NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Curiosity” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas. Responses and comments welcome.
Curiosity: Reviving the cat
Copyright 2012 David J. Bookbinder
In my many years of formal education, from elementary through graduate school, no teacher ever suggested that I pay attention to curiosity. Not one, not even once. I was an empty vessel, waiting to be filled with Knowledge. Following my curiosity was strictly an extra-curricular activity.
Curiosity is among the most under-encouraged emotions we have, but it is one of the most vital. All the prompts for journalistic investigation – Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? – are expressions of curiosity. Without curiosity, there would be no news. Curiosity is the energy that fuels our engine of exploration. It is how we discover what is most important about ourselves, others, and the world. It leads to both wonder and doubt, each essential to understanding almost everything. It is no accident that the Mars Science Lab, now gathering data on the Red Planet, is named “Curiosity.”
And yet we are taught from an early age that “curiosity killed the cat” and are encouraged, directly and by example, to remain incurious.
Curiosity drives paradigm shifts. Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, describes the evolution of science as the interplay between puzzle-solvers who work to extend and refine the current set of beliefs, procedures, and understandings and those who get curious about anomalies and challenge the status quo. Does this theory, the paradigm shifters ask, explain everything, or is there something that doesn’t fit? Finding a new theory to account for anomalies has turned previous paradigms on their heads, leading to broader, deeper, and more encompassing comprehension of our universe – to a new and more accurate world view. Paradigm shifts in science include major rethinkings, such as the shift from putting the Earth at the center of the universe and acceptance of the plate tectonics theory of continental drift, among many others.
I believe that paradigm-shifting extends beyond scientific revolution to include political, social, esthetic, and spiritual revolution as well. Without new paradigms, and the curiosity about anomalies that drives their discovery, we likely would have little today of what we think of as civilization.
Contrary to popular wisdom, sometimes it is failing to be curious that kills the cat – or gets him killed.
When incurious doctors match a set of symptoms to a pattern, their lack of curiosity can lead them to violate the first precept of medicine, to do no harm. Doctors are trained to do differential diagnosis, which involves matching the symptoms patients present with known diseases, progressively narrowing down the possibilities until the most likely diagnosis is arrived at. In practice, however, doctors typically interrupt their patients within the first 18 seconds of their problem description, and fewer than 2% of patients get to finish their story. Most doctors stop listening before their patients get to all their symptoms or, because their minds are already made up, ignore symptoms that don’t fit their preliminary match. But what doesn’t fit or isn’t heard is sometimes crucial to accurate diagnosis and treatment. Approximately one in 10 patients worldwide are killed or injured due to medical errors.
Dr. Jerome Groopman, in How Doctors Think, demonstrates the dangers of incurious thinking. He depicts the most common thinking errors by doctors, most of them variants on inaccurate or incomplete pattern matching and jumping to faulty conclusions. He recommends questions such as “What else might be causing these symptoms?” and “Is there anything that doesn’t fit your diagnosis?” to activate a doctor’s curiosity. Questions like these can save your life.
Curiosity has been the driving force for almost everything I have learned, in any field. I write these essays to find out what I have to say. For three years curiosity got me out of bed before dawn because I wanted to see what the sky was doing at sunrise and take a picture of it. While experimenting with new software, I wondered what would happen if I applied a kaleidoscope effect to an image that was already kaleidoscope-like; the result was the Dandelion Head mandala which closes this book.
As a therapist, I also pay attention to curiosity. A client has repeated the same thing three times this session: Did I miss something important? Does she feel I have not heard her? Or I get the sense that something doesn’t “fit” in a client’s story: Is there more? Is something hidden? Or there’s a little laugh, a tilting of the head to one side, then the client closes her eyes for a moment: Where did she go, just then? And so on. . . . When I do career counseling, I become curious not only about past work experience, but also about hobbies and (sometimes hidden) passions. Curiosity can reveal what I think of as the “secret identity” of people who appear to be trapped in mundane jobs.
Paying attention to my own curiosity almost always enriches a session and can be pivotal in a client’s treatment, but clients’ curiosity about themselves is even more significant. When a client says “I was angry” and then checks those words against a bodily awareness of what he or she feels and revises that to, “No, actually, I guess I was hurt,” I know we are going beneath story telling and surface feelings to the depths of what is going on. A paradigm is shifting.
Sometimes curiosity needs a jump start.
A client with whom I had worked for about a year on recovery from a particularly destructive relationship was interested in dating again. But as he described it, his strategy for meeting someone new consisted of going to a bar with his friends, noticing the women there, and trying a pickup line.
I got curious about how that was working for him. Not well, he admitted. He spent most of the evening coming up with an opening line and screwing up the courage to deliver it. When it fell flat, he slunk away, back to his friends and his beer. It seemed he spent no time actually noticing anything about the girls he was trying to meet except surface attractiveness, and that he was more concerned with how they would see him than he was with seeing them.
I suggested curiosity as a more genuine way to get a conversation going and proposed, as practice, he try to start a conversation with me. “Ask me something or tell me something,” I said.
He noticed a poster of my Flower Mandalas hanging over my desk and asked, “So, did you make that?”
“Yes, I did,” I said. I pointed to the pictures on the opposite wall. “I made those, too.”
He was quiet for a moment, then shrugged. Nothing more to say.
“I asked you to use your curiosity, but are you really curious about art? Because I’ve never heard you talk about it.”
“Not realy,” he admitted.
“Okay, now try asking about something you really are interested in.”
He looked around the room again and after a moment said, “Did you get that lamp at IKEA?
“I did.” I pointed out the many other things I’d bought at IKEA. “Almost everything here is from IKEA.” I told him my story of squeezing everything into a friend’s Toyota RAV4. He shared his story of furnishing his first apartment from IKEA. We shared our frustration with the wordless assembly instructions. Soon we were in a natural back-and-forth conversation that quickly went beyond IKEA, each of us discovering sides of each other that extended and deepened our relationship.
It is hard to say what catalyzes a person to change, but that conversation appears to have been a turning point for this client. Not long afterward, he found a new girlfriend, got a better job, and bought a condo in a new town. He also resumed hobbies and tried out activities he had always wanted to do. By tapping his curiosity in our brief conversation about IKEA, he seemed to have learned not only how to go beyond a pickup line, but also tap into curiosity about who he was and how he wanted to live.
Without curiosity, we are left unaware, unexcited, unoriginal, unalive. With it, we have a chance to thrive, not only as individuals but as a species. In a color-inside-the-lines world, the curious cat does sometimes get killed. But in the great world outside those lines, the curious cat is king.