The curious thing about curiosity

 

How curiosity is a prerequisite for creativity

Seeing the familiar in a new light: Einstein  in color  [1]

Seeing the familiar in a new light: Einstein in color [1]

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How's the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’”

The point of the fish story, made famous by David Foster Wallace in his commencement address to Kenyon College’s class of 2005, is that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. 

In the New York Times best-selling Originals, Wharton Professor Adam Grant describes how original thinkers see the same idea with a new perspective. We all know Déjà vu — looking at an unfamiliar situation and feeling like you’ve seen this or been there before. But what Grant describes is Vuja dé — looking at a familiar situation with fresh eyes, as if you’ve never seen it before. Like the fish. Originated by the late comedian George Carlin, Vujá de is remarkably relevant to current-day business and innovation.

The ability to see things from a different perspective is not a new concept though. Take, for example, the tale of Galileo's ship. Imagine Galileo Galilei, 16th century Italian astronomer, physicist, engineer, and polymath, standing below the deck of a ship; he drops a ball to the ship’s planks and records where it lands. If the ship were stationary at the dock, the ball would drop straight to the floor directly beneath where Galileo was holding it. Now imagine the ship was sailing smoothly, at a constant speed, in the wide, open ocean. If he dropped the ball, would it land again in the spot directly below where he released it? 

Galileo, also known as “the father of the scientific method”, conducted experiments like these and discovered that the ball simply fell directly below where it was dropped, just as if the ship were stationary. From Galileo's point of view on the ship, there was no difference between a stationary ship and a moving one. 

But now imagine, as Galileo did, that you are a fish in the ocean and you peer curiously into the strange ship. As the it sails past, the ball not only falls vertically but also moved horizontally several feet — the ship was moving after all. Similarly, if Galileo had observed the fish, he would notice the fish moving relative to the ship. 

How did Galileo reconcile these two ideas? Did the ball fall vertically only, or move horizontally as well? The differences arise when you consider the frames of reference. Others’ perspectives. In physics, Galilean Relativity describes the idea that there is no "absolute" measurement, and each measurement will differ depending upon the reference frame in which it is measured. Galileo formalized these basic principles of relativity — that the laws of physics are the same in any system that is moving at a constant speed in a straight line, regardless of its particular speed or direction. Simply, there is no absolute motion or absolute rest; it’s all relative. This principle provided the basic framework for Newton's laws of motion and was central to Einstein's special theory of relativity. All from imagining the perspective of a fish.

But Galilean Relativity extends far beyond the purview of physics. The ability to see things from a different perspective, to be curious about and question the familiar, touches most creative endeavors. Why is the thing — art, music, science, business — the way it is? Why can’t it be another way? Curiosity is key to creativity. Creative genius and physicist Richard Feynman supposedly had two simple rules regarding curiosity:

Rule 1: Never stop questioning; Rule 2: Never forget Rule. 1.

Feynman was a curious character, blatantly advertised in the subtitle of his autobiography, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character. Curiosity is defined as a strong desire to know or learn something or defined as a strange or unusual object or fact, according to Merriam-Webster. Feynman fit both. His curiosity about the laws of nature, and about how the world works, earned him a Nobel Prize in physics. But his life and personality quirks also were curious, ranging from bongo-playing Brazilian drum circles to pranking his colleagues in Los Alamos by cracking their safes. Feynman was certainly curious. 

Curiosity might be considered a character trait. We can all think of curious people in our lives. Likely a child, a curious cat, or monkey named George. Curiosity clearly defines them. But curiosity was neither considered one of the major traits in the historical Myers-Briggs type indicator personalities, nor directly found in the more recently [2] developed “Big 5” personality types (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism; also referred to as ‘OCEAN’ for the acronym it spells). But clearly curiosity and an eagerness to learn require a high degree of openness, and perhaps a low degree of agreeableness; after all, curious children question everything. 

While the utility of binning people into personality buckets is questionable, most psychologists agree that personality is malleable. Developing curiosity, the eagerness to learn, comes natural to some, but is difficult for others. Studies in neuroscience and cognition have shown that new ideas are unfamiliar, and therefore uncomfortable, and therefore frightening in a primitive way. Supporting this idea, several studies have shown that we need to be introduced to an idea several times before we can accept it; this is true across cultures, demographics, ages. One way that the human mind overcomes an initial aversion to a new idea: to be curious about it. 

“The solution to big puzzles often hinges upon tiny curiosities, easy to miss or pass over“, wrote the late Steven J Gould, American paleontologist and popular science writer in Natural History. Indeed, curiosity is nearly a prerequisite for creativity. When solving problems or undertaking a new creative endeavor, cultivating curiosity is the first step to developing an exploratory mind in order to connect ideas previously unconnected. Cultivating it by learning, reading, watching, exploring, listening, being open to new experiences, questioning the familiar  — and as David Foster Wallace said, “ having a simple awareness, an awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: ‘This is water. This is water.’”

Further Reading:

  1. I recently discovered #deoldify, an AI-trained algorithm that colorizes old photos. This is not photo re-touching, but instead a computer that was trained to colorize black & white photos based on what colors it “thinks” things are. I found an out-of-the-box implementation of the code (an executable Jupyter notebook, for the curious) and played with a few old photos. Seeing the colorized picture of Einstein above in a ‘new light’ seemed appropriate for this post.

  2. MBTI, If You Want Me Back, You Need to Change Too, by Adam Grant