Curiosity can boost memory and creativity for sharper thinking, yet it can also lead to distraction and procrastination. The trick is to know when and how to use it
DURING an icy April in 1626, Francis Bacon, philosopher and a pioneer of the scientific method, was riding through the snowy streets of London when a curious question popped into his mind: would the cold help preserve a dead chicken? After acquiring one from a nearby household, he set about stuffing the bird with snow. In the process, he caught a chill, quickly followed by pneumonia and death.
This possibly apocryphal story, spread by philosopher Thomas Hobbes, points to two faces of curiosity: one a virtue, the other a vice. Curiosity is the driving force behind science, exploration and discovery, in which form it has been as important in our species’ success as our intelligence. Curiosity can also be a boon to us individually, guiding us into passionate, purpose-filled lives – think of relentlessly curious people like Leonardo da Vinci.
But “the lust of the mind”, as Hobbes dubbed curiosity, turns vice-like when it leads us to waste time on clickbait and fake news, doomscroll through social media feeds or chase dangerously extreme experiences, like jumping from tall objects with a parachute, simply because we want to know what they feel like. It can end badly. Just recall the infamous, now-deceased cat.
In a modern world awash with many such diversions, it would be good to know how to make the most of our curiosity while avoiding its pitfalls. Recent research on the double-edged nature of curiosity is riding to the rescue. The work hasn’t only shed light on its many benefits for learning and creativity, but also on the reasons that it can lead us astray – and why we …