Whether or not curiosity killed the cat, it is the lack of curiosity that killed the human. And sadly, lack of curiosity is common among humans, if not cats.
There are two people I’ve known my entire life. They are highly intelligent and well educated professionals, both having spent their careers as authority figures and both enjoying positions of respect where others look up to them. One worked in healthcare and the other in higher education. They are people one would expect to be curious and I would add that both have above average intellectual capacity. They are accomplished men who know how to get things done.
I pick these examples because each has had health issues. It’s actually the one in healthcare who has shown the least curiosity about his own health. I suspect this is for the very reason he has been an authority figure in healthcare and so has acted in the role of defending establishment views. And nothing kills curiosity quicker than conventional thought.
This guy didn’t only lack curiosity in his own field of expertise, though. In general, he wasn’t one who sought out learning for its own sake. He had no habit of intellectual inquiry. So, he had no habit of intellectual curiosity to fall back on when he had a health scare. The bad news he received was a diagnosis of a major autoimmune disorder. I would assume that he took this as a death sentence and most doctors treat it that way, as no medication has shown any significant improvement. But recent research has shown dietary, nutritional, and lifestyle changes that have reversed the symptoms even in people with somewhat advanced stages of this disease.
Once diagnosed, he was already beginning to show symptoms. He had a brief window to respond during which he maintained his faculties enough that he might have been able to take action to seek remedy or to slow down the decline. But this window turned out to be brief and the choice he made was to do nothing with some combination of denial and fatalism. Inevitably, this attitude became a self-fulfilling prophecy. It was not the diagnosis but his lack of curiosity that was the death sentence. His mind is quickly disintegrating and he won’t likely live long.
The second guy has a less serious diagnosis. He a fairly common disease and he has known about it for a couple of decades. It is one of those conditions more easily managed if one takes a proactive attitude. But that would require curiosity to learn about the condition and to learn about what others have successfully done in seeking healing. The body will eliminate damage and regrow cells when the underlying problems are resolved or lessened while ensuring optimal nutrition and such, not that one is likely to learn about any of this from a standard doctor.
Like the healthcare figure, this educational figure’s first response was not curiosity. In fact, he spent the past couple of decades not even bothering to ask his doctor what exactly was his condition. He didn’t know how bad it was, didn’t know whether it was worsening or remaining stable. He apparently didn’t want to know. He has a bit more curiosity than most people, although it tends to be on narrow issues, none of them being health-related. The condition he has that risks the length and quality of his life, however, elicited no curiosity.
I had more opportunity to speak to him than to the other guy. In the past few months, we’ve had an ongoing discussion about health. I recently was able to get him to read about diet and health. But the real motivation was that his doctor told him to lose weight. Also, he was beginning to see serious symptoms of aging, from constant fatigue to memory loss. It was only after decades of major damage to his body that he finally mustered up some basic curiosity and still he is resistant. It’s easier to thoughtlessly continue what one has always done.
I sympathize and I don’t. Not much in our society encourages curiosity. I get that. It not only takes effort to learn but it also takes risk. Learning can require challenging what you and many others have assumed to be true. In this case, it might even mean challenging your doctor and taking responsibility for your own healthcare decisions. Maybe because these two are authority figures, it is their learned response to defer to authority and any dominant views that stand in for authority. That is the same for others as well. We are all trained from a young age to defer to authority (even if you were raised by wolves, you received such training, as it is a common feature of all social animals).
So, yes, I understand it is difficult and uncomfortable. Some people would rather physically die than allow their sense of identity die. And for many, their identities are tied into a rigid way of being and belonging. Curiosity might lead one to question not only the ideological beliefs and biases of others but, more importantly, one’s own. It could mean changing one’s identity and that is the greatest threat of all, something that effects me as much as anyone (but in my case, I’m psychologically attached to curiosity and so my identity might be a bit more fluid than most; the looseness of ego boundaries does come at a cost, as is attested by the psychiatric literature).
Yet, in the end, it is hard for me to grasp this passive attitude. I’ve always been questioning and so I can’t easily imagine being without this tendency (I have many weaknesses, limitations, and failures; but a lack of curiosity is not one of them). I do know what it is like to be ignorant and to feel lost in having no where to turn for guidance. In the past, knowledge was much harder to come by. When I was diagnosed with depression decades ago, after my own life threatening situation (i.e., suicide attempt), I was offered no resources to understand my condition. The reason for that is, at the time, doctors were as ignorant as anyone else when it came to depression and so much else. High quality information used to be a scarce and unreliable resource.
It has turned out that much of past medical knowledge has proven wrong, only partly correct, or misinterpreted. Because of the power of the internet and social media, this has forced open professional and public debate. We suddenly find ourselves in an overabundance of knowledge. The lack of curiosity is the main thing now holding us back, as individuals and as a society. Still, that downplays the powerful psychological and social forces that keep people ignorant and incurious. For the older generations in particular, they didn’t grow up with easy access to knowledge and so now reaching old age they don’t have a lifetime of mental habit in place.
That is part of the difference. I’m young enough that the emerging forms of knowledge and media had a major impact on my developing brain and my developing identity. On the other hand, there is obviously more going on than mere generational differences. I look to my own generation and don’t see much more curiosity. I know people in my generation who have major health issues and their children have major health issues. Do most of these people respond with curiosity? No. Instead, I observe mostly apathy and indifference. There is something about our society that breeds helplessness, and no doubt there are plenty of reasons to be found for giving up in frustration.
That is something I do empathize with. There is nothing like decades of depression to form an intimacy with feelings of being powerless and hopeless. Nonetheless, I spent the decades of my depression constantly looking for answers, driven to question and doubt everything. I should emphasize the point that answers didn’t come easily, as it took me decades of research and self-experimentation to find what worked for me in dealing with my depression; curiosity of this variety is far from idle for it can be an immense commitment and investment.
My longing to understand never abandoned me, as somehow it was a habit I learned at a young age. That leaves me uncertain about why I learned that habit of open-minded seeking while most others don’t. It’s not as if I can take credit for my state of curiosity, as it is simply the way I’ve always been (maybe in the way an athlete, for random reasons of genetics and epigenecs, might be born with greater lung capacity and endurance). Even in my earliest memories, I was curious about the world. It is a defining feature of my identity, not an achievement I came to later in life.
Because it is so integral to my identity, I’m challenged to imagine those who go through life without feeling much inclination to question and doubt (as happier people may be challenged to imagine my sometimes paralyzing funks of depression). It is even further beyond my comprehension that, for many, not even the threat of death can inspire the most basic curiosity to counter that threat. How can death be more desirable than knowledge? That question implies that it is knowledge that is the greater threat. Put this on the level of national and global society and it becomes an existential threat. In facing mass extinction, ecosystem collapse, superstorms, and refugee crises, most humans are no more motivated to understand what we face, much less motivated to do anything about it.
We don’t have habits of curiosity. It isn’t our first response, not for most of us. And so we have no culture of curiosity, no resources of curiosity to turn to when times are dire. More than a lack of curiosity alone, it is a lack of imagination which is a constraint of identity. We can’t learn anything new without becoming something different. Curiosity is one of the most radical of acts. It is also the simplest of acts, requiring only a moment of wonder or probing uncertainty. But radical or simple, repeated often enough, it becomes a habit that might one day save your life.
Curiosity as an impulse is only one small part. The first step is admitting your ignorance. And following that, what is required is the willingness to remain in ignorance for a while, not grasping too quickly to the next thing that comes along, no matter who offers it with certainty or authority. You might remain in ignorance for longer than you’d prefer. And curiosity alone won’t necessarily save you. But incuriosity for certain will doom you.
* * *
For anyone who thinks I’m being mean-spirited and overly critical, I’d note that I’m an equal opportunity critic. I’ve written posts — some of my most popular posts, in fact — that have dissected the problems of the curious mind, specifically as liberal-mindedness such as seen with the trait openness. The downside to this mindset are many, as it true when considering any mindset taken in its fullest and most extreme form. For example, those who measure high on the openness trait have greater risk of addiction, a far from minor detriment. Curiosity and related attributes don’t always lead to beneficial results and happy ends. But from my perspective, it is better than the alternative, especially in these challenging times.
My argument, of course, is context-dependent. If you are living in an authoritarian state or locked away in prison, curiosity might not do you much good and instead might shorten your lifespan. So, assess your personal situation and act accordingly. If it doesn’t apply, please feel free to ignore my advocating for curiosity. My assumption that my audience shares with me a basic level of life conditions isn’t always a justified assumption. I apologize to anyone who finds themselves stuck in a situation where curiosity is dangerous or simply not beneficial. You have my sympathy and I hope things get better for you in that one day you might have the luxury to contemplate the pros and cons of curiosity.
I realize that life is not fair and that we don’t get to choose the world we are born into. If life was fair, a piece like this would be unnecessary and meaningless. In a society where we didn’t constantly have to worry about harmful advice, including from doctors, in a society where health was the norm, curiosity might not matter much in terms of life expectancy. The average hunter-gatherer no doubt lacks curiosity about their health, but they also lack the consequences of modern society’s unhealthy environment, lifestyle, and diet. As such, in some societies, how to have a healthy life is common knowledge that individuals pick up in childhood.
It would be wonderful to live in such a society. But speaking for myself, that isn’t the case and hence it is why I argue for the necessity of curiosity as a survival tool. Curiosity is only a major benefit where dangerous ignorance rules the social order and, until things change in this society, that major benefit will continue. This isn’t only about allegations of psychological weakness and moral failure. This is about the fate of our civilization, as we face existential crises. The body count of incuriosity might eventually be counted in the numbers of billions. We are long past the point of making excuses, specifically those of us living in relative privilege here in the West.
* * *
To make this concrete, let me give an example beyond anecdotal evidence. It is an example related to healthcare and deference to medical authority.
The United States is experiencing an opioid crisis. There are many reasons for this. Worsening inequality, economic hardship, and social stress are known contributors. We live in a shitty society that is highly abnormal, which is to say we didn’t evolve to act in healthy ways under unhealthy conditions. But there is also the fact that opiods have been overprescribed because of the huge profits to be had and also because painkillers fit conventional medicine’s prioritizing of symptom treatment.
Ignoring why doctors prescribe them, why do people take them? Everyone knows they are highly addictive and, in a significant number of cases, can destroy lives. Why take that risk unless absolutely necessary? It goes beyond addiction, as there are numerous other potential side effects. Yet, in discussing alternatives, Dr. Joseph Mercola points to an NPR piece (Jessica Boddy, POLL: More People Are Taking Opioids, Even As Their Concerns Rise):
“Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that as many as 1 in 4 people who use opioid painkillers get addicted to them. But despite the drugs’ reputation for addiction, less than a third of people (29 percent) said they questioned or refused their doctor’s prescription for opioids. That hasn’t changed much since 2014 (28 percent) or 2011 (31 percent).
“Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and commissioner of health for the City of Baltimore, says that’s the problem. She says patients should more readily voice their concerns about getting a prescription for narcotics to make sure if it really is the best option. […]
” “Ask why,” Wen says. “Often, other alternatives like not anything at all, taking an ibuprofen or Tylenol, physical therapy, or something else can be effective. Asking ‘why’ is something every patient and provider should do.” ”
* * *
“Knowing is half the battle. G.I. Joe!” That was great wisdom I learned as a child.