Curious about Curiosity?

ell I was curious and in a nod to the style of Maria Papova (Brain Pickings), I am sharing my notes on this book by English writer, Ian Leslie. Because what I found was that: 


Curiosity is home to the adjacent possibility of our knowledge.

Curiosity, it seems, is driven by three qualities, surprise, knowledge and confidence. Curiosity peaks when we are more than a little surprised because when our belief is wrong in a minor way we easily ‘paper over’ the gap and when our belief is wrong in a profound way, we simply refuse to believe its true.

When we know nothing about a subject, we find it hard to engage our brains, either because we can’t imagine finding it interesting or because we are intimidated by the prospect of starting to learn about something that might, by its scale or complexity, defeat us. Conversely, when we know a lot about a subject and feel that we have pretty much got it covered, we’re unlikely to be interested in more information about it. In between these two states is what experts on learning call the ‘zone of proximal learning.’ 

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But what is perhaps the most curious quality of curiosity is its dependence upon our confidence in our beliefs. Evidently, not all information is equal. Too little or too much confidence and why bother to explore? So, we must be somewhat unsure - able to challenge our beliefs. Leslie goes on to make a distinction between puzzles and mysteries.

Puzzles have definite answers. … Once the missing information is found, it’s not a puzzle anymore. The frustration you felt when you were searching for the answer is replaced with satisfaction. Mysteries are murkier, less neat. They pose questions that can’t be answered definitely, because the answer often depends on a highly complex and interrelated set of factors, both known and unknown. … . Puzzles tend to be how many or where questions; mysteries are most likely to be why or how. … We live in a culture that is keener on puzzles than mysteries.

 It is this last thought that is particularly insightful with respect to all the ‘transparency” in healthcare presumably provided by hospital scores in Hospital Compare or physician ‘reputation’ in Health Grades or readmission rates. We have somehow confounded the how to provide better healthcare (a mystery) with how many people were readmitted or were satisfied and where that took place (a puzzle). In our well-intended desire to measure improvement we replace an underlying mystery with a more solvable puzzle. And that is OK as long as we remember that the answer we find moves us only incrementally towards understanding our real concern, the mystery.

Leslie ends with a listing of ways to maintain and cultivate curiosity. I leave you with two.

1. Question your teaspoons – become aware and curious about the seemingly mundane of your daily surroundings. Be curious about the status quo. More and more, I learn that everything they taught me in medical school was wrong. Not all patients having abdominal surgery require a nasogastric tube and urinary catheter. A blood sugar of 250 is not harmless. (OK, hand washing still is important).

2. Turn puzzles into mysteries – do not substitute the more easily discovered how many for the more challenging how and why.