Author: Ian Leslie
Can curiosity be the most important factor in human progress? Are curious people mankind’s most valuable asset? These questions are at the core of this interestingly titled book. Placing curiosity right at the heart of human advancement, the author attributed the success of civilisations such as the Greek and Roman to their intellectual curiosity. He showed how the world benefited from the contributions of highly curious people such as Thomas Aquinas and Cicero, pointing out that curiosity fired the enlightenment and contributed to such innovative breakthroughs as Galileo’s telescope and the Gutenberg press. The book argued that curiosity was the driving force behind humanity’s spread across the globe (page 42), and this instinct to discover often overrides the instinct to self-preservation (page 27). The author asserts that progressive societies should cultivate the curiosity instinct, ‘…recognising that the enquiring minds of its people constitute its most valuable asset’ (page 8). He argues that ‘…the world is in need of more curious learners‘ (page 10) and societies should make people ‘… hungry to learn, question and create‘ (page 9).
The book traces the early childhood development of curiosity and makes several references to leading workers in the field such as Teodora Gliga and Katarina Begus. He highlighted the research findings showing that curios children learn the ability to ask questions early in their lives. This competence in framing the questions that can extract information is an essential skill for curiosity to thrive (page 138), and this often determines future success (page 149-150). The books explores the various factors that influence the development of curiosity including social class, parenting styles (page 144) and schooling methods (page 170). The author also emphasised the importance of a sound knowledge base with examples of famous people such as Charles Darwin and the inventor Jacob Rabinow. He underlined the close relationship of knowledge and curiosity saying ‘…knowledge drives curiosity as much as curiosity drives the acquisition of knowledge…’ (page 192).
What are the benefits of a curios mind? The author argues that in today’s information age, ‘the truly curious will be increasingly in demand’ because they do much more than just carry out assigned tasks (page 10). He argues that curious learners are ‘… the best people equipped for the kind of knowledge-rich, cognitively challenging work required in industries…’ (page 11). He discusses the high premium set on such people who have the ‘need for cognition’ or NFC, a measure of intellectual curiosity (page 11). At a personal level he asserts that curiosity is essential for a fulfilled life, and the lack of curiosity leads to a life that is ‘…drained of color, interest and pleasure’ (page 15). Among the other added benefits of curiosity he discussed is the protection it confers on the cognitive decline that comes with age (page 21).
The book offers several tips on how to become and remain curious. A particularly helpful section is ‘the seven ways to stay curious‘ which is a collection of gems sprinkled with anecdotes about Alex Ferguson, Steve Jobs, Francis Crick, and Benjamin Franklin. He showed the importance of developing the different types of curiosity- diversive, epistemic and empathic- and the need to maintain a balanced relationship of curiosity, knowledge, confidence and difficulty. Staying in this ‘curiosity zone’ and maintaining this ‘information gap’ appear to be critical factors to remaining curious.
The author was however concerned about the factors that jeopardise the curiosity instinct today. He was particularly critical of the internet which he sees as a threat to effortful enquiry (page 14). He said even though ‘… information is everywhere, and everywhere it is multiplying…’ (page 116), he said ‘… the web can give us answers before we’ve even had time to think about the question…’ (page 117). He argues that ‘…the web is easier to search than ever, but because it meets our desires so efficiently, it doesn’t necessarily stoke our curiosity’ (pushed 121). He was critical of internet search engines which ‘…make popular articles even more popular, thus quickly establishing and reinforcing a consensus about what’s important and what’s not’ (page 122). This he says results in the loss of the ‘serendipity effect‘ which triggers many innovations. He argues that ‘…when everyone accesses the same information in the same way it becomes harder to make original connections (page 123).
It is difficult to conceive that a book on curiosity will have valuable lessons and I had approached the book with a fair amount of skepticism. The author however showed how much there was to know about the development and importance of curiosity. The relationship of asking the appropriate questions to curiosity is particularly relevant to doctors in their professional, academic and administrative roles. The author cites relevant research to support his assertions and this made his arguments credible. His writing style was excellent and the whole book was enjoyable to read.
Curiosity is fundamental to human life at both the individual and collective level. It is central to doctors’ training and practice. I commend the author for bringing this important and perhaps under-recognised topic to prominence, and I highly recommend the book.
- Publisher, place, date: Quercus Books, London, 2014
- Edition: 1st
- Number of chapters: 8
- Pages: 310
- ISBN: 978- 1-78206-497-8
- Price: £9.98
- Star rating: 5
- Other relevant book: Born Liars: Why We Can’t Live Without Deceit