Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Q&A with Ian Leslie

Ian Leslie is the author of Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It. He also has written Born Liars, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Slate and The Economist. In addition, he presented the show Before They Were Famous on BBC Radio 4. He lives in London.

Q: You write that "a major concern of this book is that digital technologies are severing the final link between effort and mental exploration." How is that link being severed, and can this be reversed?

A: The modern web is a wonderful tool for the curious. Google and Wikipedia can launch us on amazing journeys of discovery.

But here's the thing: the web is also great for the incurious, or the plain lazy (and let's face it, most of us, including me, are lazy some of the time).

If you want an instant answer to a question, any question, there is no better way to get it than online. You just bang in a few words to the search box and before you've finished typing, there is your answer.

At which point, your curiosity is quenched before you even had time to feel its itch. When everything is made so easy for us, we can fall out of the habit of the hard thinking that is a crucial part of the curious mind.

So part of the reason I wrote the book is to urge people not to accept those top line answers, to use Wikipedia as a starting point, not a destination, to dig down, to accumulate knowledge - to make an effort.

Q: How is curiosity affected by age?

A: We are born curious. As any parent knows, a young child is a question machine. In fact it's been estimated that between the ages of 3 and 5 a child asks 40,000 questions.

Not just any old questions either, but “explanatory questions” – “why” and “how” questions. We have this innate hunger to learn about the world in which we find ourselves.

But as we get older, we ask fewer questions. As Henry James put it, "the mental grooves and channels are set." Partly, this is inevitable and a good thing - it shows we have learnt enough to get along in the world.

But we should distrust our own comfort with what we know, and keep asking ourselves what we don't yet know. Otherwise we become mere automatons. And they're building smarter ones than us!

Q: You write, "Curiosity is underwritten by love." What is the dynamic between the two?

A: It's been shown that children who feel loved and secure are more likely to explore, both physically (crawling around the room) and mentally. Curiosity is a bonus, really - it's what we get to do when we know our basic needs, like security, are taken care of.

The two great killers of curiosity are complacency (see previous answer) and fear. When people are scared, they focus on survival, on getting through the day, on keeping their job, and stop allowing their minds to wander and explore. Curiosity is nurtured when we feel safe - and for children in particular, that means loved.

Q: What first got you interested in, or I should say curious about, this topic?

A: I've always counted myself lucky to have grown up in a curious household, full of conversation, questions and answers, books and newspapers.

And it has always struck me that one of the biggest differences between people is between those who are curious and those who aren't. You know what it's like when you meet an incurious person - it's dull and frustrating! So how do people get like that?

That's where I started, and then when I researched further I realised that curiosity is something we have to work at throughout our lives - it doesn't just happen to us.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm researching a few different topics (I'm curious about so much). One of them is popularity. Why are some people more popular than others? Is it something they do, or is it some quality we assign to them? Should it matter as much as it does to us?

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Lots! But I'm trying to keep you curious, so...

--Interview with Deborah Kalb


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