Active Curiosity vs Open Curiosity

I think the word ‘curiosity’ is used to describe two distinct things that I will now differentiate as active curiosity and open curiosity.

Active curiosity is driven & purposeful. Like thirst, it seeks to be quenched.

When you see a blurry object among distant waves and it looks like it might be a humpback whale, and you want to know.

When you are asked a trivia question like, “How many people have seen the broadway show Hamilton more than once?” or “What’s the life expectancy of people my age in the US, in 2019?” And you find yourself wanting to go to Google.

When you watch a YouTube video of someone doing something crazy, and you’re like, How did they DO that?

When you hear someone mention your name from across the room, and you become anxious to know what they’re saying about you.

Active curiosity activates the part of your brain that anticipates a reward, and it can enhance learning, making it easier to remember surprising results. [1, 2]


There’s another kind of curiosity that is often referred to by therapy books and practitioners. It is phenomenologically different, and it seems good to be able to distinguish the two types.

This type of curiosity, which I’ll refer to as open curiosity, is best achieved when you feel safe, relaxed, and peaceful. In my experience, it basically requires parasympathetic nervous system activation.

I’m aware of at least one person who can’t recall experiencing this type of curiosity. So I don’t expect this to be a common or universal experience, but I think it’s achievable by all human minds in theory.

This type of curiosity isn’t very driven. It doesn’t need satisfaction or answers. It is open to any possibility and can look without judgment, evaluation, worry, or anxiety.

It is evoked by the Litany of Gendlin and the Litany of Tarski. It is related to original seeing /​ boggling /​ seeing with fresh eyes.

When I have open curiosity, I do have things I’m curious about! So it isn’t a totally passive experience. I often use open curiosity to get curious about myself or another person. It’s a very useful state for doing therapy-related work, as all emotions and thoughts feel acceptable and manageable, rather than overwhelming or undesirable.

Perhaps strangely, this type of curiosity is open to knowing, in addition to not knowing. It is open to understanding, in addition to not understanding. It doesn’t need to know or understand things, and as such, you can sit with confusing, upsetting, or vague things. And you can just ask questions about them, with an open mind, ready for whatever response or reaction comes. If no answer comes, it doesn’t feel like a problem. You can just ask another question.

I don’t recommend using open curiosity to study for your exams or read Superintelligence or learn how to make things. It’s not good for downloading lots of new information or developing a skill. Active curiosity is what you want for that.

I do recommend it for the following:

  • Introspection

  • Holding space for a friend who’s upset /​ has a lot of feelings

  • Trying to resolve a heated conflict that you’re involved in or mediating

  • Understanding how you relate to things like death, insanity, suffering

  • Creating an intimate moment with someone

  • Watching weird, surreal, artsy movies

  • Being in nature or somewhere very unfamiliar

  • Circling, meditating, therapy, IDC, etc.

  • Gaining insight into the universe, yourself, etc.

When I try to use active curiosity to understand how a person’s mind works, they often feel examined under a microscope, like they’re an experiment on my surgical table. When I try to use active curiosity to watch an artsy movie, I feel frustrated that it doesn’t make any sense. When I try to use active curiosity when my friend is upset about something, they feel unheard and like I’m just trying to fix their problem to make it go away; I also tend to ask unhelpful questions (more selfish interest in understanding the situation /​ update my opinions than trying to help them).


Now that I’ve described these two types: Do they resonate with you at all? Do you basically know what I’m talking about, and it’s crystal clear? Or does this seem confusing and alien? I find it quite easy to distinguish the two in myself, and I wonder if others feel the same.

( It also seems very plausible this distinction is already covered in research literature or even on LessWrong, and I just didn’t look very hard! References welcome. )

I would like to start using these terms to be less vague when I talk about “curiosity.”

I notice I try to talk to certain people based on which type of curiosity I expect from them. Sometimes, I want active curiosity, like when I’m trying to think through a concrete problem or I want their opinion or advice. Other times, I want open curiosity, like when I’m having emotions, going through a confusing situation, or want to feel heard or accepted.

I have a list of people I can rely on for active curiosity; and a separate list of people I can rely on for open curiosity. (These lists don’t really overlap?)

But I haven’t really tried to just ASK for one type or another from someone.

Now that I’ve named the types, maybe it will be easier to refer to which one I’m wanting, and people can help by saying which one they can potentially offer.

( For the record, if you want open curiosity from me, this is something I can usually switch on, especially on a good day. If you want active curiosity, it depends more on the topic of the conversation and on the object-level details, so you may want to tell me what the subject matter is first. )

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