Is curiosity good for you?

I have always assumed that the answer to the question posed in the title of this post is “Yes.” Sure, curiosity can sometimes get you into trouble when you poke your nose in the wrong places. But in those cases it isn’t the curiosity itself that is at fault so much as a lack of wisdom, thinking that curiosity always needs to be satisfied.

There are lots of things that I am curious about but I know I don’t really need to know. Often I think of questions while I am driving. For instance, I’ll wonder about the etymology of a word, and whether it is related to another word that starts with the same few letters. Or I’ll wonder how something is made, or how some natural process works.

If I’m at a computer when I think of such questions, I often take a few moments to look them up. Or if I still remember the questions by the time I get to a computer, I’ll look them up. But more often they were “idle curiosity” and by the time I get to the computer I remember that I had a question but not what it was. Clearly those aren’t important matters to me.

A blog post on First Thoughts yesterday calls curiosity “a strain of intellectual intemperance opposed to studiousness.” I have always thought of curiosity as an impetus to study, creating the desire to know more. But Gregory Pine points out that “scholastic theologians saw curiosity as a wayward pursuit which impedes the studied application of the mind to worthy things.”

Well, I can see how undisciplined curiosity can cause one to hop from topic to topic, enjoying a brief encounter with knowledge but quitting anytime real effort is involved. Some amount of that desultory sampling among a variety of subjects can help one determine what is worth more intensive study. But doing nothing but dabble without going deeper might give the appearance of studying without providing its real benefits.

In my own experience, though, curiosity doesn’t work that way. It gets me started on a topic, and if the topic proves interesting at first, curiosity pushes me to learn more about it. If the topic isn’t sufficiently interesting, I go on and look into something else.

I get a mix of a little knowledge about a bunch of things and deeper insights into a few. Since no one can study everything in depth (with the volume of knowledge available today), that seems an entirely sensible approach to me.

If I weren’t curious, would I do any studying at all? I suppose I would have done some in school, but without real interest other than to get good grades. Curiosity, in my mind, is both what gets me started and what keeps me going in the pursuit of knowledge – especially now that I am long out of school and study only what and when I choose.

Did the scholastic theologians perhaps define curiosity differently? Merriam-Webster defines it as “a desire to know.” This may be an “inquisitive interest in others’ concerns: nosiness” or “interest leading to inquiry,” such as intellectual curiosity. My use of the word is normally the latter.

I do see that an archaic definition of the word was “undue nicety or fastidiousness,” which is a negative thing. But it appears unrelated to an interest in information. It is, after all, an archaic meaning of the English word curiosity, and the scholastic theologians would have spoken Latin.

According to Wikipedia (a good starting source for satisfying one’s curiosity), the English word came from the Latin curiosus, meaning “careful, diligent.” That would seem to be a good word to use to describe study, but somehow there came to be a distinction between the virtue of studiositas and the vice of curiositas.

Studiositas was “the ordered pursuit of knowledge,” while curiositas was a wrong sort of pursuit of knowledge. It might be wrong because it was used to make us proud (I certainly used learning in that way when I was in school and took such pride in my 4.0 GPA), because it took the place of more important learning, or because the knowledge pursued was inappropriate (study of the occult, for instance).

But since the time we call the Renaissance, learning for its own sake became increasingly acceptable. Many discoveries and inventions had specific goals in terms of improving people’s lives, but much scientific investigation pursued knowledge simply for the sake of knowledge. Often there is little idea where a particular line of inquiry will lead. But pursuing them anyway leads to all kinds of discoveries.

Some people still find such a distinction helpful. Theologian John Webster identifies curiosity as “knowing for the sake of knowing rather than out of love of God.” As a Christian I am taught to do all things to the glory of God, and nothing is to be done purely for its own sake.

But I don’t find it helpful to try to recover the older, pejorative sense of curiosity. It’s not good to eat merely for its own sake, but we don’t need a word to describe doing so. If one eats too much, it’s gluttony (something I struggled with for a number of years), but one can be moderate in one’s eating while still eating for pleasure’s sake (knowing that food can actually be enjoyed more when avoiding excess).

Of course, the blog post on First Thoughts was not so much about learning for its own sake versus for God’s sake, as about the role of blog posts in promoting (however unintentionally) the undisciplined style of learning. Do my posts, I wonder, satisfy idle curiosity without stimulating one to further study?

If they do, it’s too bad. But I would like to think that for some people at least they provide a gateway to learning. That’s one reason I like to link to other posts and articles on the same or related topics. I think you can tell from this blog post that the one I read at First Thoughts got me digging deeper.

So far, my conclusion is that we don’t have a precise definition about curiosity. This article discusses the concept and what we are learning about it in terms of how the brain works. As it happens, brain imaging shows that curiosity is strongest when we know only a little. On that basis, it would appear that curious does in fact primarily promote the toe-in-the-water type of learning, rather than deep exploration.

So if curiosity is what gets me started learning something, what is it that keeps me going? Einstein spoke of being passionately curious, and he certainly studied physics in depth. Do some people perhaps have stronger curiosity than others, so that it pushes them to learn a lot rather than just a little?

Or is there some other bit of brain chemistry, as yet identified, that picks up where curiosity leaves off and promotes further study? Someone who is curious enough – or whatever-it-is-that’s-deeper-than-curiosity enough – will probably figure it out before long.

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