Monday, November 14, 2022

Q&A with Perry Zurn and Dani S. Bassett


Dani S. Bassett and Perry Zurn, photo by Tony & Tracy Wood Photography



Perry Zurn and Dani S. Bassett are the authors of the new book Curious Minds: The Power of Connection. Zurn is associate professor of philosophy at American University, and Bassett is the J. Peter Skirkanich Professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania. They are twins.


Q: What inspired the two of you to write Curious Minds, and how did you collaborate on the book?


A: We were inspired to write Curious Minds for so many reasons. We are twins and best friends; we love any excuse to work together.


We are also irrepressibly curious about the human mind, albeit from the very different perspectives of our respective disciplines (Perry is a philosopher; Dani is a neuroscientist). We were inspired by the possibility of people having a chance to see how beautifully philosophy and science could come together to help us understand something as central to the human experience as curiosity.


But perhaps the biggest reason of all was that we wanted our readers to appreciate the incredible diversity of curiosity styles that they and their friends might have, and invite them to imagine the possibilities for how those diverse curiosities could come together and help build a more equitable future.


Q: How would you define curiosity, and what would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about it?


A: Historically, curiosity has been thought of as a process whereby an individual mind acquires individual bits of information. This acquisitional account of curiosity has remained prevalent in the Western intellectual tradition over the last two millenia or more.


However, this story neglects to explain how we connect ideas and people in webs of relation, and how those webs allow us to think. Period.


Think about it—What can you do with an individual, disconnected idea? You can take it out of your pocket like a smooth lake pebble or bit of quartz from the garden. You can admire it. You can put it in a box or on a kitchen countertop.


But to do something with it, you need to be able to connect it to other ideas. You need to be able to reason, to infer, to deduce, to construct an argument, to see something from a new perspective. All of these cognitive processes require you to connect one idea to another, and often in the company of another thinker.


This is where Curious Minds comes in for a landing. In contrast to the acquisitional account of curiosity, we posit a connective account. We suggest that curiosity is the power of connecting ideas and people. It is through curiosity that we build shared knowledge structures. And that connective curiosity allows us to reimagine what people do with curiosity, and what they could do.

The book completely blows open new ways for curiosity to change the way we live, the way we educate, and the way we build societies, technologies, and businesses.    


Q: The scholar Angela Duckworth said of the book, “Zurn and Bassett changed my mind about what curiosity is at its essence. I am now convinced that curiosity is more than wanting to know—it is wanting to connect. This bold new theory for curiosity has enormous implications for building a more curious, creative, and equitable society.” What do you think of that description, and what do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: Each of us, coming from different backgrounds and with different neurological capacities, connects ideas and people in different ways. What we hope our readers take away from this book is a new appreciation for the unique styles of curiosity they have inside themselves, and a new language with which to talk about it.


We also hope their understanding of their own curiosity will be coupled with a new celebration of the diversity of curiosity in the people around them. By valuing the diverse styles of curiosity in and around us, we can ask completely new questions about how to work together in teams, groups, and communities to imagine and reimagine a new future.


Today, biases, stereotypes, and inequities are built on centuries-old connections between ideas and people that need to be broken. Likewise, practices of environmental pollution and extraction survive on habits of connecting the earth to certain values (like productivity, utility, and capital) rather than others (like respect, reciprocity, and stewardship).


Part of building a more curious, creative, and equitable world involves breaking apart old knowledge formations and connecting ideas (and people) in new ways. Curiosity–and Curious Minds for that matter–is a perfect companion for that journey! To meet the challenges ahead, we need to get still more curious about each other and the world around us.


Q: You end the book with an appendix featuring animals that have a reputation for curiosity. Can you say more about that, and about how you chose the animals to include?


A: In the central portion of our book, we discuss three styles of curiosity that Perry excavated from literary and philosophical texts written over the last 2,000 years in the Western intellectual tradition.


Those three styles are the butterfly, the hunter, and the dancer. The butterfly is interested in anything and everything, and flits from idea to idea or thing to thing. The hunter tracks down a particular piece of information, following trails and sniffing scents. The dancer takes leaps of creative imagination, connecting two ideas that haven’t been connected before.


We show how these three styles can be mixed and matched throughout our days or across different social contexts in a way that allows us to build knowledge together.


However, we emphasize that these three styles aren’t the only ones that humans could show, or that could prove useful in creating knowledge and reimagining an alternative society or an equitable future. In the appendix we move beyond those initial three styles to discuss 18 additional styles of curiosity, each inspired by a different animal. It was incredibly difficult to choose only 18; we have curated content for so many more. Perhaps a full-fledged curiosity bestiary is in order for our next project!  


Q: What are you working on now?


A: We have ideas for five more books. (Yes, the bestiary is one.) Which to do first?! That’s what currently keeps us up at night. Whichever we pick, we know that working together has been one of the most satisfying and meaningful parts of our entire careers. We can’t imagine a future in which we are not writing together.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Feel free to check out Perry’s work at and Dani’s work at The book, Curious Minds: The Power of Connection, is available from anywhere you typically buy your books. It can also be purchased directly from the MIT Press website.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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