Your say / Anna Starkey

‘In a complex world, we need curious people more than ever’

By anna starkey, Tuesday Aug 1, 2017


They say curiosity killed the cat. But who’s they, and what was the cat so curious about that caused it to be an ex-cat? Less well known is the second half of the proverb: Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back. A nonsensical old saying, or a story of nine lives that points to something more profound? Are you, I wonder, generally as satisfied as a cat, or curious enough to read on?

Any good story is, literally, a fabulous manipulation of curiosity. The art of storytelling is the science of human behaviour – how to set up a tantalising gap between what you know and what you cannot help but want to find out. It’s why we watch house makeover programmes to see how that awful living room wallpaper turns out, or find ourselves completing a box set binge at 3am in the morning. Curiosity has driven the human story since the first spark lit a fire and began to warm us and cook our food, but where is it taking us? And what’s it got to do with Bristol?

Once upon a time, around about now, if you type ‘cat’ into YouTube it brings up over 72 million videos. Little did Sir Tim Berners-Lee realise back in 1989 when he invented the world wide web for sharing the large amounts of data generated at CERN (the European centre for nuclear research), that, in the future, millions of people on the planet would be using his brilliant innovation to mostly share videos of cats. Cats playing keyboards, angry cats, surprised cats; an unimaginable array of cats in many states – but mostly, we notice – not dead from curiosity.

It’s curious in itself, when so many of us have almost the entire accumulated knowledge of humankind available via a small rectangle in our pockets, that it’s not what we spend most of our time browsing. The digitally native generation, born well into the Age of Information, find this modern level of access to knowledge unremarkable.

If, like me, you remember the sound of a dial-up internet modem and used to wait whole minutes to load a page of the Encyclopaedia Britannica on CD ROM, you might still appreciate that smartphones are magic and Wikipedia is a miracle. And yet, it’s still likely that you spend more time on the web liking pictures of lunches and laughing at Nyan Cat than wading delightedly through the digitised notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. (Nyan Cat, for those who don’t know, is… oh, just Google it. At time of writing it has over 148 million views. I have personally contributed to at least a hundred of those.)

The internet is feeding what’s known as our diversive curiosity. The kind of quick-fix, superficial spin through the Twitter feed that doesn’t sustain deep attention to any one thing. There’s nothing much wrong with that, unless it becomes our primary mode of operation. The great thing is that the internet puts radically divergent ideas just a click or two away from each other, not at other ends of a large library floor. But in our time-poor, information-saturated, post-fact modern lives, our curiosity is superficial. We tend to grab at the lowest hanging clickbait and then fall off the hook.

I hear often from teachers and friends in academia how students are losing the ability to read broadly, cross reference and question their sources. We digest Snapchat stories for mere moments before they disappear, and we might get a nice dopamine hit when we get a new ‘like’ on Instagram, but while all this digital leaping about is going on, cats are quietly winning at the internet.

If you’re still reading, you must be curious about curiosity. Or how the cats are doing. Either is fine. It means your specific, or epistemic, curiosity is kicking in. The kind that sustains a longer-term interest in something, rather than the sort that just drives a brief drunken check of the name of that actor, you know, that one in the thing with the other one.

It’s odd isn’t it, that there’s a feeling, an emotion associated with a wanting to know. Curiosity is the knowledge emotion. It motivates us to explore and create and imagine new possibilities beyond our current situations. It gives a forward arrow to life. It can be transformative.

Almost everything in the modern world is here because of curiosity. The greatest human achievements and experiences are driven by people asking questions: how fast can I push myself to run? What would happen if I could I travel on a beam of light? Why must paintings be realistic? Our lives would be unrecognisable without the humans before us pursuing their curiosity with courage and passion. There would be no smartphones or roads, or gin or electric guitars or penicillin… you get the cubist picture.

But context, as ever, is vital. You need to know just a little to start with; we can’t get curious with nothing to chew on. But without curiosity, the facts are dry. We often talk about a thirst for knowledge, but we tend to feed textbooks to our children at school and not a hunger to learn. Your IQ plays a big part in academic success, but increasingly research is finding that your curiosity quotient is just as important too.

It takes work, or ‘grit’, as one curious academic describes it, to cultivate your curiosity and head into the unknown. If we don’t get the quick dopamine hit, the cliff-hanger before the ad break, the immediate answer on Wikipedia, or have enough knowledge already to scaffold our curiosity, we have to fight the rainbow lolcats to remain curious.

Our brains have evolved to resolve their way out of uncertainty as quickly as they can. It doesn’t feel comfortable to not know – it makes you vulnerable if you stop and get curious (is that a lion or a mouse you saw move in the grass)? Dare you ask a question at the office team briefing, to show everyone else what you don’t know? We’re taught that hands go up in class to answer, not to ask. Curiosity requires courage.

And even if you get inspired watching Brian Cox do a mountaintop piece to camera, just as you think you’ve had a flash of understanding, as you try to get to grips with a cosmic new idea, it slips away from your brain like a wet bar of soap. It takes patience to try to grab that idea again and wrestle with it. And honestly, why bother? Brian and a few others have got the big stuff covered. Leave it to them, they get it. Is your deep understanding of the fundamental particles of the universe going to get the kids to school on time or pay next month’s gas bill? No. The trouble with modern life is that, for many of us, curiosity is a luxury we can’t afford.

In the 17th century, wealthy people, mostly men, travelled the world collecting exotic and unusual objects and brought them back to show off to each other in ‘cabinets of curiosity.’  Happily, some more philanthropic types didn’t just want to show off, but to share knowledge and interest and conserve and protect. These early curious collections gave birth to the first public museums as we know them. Tradescant’s Ark opened in Lambeth in 1626, and included, among other wonders, two whale ribs, a mermaid’s head, some crocodile eggs, a natural dragon, a bit of wood from the cross on which Christ was crucified, and a banana.

But with the great museums of the world now open to the public every day, and every type of transient curiosity available on the internet, not to mention most people being in easy reach of a banana, have the digital cats killed off our curious grit and frankly, should we care?

The short answers are “probably”, and “yes”. Here in Bristol, we’re in a city that’s perfectly placed to do something about it. And in our city’s science centre, At-Bristol, an interactive descendant of those early cabinets of curiosity, we’ve been thinking a lot about how we play our part in creating a meaningful culture of curiosity.

Bristol is changing and the wider world has changed too. We live in turbulent times. Locally, nationally and internationally we face problems of equal access to healthcare, education, safe housing. Despite access to more knowledge than any generation before us, we face big unanswered questions. Will we harm the planet beyond repair? Will our energy sources run out? What happens if a superbug takes over?

These are so-called ‘wicked problems’ – issues that are so complex that we’re never likely to straight out solve them, only to mitigate them. So, we need curious people more than ever: people who connect ideas across disciplines and collaborate. Research is beginning to reveal the role that curiosity plays in our learning behaviours and theory of mind. It’s the engine for both artistic and scientific enquiry, the starting point for creativity and innovation. Without these things, we stand still as a society. Curiosity doesn’t kill cats; it gives us nine lives.

Bristol just won another accolade – the UK’s coolest city – to add to the list of titles. ‘Supremely creative’ and full of disruptive innovation is how it is described, and a typically Bristolian characteristic seems to be to kick the status quo. I wonder what lies behind these characteristics. Might it be curiosity?

Our city is home to some of the world’s leading scientists, technologists, artists, creators, producers, visionaries and entrepreneurs, whose fresh ideas and energy positively impact our collective present and futures. This is an agile city, built on the progress of the industrial revolution but adapting to be at the forefront of the digital, knowledge revolution too. We, the curious city of Bristol, could lead the way for a new Age of Curiosity to take flight.

Of course, it’s naive to suggest that if everyone could just be curious, we can solve all social, economic and political problems. It’s not as simple as that.  But what might our destination look like if we enable more people to be part of the conversation, and if we can decide our futures together? What happens when we nurture and cultivate a collective curiosity that empowers everyone? This is not about being anti-expert; if any of us ever need a brain surgeon, or a builder or a therapist we will all want them to be an expert. But it’s time to move away from the sense that progress, science and art is done over there, somewhere we can’t all access.

As Yuval Noah Harari’s luminous book Sapiens so clearly puts forward, the difference between humans and animals is our ability to flexibly co-operate. To step into an uncertain future without leaving anyone behind, we need to lift everyone up to be able to ask questions. Everyone must be empowered to participate in perceiving new futures. This is, in the words of communication theorist Marshall McLuhan, a time for crossing boundaries.

If all this sounds a bit like a call to action, well, it is. In At-Bristol, we want to evolve the traditional role of the science centre beyond just ‘making science accessible to all’. What’s our purpose, now, in this city, at this point in all our stories? It’s a time for opening doors, and starting conversations with as-yet unheard voices.

We’ve got ourselves so curious about curiosity that we’ve been inspired by the brilliant organisations and people already pushing boundaries in Bristol and written a new manifesto for building a new culture of curiosity in the city and beyond. Because we believe a society of question-asking citizens will be a more creative, resilient, compassionately connected place to be.

The beginning of the end of what we know is where curiosity takes us forwards, into great challenges and great adventures. And we’ll be grateful for some cat videos to keep us entertained while the ice caps melt and we’ve run out of petrol to get to the cinema.

There is every value and joy and wonder in being able to transcend and expand our daily lives through entertainment. It allows us to experience more life than we can pack into just our own. It conveys ideas and feelings that connect us. Research shows that reading fiction makes us more empathetic. We are of course, infinitely curious about each other. It’s fundamentally human.

So, let’s combine the best of the digital age, the quick connections, the proximity of ideas, with a cultivation of long-term curiosity that can unlock the potential in all of us.

We are only just at the start of our story of curiosity in At-Bristol, and what we’re most curious about at the moment is you.  How can we satisfy your curiosity or even spark it off? Tell us what you’d like to us to be doing, in our building and around the city. What questions can we pursue together that are relevant to Bristol, questions that will make a difference?

Experimenters, seekers, curious cats – the conversation starts here:

Anna Starkey is creative director of At-Bristol. Overseeing At-Bristol’s learning and exhibitions teams, her role aims to bring science and art closer together.


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