Can Curiosity Break?
Curiosity As Immune System
Have you ever wondered about curiosity? Can curiosity break? What happens when it does?
edited on August 19th, 2021
Curiosity Comes From Somewhere
Certainly curiosity has something to do with our survival. In Peter Godfrey-Smith's book Metazoa, he writes about the emergence of mind as an evolved biological process. In the book he mentions how, in the generation of species, new sensory powers follow rather than precede new motive powers. That is, your species develops the ability to move into the light before it can "see" that light. You might get grasping mobile tentacles before those tentacles are can discriminate between food and rubbish.
Curiosity As Experience And Motivation
Experientially, curiosity feels like something - that is, we sense it.. But unlike sight or touch, which bring in data from "outside", the sensation of curiosity picks out one kind of "internal state" from others. To be curious feels like tension regarding an unknown out-there and a known right-here. What it discriminates between is what is familiar and what might become familiar through our actions.
Such a sense seems plausibly related to threat assessment: Are there dangers? Can I avoid them? But more than vigilance to threats, curiosity activates on totally non-threatening, seemingly trivial unknowns. We can become curious about the source of a noxious smell as much as a sweet one.
An Especially Human Curiosity
I would like to qualify the notion of curiosity a bit. Dogs and horses and cats, for example, can certainly exhibit behaviors that we might think of as motivated by curiosity, but I'm not sure that they can produce explanations about the objects of their curiosity. I'm trying to think exclusively about the sort of curiosity that most creatures that call themselves human beings seem to be able to experience.
That is to say, human curiosity seems to involve our narrative capacities. To explain something is to tell a certain kind of story about it. Curiosity leads us to stories about "why" or "how" the world is the way it is.
The Immune System Metaphor
I have been thinking about this especially human variety of curiosity as a kind of immune system for the narrative part of the mind. That is, both the immune system and curiosity are, in a sense, about preparation through information gethering.
When some agent foreign to the body enters through our lungs or skin, our internal immune system flies into action. It will identify, swarm, neutralize, and "record" information about that invading microbe sufficient to take defensive action in the future.
As an immune function, curiosity is about things mostly external to the body. When encountering an unknown, curiosity urges us to poke and prod at that unknown, to unwrap and dissemble it, to look at it from several vantages, until we are satisfied by an explanation to account for it. With an explanation in mind, the object of curiosity becomes available for us to describe, to tell others about, and to have opinions about -- in other words, to see where it fits in the narrative, human, world.
Two Kinds of Immune Dysfunction
Just as our immune systems can fail, so too can curiosity.
Sometimes, when a person's body is immunocompromised, stressed, or overburdned, it can fail in its vigilence against microscopic invaders. If you have been sick, if you are malnourished, if you are suffering from a chronic condition, then your immune system can fail to prevent disease.
It is also possible for your immune system to become overly sensitive. The immune system can sometimes identify parts of your own body as threatening, or it can respond too aggressively to an external invader. In such cases you are said to have an autoimmune condition, which could be life threatening. The worst effects of Covid-19, for example, have (as I have gathered) been due to aggressive immune response in the lungs, filling the lungs with fluid, preventing them from taking up enough oxygen, leading to death. (You might check my facts on that, I am remembering that explanation from some news podcast I listened to in 2020.)
Curiosity Breaks in Similar Ways
Similar dysfunctions affect curiosity.
Because of a weakened or overburdened attention, we can become incurious. Events that we ought to be interested to understand will instead slip through our attentional net.
Global warming is an example: we had decades to become collectively curious about the effects CO2 emissions but never quite got there. Why not? Possibly due to a combination of a vigorus and (over)stimulating media culture in conjuction with active efforts on the part of the fossil fuel industry to muddy the informational waters.
The subprime mortgage crisis is another example. A clear picture of the sector's basic operations became buried under a massive web of jargon and redirected, repackaged, financial products. Curiosity as to why so many people were buying such unaffordable homes ended up drowning in the ocean of information. When you are tired and swamped with mountains of data the curiosity apparatus goes slack and ceases to function.
But it goes the other way too. Curiosity can go into overdrive such that questions which cannot possibly be resolved consume huge quantities of attention. This is, for example, how you end up with philosophy.
Doing philosophy is among the central activities of my life, so I certainly do not mean to malign the variety of hypervigilant curiosity that leads to philosophical questions and processes. "Philosophical" questions become dangerous, however, when a person confuses their own narrative, storytelling, logic-wielding self with their whole and only self. When this happens, the aggressively curious can lose themselves in immaterial worlds built of words and deductive paths. Often, if these questions are about the central experience of life, the questions can lead to depression.
Here is what I mean. Questions like "Why am I here?", "What is life for?", "How can I be sure that the world exists?", "Do I have free will?", "What is the mind?" beg those infected by them to seek an answer that can be "explained". That is, an answer that can be discussed and given a structure submissible to analytic argument.
But this is precisely what we cannot quite do. These questions cannot ever be answered to the satisfaction of all. Skepticism is ultimately unassailable.
As Paul Tillich writes somewhere "One cannot remove anxiety by arguing it away."
Just a thought.