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. )