How To Be Curious (And Stop Being Such A Grownup)

MikeachimThe EverydayLeave a Comment

Hey, why did I never see this before?

It’s not much to look at – a gurgling watercourse, almost dry right now at the height of summer, trickling out of the mouth of a buried concrete pipe. A few feet away it widens into something worthy of being called a stream, but here, where it’s still narrow and dry enough to jump to the other side, it’s piddling in every sense.

I was ten, maybe eleven years old the last time I was here. My then-home is a few hundred yards behind me (with what looks like the same furniture in my then-bedroom), on a long curving road that hasn’t changed a jot, ending in a gap between houses that looks like how I remember it, into woodland that still leads to the same playing field where I’d come to practice kicking a football so I could fit in better at school.

Everything’s more or less the same, except a lot smaller and a lot lower.

In those days the stream was here too. Back then we called it The Stream, and as far as I know it’s still called that, since there’s nothing contradictory on any maps I’ve ever found.

From here, The Stream runs south, into a series of ponds and rivers that feed into an untidy scatter of lakes and irrigation reservoirs south of the village. Around them, the well-watered land is thickly wooded. It’s only by zooming out to a satellite’s view that you see how rare woodland is now in this corner of Norfolk – a few mangy patches, surrounded by fields cultivated into tight geometries.

This wood is where I grew up.

Well, not in it – I hadn’t discovered the joys of wild-camping back then – but for a half an hour a day on the way to school, for three remarkably happy years, I must have walked this path hundreds of times.

But I never crossed The Stream. Why?

Well, for a start, there was never a good reason to do so. Why would I? I could see what was on the other side: nettles, brambles, stickyweed, all kinds of undercarriage-savaging horrors for a young boy in his school shorts.

And…I didn’t want to be weird. I didn’t care what might be over there. I just wanted to fit in with what everyone else was doing. So I kept walking, like they would do.

Well, I think to myself, I’m nearly 50 now, and I’m a very different kind of person these days. So stand aside, teenage me. Let me show you what I’ve learned about life!

I tug my rucksack higher onto my shoulders, take a big lungful of air, and step confidently across.

My toe catches in a hidden loop of bramble root. I windmill helplessly, drop to one knee and, propelled by the unstoppable mass of my rucksack, plant my face straight into the mud.

Yeah, OK. That’s probably accurate. Thus endeth the lesson.

I did a lot of exploring as a kid. When I was growing up in Cyprus, there was one day I explored so much that I forgot to go home, and late afternoon I decided I would sleep overnight in a tree. Around midnight I learned an important lesson in how parents react when you do this, despite my best efforts to explain how much fun it had been and all the amazing things I’d seen when you just stop and look

Then, somewhere around my early teens, around the time we moved back to England and I started paying really close attention to the behaviour of other kids and what they thought of me, I stopped exploring. Not immediately, but a gradual withering of my curiosity that took months. I settled into the patterns of school life and stopped doodling at the edges of my days.

And above all, as a kid who didn’t grow up in the UK and desperately wanted to fit in, I stopped paying attention.

There’s a fun video you’ve almost certainly watched online. It starts with an announcement:

“This is an awareness test. How many passes does the team in white make?”

Now you’re watching three basketball players in white suits facing off against three others wearing black. The ball is tossed back and forth as everyone moves about seemingly randomly. Your eyes are fixed on the ball. Ten passes, eleven, twelve…

After 30 seconds, the video clip freezes, and the voiceover congratulates you on spotting the right number of passes (because you probably did that).

“It’s 13 passes. Well done! But – did you see the dancing bear?”

The clip runs again, and this time, you see a person in a bear suit, wandering right into the middle of the picture, lingering for a few seconds, then moonwalking out the other side. How the hell did you miss it the first time?

That video went viral. Watching it for the first time is an amazing experience – and it works on everyone, which is the most worrying thing about it.

It’s the work of Harvard experimental psychologist Daniel Simons, and it’s designed to show us how limited our awareness of our surroundings is when our attention is focused in certain ways.

Psychologists now call this inattentional blindness: the failure to notice things that are right in front of us, because they don’t fit with what you expect to see.

Inattentional blindness is the death of curiosity.

When you know what’s there, you don’t look for anything else. Your attention is so narrowed that your brain filters out everything else – which is a good thing, because that’s how it keeps you sane, every day.

It’s been estimated that the average American (and presumably by extension the average Western European) puts around 100,000 words into their heads every day, equivalent to 34 Gigabytes of information. If you retained all of that, your head would explode.

Very sensibly, your brain keeps you mentally healthy by chucking away everything that it deems unimportant.

Unfortunately, “everything it deems unimportant” is determined by a lot of things we’re not fully aware of. Things that we don’t necessarily choose. For example, cultural biases. Or the opinions of our parents and our loved ones. Or the things we read. Or the desire to fit in, which gently nudges us in the direction of the consensus. Or the urge to rebel, which does the opposite.

It’s estimated that a staggering 99.9% of the sensory world is completely escaping our attention every day – and because of all those biases at work, we can’t always trust our unconscious minds to choose the good stuff for us.

Take the experience of National Geographic’s roaming storyteller Andrew Evans, when he journeyed from Washington D.C. to Antarctica to fulfil his lifelong dream of seeing penguins – and because he was peering through the lens of his camera, he completely missed the penguin that had snuck up behind him to say hello.

When these kinds of things happen, they’re not just missed opportunities for something bettter. They’re also signs of tragedies at a life-sized scale.

Curiosity helps us solve the biggest problems in our lives, like dealing with fear, overcoming issues with self-worth, finding a job that fulfils us, being more empathic friends and partners – all of that and so much more. There’s no question how mindblowingly useful it is.

Just ask this chap:

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”
– Albert Einstein

But most of us clearly have a problem with paying attention to the right things, which is stopping us from being more curious.

Now, anything that focuses your attention is terrific. No argument from me. My biggest creative battles of the last decade have centred around my inability to focus, to deep-think (or “overthink”, to choose an unhelpfully negative definition of it).

My favourite parts of Andy Weir’s The Martian, both the book and the film, were where Mark Watney sits down and ‘thinks the shit’ out of a problem. I love that (and as a phrase, it works literally as well as figuratively).

‘Thinking the shit out of something’ is a process of returning to the most basic, foundational questions available, interrogating your assumptions about the answers you already have, and trying really hard to seek insight and build logical and intuitive routes towards the things you don’t yet know.

Kids do this brilliantly.

I mean, of course they do. They have no choice, because they don’t know anything to start with, so they can’t take the easy, lazy route.

They also haven’t been taught to think they know anything.

So they ask “daft questions”, as we adults like to label them, and say the most amazing things.

Take this thoroughly admirable description of a cow from a child of ten:

“The cow is a mammal. It has six sides – right, left, and upper and below. At the back it has a tail on which hangs a brush. With this it sends the flies away so they do not fall into the milk. The head is for the purpose of growing horns and so that the mouth can be somewhere. The horns are to butt with, and the mouth is to moo with. Under the cow hangs the milk. It is arranged for milking. When people milk, the milk comes and there is never an end to the supply. How the cow does this I have not yet realised, but it makes more and more. The cow has a fine sense of smell; one can smell it far away. This is the reason for the fresh air in the country. The man cow is called an ox. It is not a mammal. The cow does not each much, but what it eats it eats twice, so that it gets enough. When it is hungry it moos, and when it says nothing it is because its inside is all full up with grass.”

(as quoted in Plain Words, Ernest & Rebecca Gowers).

(Wouldn’t you love to see the world like that? I know I would.)

Young children are naturally curious because they are keenly, nervously aware that they know so little, and millions of years of evolution have taught them to know that complete ignorance is a Very Dangerous Thing for their longterm survival.

We adults, on the other hand, have brains that think we don’t really need curiosity any more. In most cases, we just rely on “knowing stuff” – which is a different and more dangerous kind of ignorance.

And so our bounded awareness (which is the official term for it) fools us into thinking we’re only seeing what is important and desirable in the world – when in fact, there is very real wonder and joy to be had in exploring the things we have no experience of, in the hope of finding something we never knew was worth knowing.

It’s 11pm now, and I’m really uncomfortable.

After ten minutes of fighting my way through the stinging, slashing, lancing undergrowth on the other side of the stream, I found what I’m laughingly calling a “clearing” (a lightly nettled & hawthorned patch of ground between two enormous trees), and since daylight was fading fast, I decided this was where I’d spend the night.

I brushed a patch of ground free of Nature’s weaponry, inflated my inflatable mat, carefully maneuvered it into place, and sank gratefully onto it. Ahhh, yes, this will do nicely.

POP. Hissss…

I’d missed a hawthorn spike, a big one. It’s gone right through both sides of my mat. Within seconds it’s as deflated as I am. But still! I’m in the Great Outdoors, living my best life, and, and oh god that’s a tree root that’s going right underneath where my lower back needs to be, and that’s a PATCH OF NETTLES ow ow you vicious b

But after a while I find a position that’s not completely intolerable, and stretch out my sleeping bag inside my bivvy bag. A few big lungfuls of forest air. And – rest. I let the stillness seep into me, and a sense of calm descends.

It’s quickly broken by an awareness that I need to pee. Every time. Every damn time.

I stand up – and hear voices. They’re walking along the path: kids, half a dozen of them, one wheeling a bike, the one at the back holding a torch. The smallest ones must be the age I was when I lived here. It’s only a few dozen metres over to where I am – horrible, painful metres, yes, but not far. I think to myself: have they ever explored over here? Would it ever occur to them?

The next morning I explore properly, and unfortunately for my sense of moral pride, it seems they’re not missing much. The bushes eventually tangle their nondescript way up to a fence, and that seems to be that. Sometimes curiosity means you have to back-track. That’s part of the deal you make with it.

(But then, I know nothing about bushes, or trees. What questions am I failing to ask here? Whose eyes would help me see all this differently?)


Okay, but what can we actually do?

It’s all very well to wring our hands and say we’re attention blind, and suggest kids need to be taught in a different way (this lecture by Sir Ken Robinson is a superb overview of that topic) – but what can we, as awareness-bounded modern adults, do to make ourselves more curious?

Here are some ways to get started.

1. Question “Foolishly”

First, we can start asking stupider and more obvious questions, like kids do. Too often as adults, we see apparent certainty as the end-point of a process of thinking. Problem —> solution → fin –> move onto the next thing. 

But perhaps a more fruitful (and certainly more curious) approach is to play “devil’s inquisitor” with our own assumptions, reducing everything to basics and overseeking a solution or level of understanding.

We can choose to reject “common sense” for a while, and spend extra time hunting out counter-arguments and extra information that might (might) lead to a different way of thinking about this thing we think we understand.

Or, to put it another way, we can just ask “Yeah, but why?” – repeatedly, again and again, until we’re even annoying ourselves.

2. Respect What You Don’t Know

More specifically, we can learn the value of exploring something to discover if it’s worth exploring.

It’s easy to think, “I see no point in sleeping outdoors and being uncomfortable and being filled with fear and being sleep-deprived the next day for no reason.”

But that misses the things you don’t yet know about sleeping outdoors, and will never truly understand until you actually do it, like how weirdly safe it feels, once you get over your initial nerves, or the sound of the rain hitting the forest canopy above you while you remain perfectly dry, or that indefinable sense of connectedness with the natural landscape, because you’ve removed those barriers that fool you into thinking you’re “indoors”, whatever the hell that is?

(Or maybe the terror of having a hedgehog crawl into your bag in the middle of the night, and start making noises like someone with a kazoo in their mouth trying to free a zipper from their pubic hair! That too, based on my own experience a few years ago. Hey, it’s not all good.)

3. Record What Matters

Thirdly, we can retain things better.

Great ideas and insights usually come from what we’ve already learned combining with (or being fascinatingly contradicted by) what we’ve just discovered.

We could help ourselves by becoming obsessive journallers at the edges of our understanding, by filling up paper notebooks or phone or tablet apps with notes about things that feel worth thinking deeply about. 

4. Unlearn Everything At Will

And last, to quote Maria Popova in her 13 Life-Learnings From 13 Years Of Brain Pickings, we can “allow ourselves the uncomfortable luxury of changing our minds.

It’s really fashionable to hold and voice firm opinions, especially on social media – but that’s how we close the door on our curiosity, and prevent ourselves learning something new.

Instead, we could practice saying “I don’t know”, and turn ourselves into perpetual students of everything, open to exploring things in any direction (literally and figuratively)  – because as Maria says, “it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right.”

So maybe we all have a long way to go – but that feels like a good way to get started.

And I’ll end with a question for you:

What are you most curious about right now – and what exactly are you doing about it?

Images: Mike Sowden; Max Delsid on Unsplash.

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