I am becoming more and more curious about curiosity.
Curiosity is one of the many traits related to creativity, and it is the one I understand the least, in terms of where it comes from and how to build it up in folks who don’t have much to start with.
I spent a lot of the past semester with “Work on new curiosity lecture” hovering on my to-do list. But my own curiosity took second place, repeatedly, to other compelling tasks until my friend Ryan Martin, an anger researcher/blogger/podcaster/professor/ballroom dancer, began tweeting about an upcoming lecture on curiosity. (You can find the links he sent to several good articles on Twitter—he’s Ryan Martin @rycmart).
My curiosity got piqued and my motivation fell in line because in addition to seeing a gap that needed filling in my class prep, I had to speak at a scholarship donor reception that week. So the lecture got written or at least started. I delivered what I labeled as “Curiosity: Part 1” the next week. And I spoke about curiosity to the wonderful people who donate money so students at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville Richland can afford school, and to the wonderful students who earn those scholarships.
This quote about curiosity, from a scholarly article by Todd Kashdan and six other authors, seemed to me to be a great description of what scholarship students tend to do, what we hope all students eventually do (and really, what we all need to spend more time doing):
“When people feel curious, they devote more attention to an activity, process information more deeply, remember information better, and are more likely to persist on tasks until goals are met … . The immediate function of curiosity is to learn, explore and immerse oneself in the activity that initially stimulated the deployment of attentional resources.”
I know it reeks of academic jargon-speak, but I particularly like the phrase, “the deployment of attentional resources,” because I sometimes deploy my attentional resources in questionable ways. Where I grew up, in Southern Illinois, you could use “curious” as a synonym for “questionable” in that sentence. In that sense, “curiosity” has negative baggage. But it also has a bag of tricks.
In another article that Ryan tweeted the link to, Tom Stafford, on the BBC online, said, “Curiosity is nature’s built-in exploration bonus. We’re evolved to leave the beaten track, to try things out, to get distracted and generally look like we’re wasting time. Maybe we are wasting time today, but the learning algorithms in our brain know that something we learnt by chance today will come in useful tomorrow.”
I find that comforting. It’s no wonder I’m so attracted to curiosity, if it’s connected to getting distracted and appearing to waste time.
Stafford finished his article with this: “As Kurt Vonnegut said, ‘We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.’”
Pardon me while I go deploy my attentional resources in curious ways.
Marnie Dresser is a poet, creativity researcher and English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Richland. She lives in Spring Green with her husband and son and contributes to this space on a rotating basis ideas about creativity and education.