Out of Curiosity

Photograph by Philotheus Nisch


words by Willow Defebaugh

For all of human history, curiosity has been leading us to discovery. In the new year, it can help lead us to new worlds.

“Don’t worry about what you can’t answer, and don’t try to explain what you can’t know. Curiosity is its own reason. Aren’t you in awe when you contemplate the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure behind reality?”

Albert Einstein

Happy new year, readers. I’ve never cared much about resolutions: giving up this, taking up that. But I do believe in intentions. And I believe that words have power. So every year, I like to choose a word to carry with me for the next twelve months: a lens through which to view the world. My word for this year is curiosity. And while it can be observed in a number of species—apes, cats, corvids, rodents—few rival the curiosity of human beings.


Before I get into why I find curiosity critical for 2023, first let’s look at what it is. Psychologist William James once defined it as “the impulse towards better cognition.” Today, we separate it into two forms. The first is perceptive curiosity: a drive toward what’s new. This is common in human infants and non-human animals; think of babies who go from toy to toy and crows that developed tools for fishing out larvae by exploring new environments. The second is epistemic curiosity: the distinctly human desire to gather information to minimize uncertainty. 


At the core of curiosity is a desire to know—and without it, our species might not exist today. It drove our ancestors to discover new habitats and homes, learn about predators and prey, and invent tools for their survival. A recent study even found that curiosity triggers activity in the same part of our brains as hunger; in other words, we crave understanding in the same way we crave food. Cognitive scientists argue that this trait is innate in all human beings, and that it’s especially important to foster in children, as it’s integral to growth and learning. This means providing them with environments where it’s okay to ask questions.


I would argue that it’s equally imperative we cultivate curiosity in adults as well. In the age of misinformation, cancellation, and culture wars, how often do we jump to judgements rather than letting curiosity lead us? When we’re constantly being fed the opinions of others on social media, how might that be impacting our innate curiosity—our impulse to seek out knowledge and draw conclusions for ourselves? If curiosity is what drives us to discover new worlds, how might these systems be keeping us stuck in ones that no longer serve us?


In the absence of curiosity, we rely either on what we are led to believe, or even more dangerous: our own assumptions. I have found this to be especially true in our individual relationships, which of course make up our societal ones. Rather than risk asking questions or having uncomfortable conversations, we fill in the gaps with untested hypotheses born out of our own biases, experiences, insecurities, and so on. We waste time crafting our experiences around what we assume others might be thinking or feeling rather than simply asking them. 


Of course, curiosity can also “kill the cat” and lead us to our own demise. In the Global North, it’s easy to see how our sense of perceptive curiosity is preyed upon. We’re obsessed with what’s new. Entire industries are built to take advantage of our child-selves that still just want the next toy. This fixation is at the heart of every trend-driven industry, notably fashion and beauty. With the rise of TikTok, 2022 was the year of “trendcore,” in which every month came a new viral micro-trend. Fast fashion brands capitalize on these moments, producing more clothing—and waste. (Shein was ranked the most popular brand of the year, in case you were curious.)


For me, embodying healthy curiosity means learning to love what’s old while embracing what’s new. It means being excited by all that I don’t know, and not being afraid to ask questions. It means surrendering my judgments and expectations, letting go of getting it right and making anyone wrong. It means not depriving myself of experiences and connections based on my own assumptions—staying open to possibility, rather than deciding I already know how it ends.

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