidential election, when does the newest TV show start, who won the soccer, what time will they be here and so on.
The list is endless:
Now in that spirit let’s ask another question, a question about the nature of curiosity itself. Why are we curious? What is at the heart of our curiosity? Why are some of us more curious than others, and is curiosity itself a good thing?
Lets begin with the last question…. Is curiosity a good thing?
Well I suppose generally speaking it is. It is the basis of all theoretical science, of philosophy and of religion possibly. Any discipline that pursues knowledge for its own sake is a very pure expression of human curiosity. As opposed to other fields of study which are more pragmatically motivated such as medicine, law, engineering, applied science etc.
In this then we have to affirm our curiosity, it is no small part of our technological and cultural progress. Certainly we wouldn’t be where we are without it. It is arguably the cornerstone of civilisation.
Nevertheless it can be quite destructive as well. Without it we would never have built the atomic bomb and we wouldn’t posses the know how to destroy the world with the push of a button. Which if you think about it is a lot of responsibility, maybe more than we can bear.
Let’s look at some examples of curiosity in action which are not very encouraging:
Mmm… I wonder what she would be like in bed. (Not good when she is your boss’s wife)
If we sail across this ocean I wonder what we’ll find, not sure but let’s take lots of weapons so can kill anyone who resists us when we get there and dominate everyone left alive.
Is my husband/wife being faithful to me?
Does he/she really love me?
Wouldn’t it be great to see some pics of Dodi and Dianne together, maybe see them kissing?
How many of these pills can I take and still live to talk about it?
What would he look like naked?
Just how fast can this car go?
I’m sure you get the idea.
Anyway psychoanalysis has got some very interesting ideas on this subject, which I’d like to explore. What Freud posited was that basically every child asks itself one burning question where do babies come from? Now this could be in relation to a new born baby, say a sibling for example. And behind this question lies a terrifying numinous truth…
Babies are born because their parents (often my parents in the case of a sibling) had sex. What psychoanalysts refer to as the primal act or primal scene (the act of sex). Can you remember the first time you became consciously aware of that knowledge, that you were conceived by virtue of your parents having sex? It was pretty shocking wasn’t it? Or can you not remember that moment, that moment of illumination?
Assuming you do remember, it wasn’t fun finding that out was it? (Or maybe it wasn’t for you, but I guess that would place you in a very small minority).
For most people it is a fall from grace, an eviction from the garden of paradise. Going a step further in depth psychology we talk about an unconscious psyche, meaning an activity of mind that is present and purposeful but not immediately (and sometimes never) accessible to consciousness. In this unconscious state the knowledge of the primal act is present before our finding out consciously and is more terrifying for being unconscious.
Allowing for a moment Freud’s’ idea to stand (admittedly it is a radical, if not new, idea and is open to debate), the first thing we are curious about is where babies come from, and at first we suspect and then later confirm that there is a terrible secret behind this mystery. That how we come into contact with that experience, that knowledge, and how it affects us shapes our curiosity for the rest of our lives.
We are either so repulsed by this knowledge, so overwhelmed, that we determine that curiosity and what it reveals is not something we should pursue. We turn our backs on the project of curiosity and foreswear all but the most essential knowledge. This is in psychoanalytic terms repression.
A quote from one of my favourite movies, Angel Heart, occurs to me in this regard, What good is wisdom when it brings no profit to the wise?
The other side of the spectrum is that we determine we need to know everything, or as much as is humanly possible. We want to get rid of the bogey man by checking under every bed in the world. This is compensation.
Both extremes show an unresolved trauma to the initial project of our curiosity and its shocking conclusion. Most of us probably lie somewhere in between these two poles. Here are a few questions you can consider in figuring out where you can place yourself on that continuum:
- How curious are you in relation to those around you (not about them mind you but compared to them )?
- How far will you go to find an answer to your questions?
- What are the limits of your curiosity, do you have any limit?
- Is there a point where you will not go beyond in the quest to find out?
- Do you have to finish a book that you start?
- Can you walk out of a movie or switch off the TV before the conclusion i.e. at the point of the cliff hanger, just prior to big finale?
- If you were obliged to do this (stop watching at a critical point), e.g. there is a power failure, how would you feel?
- How frequently do you try new things?
- Do you consider the outcome of curiosity prior to embarking on the quest for truth? Do you consider that you may not like what you’ll find and that it is possibly better not to find out, or are you relentless in your pursuit of knowledge.
- What is your relationship to knowledge? Do you seek to own it like a commodity to penetrate it to conquer the mystery and to be in control? Or is it more a sense of contemplative wonder?
- How central is the pursuit of knowledge in your life?
- How often do you travel a different route, eat a new dish, go somewhere different, talk to strangers, spend your leisure time doing something you haven’t done before? Frequently or do you find yourself mainly repeating old patterns?
- Does the different or the new scare or excite you?
- Has your curiosity project been put on hold, do you believe you know what there is to know or is it very much alive?
- Would your experience of life be enriched by greater curiosity or is possibly fragmented from an excess of curiosity?
The above is a very provisional list but if you carefully consider the questions It should give you some idea of your relationship to curiosity and knowledge.
Finally let me leave you with some concluding thoughts. And I must give credit to my friend and colleague Ricardo Meira in suggesting the one and stimulating the others, through his line of thinking. I think our project of curiosity is well described by Freud, but in an existential and Jungian sense we can take a few more steps. At the heart of our curiosity lie the following questions:
Where do babies come from?
Where does the other come from? (I.e. the other who I can see exists but is not I)
Where do I come from?
Why am I here?
Where am I going?
With that I’ll leave you, curious I hope, about the nature of curiosity. About the role of curiosity in your life, what you want to know, why you want to know it and just how important that knowing is to you? In particular you may want to reflect on how through your knowledge project you are trying to answer one or more of the questions listed above.
Until next time go in peace,