Dealing with Curiosity-Stoppers
Curiosity is a virtue. It promotes epistemic honesty, ignites creativity, and improves both competence and well-being. Multiple posts already discussed different types of curiosity the contrast between signalling curiosity and being curious, the scientific evidence behind curiosity, why curiosity seemed to leave children, even the limits of curiosity.
Yet my own issues with curiosity come not with generating it but with keeping it. Everyday, a myriad of subjects and pieces of content spark the flame of curiosity in me; also everyday, recurring thoughts dampen, or sometimes blow out this flame. I thus need ways to address these thoughts more than techniques to become curious.
What I call curiosity-stoppers—inspired from but slightly different of this post from the Sequences—brings a lot of negative to my life. My difficulties to focus on a specific topic of study stems in part from curiosity-stoppers in the way, which then make almost any other topic seems more interesting by contrast. When curiosity-stoppers proliferate, I cannot find anything I’m happy or interested to do, and I feel completely empty and drained. Even when these thoughts don’t overpower me, they consistently push me to postpone reading, listening, watching or writing content I’m genuinely curious about and which might improve my life and my research.
I intend this post as an exploration of my own curiosity-stoppers, as well as my personal counter-measures to each of them. In contrast with this post, mine isn’t a scientific examination of the question based on an extensive literature. I merely catalog what I found grappling with my own issues with curiosity-stoppers. Since I find it difficult to believe I’m a one-of-a-kind special snowflake, I believe others will share part of my experience. I hope naming and addressing this issue directly will help them deal with it too.
Let’s get down to basics and define the main terms. First is “a discovery”: a moment where I discover some new idea about the world —every time I understand something new. This includes learning a new mathematical definition or theorem, understanding how a system works, or figuring out the meaning behind a text. But also discovering what happens next in the novel I’m reading, finding the right way to write a specific scene in a short story, or learning a small trick about how to prove mathematical inequalities. Note that contrary to the usual meaning of discovery, I don’t need to be the first in the world to find it. As the introduction explained, everything positive and exciting and productive in my life is fueled by discoveries (except maybe social interactions). When I discover something cool, an irrepressible wave of excitement flushes over my body, making me grin and jump up and down, or even roll like a maniac on my bed sometimes. Discoveries make me happy, and almost all my accomplishments included and resulted in such discoveries.
Curiosity is then the gut feeling that a specific activity will yield one or more discoveries. The gut feeling part matters, because the meaning I’m grasping for requires being convinced emotionally that discoveries lie ahead. This corresponds to the active curiosity of this post Why is it that important? When I’m curious, extracting the discoveries push me to spend energy and effort. Such tradeoffs always feel worth it, if only because discoveries energize me.
You now have all the pieces to get the meaning of curiosity-stopper: a reaction preventing curiosity for a specific thing, be it a whole field or a concrete object like an article, a book, a video. Curiosity-stopper don’t necessarily hinder the purely intellectual curiosity—“Oh, this looks cool” -- but the gut feeling curiosity. If I find something abstractly interesting but cannot convince myself that it will actually yield discoveries, then I’m in the throw of a curiosity-stopper. This disconnect between my gut feeling and what I want is why curiosity-stoppers are my bane, and why the rest of this post address how I deal with them.
But just before that, I can now explain the link between my definition and Yudkowsky’s in Science as Curiosity-Stopper In this post, Yudkowsky explains how the word “Science” act as a curiosity-stopper for some people: when someone invokes it as an explanation, no need is left to understand how the thing works—someone else already knows. What Yudkowsky argues against is the feeling that someone already knowing something devaluates it. This is not what I’m talking about. I might have used “Science” as a curiosity-stopper in this sense, but only to excuse my lack of interest. Whereas my own use of curiosity-stopper assumes that I care about the subject, but for some reason (the curiosity-stopper), I fail to convince myself that discoveries lie ahead.
The following curiosity-stoppers plague me regularly. I attempt to describe them as explicitly as possible, so you can spot them in your own experience. When I can, I give a concrete example. I also propose my counter-measure for this specific curiosity-stopper.
A note before we start: In real-life situations, multiple curiosity-stoppers usually band together. Which means that one needs to disentangle them before applying the analysis and the counter-measures.
My most common curiosity-stoppers is the excuse of tiredness. Again and again, when I want to read a blog post, study a topic, write, I feel in response this sense of exhaustion. Rephrasing it through discoveries, I feel that I’m not in the right state to find the discoveries in the topic, and thus my curiosity falters. Yet most of the times the activity itself usually energize myself, if I actually do it. I even tend to finish feeling more alive than when I started, thanks to all the discoveries along the way.
As a concrete example, consider reading a blog post. It might be LW or AF posts, SSC or gwern, or any other cool post on the internet I’ve found. Reading such post doesn’t fall under my mandatory daily habits (read 1 page of fiction, 1 page of non-fiction and 1 page of poetry) and rarely crop up in my research work; it’s thus a thing I do on the side, when I have some time. But when I do find the time, I feel too tired to read something complex. I push back to another time, when I’ll be less tired. Yet I’m rarely not tired in this sense, as this tiredness often comes more from a lack of discoveries than from my physical state.
Here the strategy is obvious: force myself. More concretely, I have a TAP such that when I feel the excuse of tiredness, I need to push myself to do the thing for at least 5 minutes. By that point, I’ll usually have encountered at least one small discovery, and sure of my ability to find more, my curiosity will be back. In the rare case where I cannot stand even 5 minutes, I’m either exhausted or reading a very boring thing. Both cases imply that I should stop.
Not Enough Time
Regularly, I’ll find myself with a slot of 10, 15, 30 minutes maybe, without obligations. These intervals lend themselves perfectly to reading a bit about a cool topic, toying with a research question, or writing a couple paragraphs of fiction or non-fiction.
Except that more often than not, I find myself scrolling on my phone or roaming aimlessly in my apartment. Tiredness plays a role, as do other curiosity-stoppers I’ll get into later; but the main offender seems to be another curiosity-stopper: the thought that I don’t have enough time to extract discoveries from the activity. I might tell myself that the activity requires more than my interval to generate discovery. Or I might tell myself that starting the activity without finishing it or without investing a decent chunk of time will be detrimental to either the quantity or quality of discoveries.
Both of which don’t hold to scrutiny.
Writing falls into the first kind of rationalization. For whatever reason, I believe I need a massive chunk of time to get my brain into writing gear. Which is definitely false, because I’m writing this specific section in a 20 minutes interval and I’m doing fine. This belief might stem from advice against switching tasks and contexts too often. But in this case, I’m not switching context away from what I need to do, I’m just using a chunk of unclaimed time as best as I can.
For the second kind of rationalization, my best example is reading. When reading something, part of me think I should either read it all in one sitting (if it’s short enough), or at least reach the end of a natural unit (like a chapter). Failing to do so would… lower the values of the discoveries? As if most of this value came from the experience itself, and thus this experience should happen under the best circumstances. Yet the alternative to reading in short burst isn’t taking hours to read, but reading rarely, if not at all. So even if there is a devaluation of discoveries (of which I’m unconvinced), reading that is still worth it.
The prescription for this curiosity-stopper is the same one than for Fatigue: forcing myself. When I push myself and do it anyway, the fear of not having enough time morphs into an effort to extract the best of what little time I have. That’s a better mindset.
Whenever I look into some topic I know even slightly, a little voice inside my head tells me: “You already know what’s in there: no discoveries”. In my defense, I am good at extracting the main ideas from a blog post, a story, a book. But deep understanding of a research paper requires more than getting the gist; deep understanding of a piece of writing requires more than getting the emotions and ideas. And the worst part is that discoveries do lie in these details. It’s just that my curiosity-stopper gets in the way.
Maths is a perfect example. I’ve been trying to study Real Analysis for some time. Now, I already studied Real Analysis quite deeply in what we call Classes Préparatoires in France, a two-year intensive science program with 12-hours of maths a week. But that was 6 years ago; and even at that time, I preferred Algebra to Analysis. So when I look into more advanced stuff like Measure Theory, I end up having some trouble, even if a lot of the prerequisites feel familiar. I just need to brush up my Real Analysis, right? But every time I go grab my textbook (which I enjoy reading, by the way), I feel that it’s pointless. After all, I already know analysis, don’t I?
I do. Enough to feel that I know it, but not enough to accomplish my objectives. A dangerous spot. Dangerous enough to warrant a warning in the twelve virtues of rationality:
If in your heart you believe you already know, or if in your heart you do not wish to know, then your questioning will be purposeless and your skills without direction.
My solution requires slightly more work than the previous ones: explain the topic to myself. If I already know it, then I should be able to explain it clearly and in details. Trying to do this usually reveals questions I don’t know, holes in my understanding and things I become curious about. Most of the times, I don’t berate myself for my failings; instead I want to find out the missing piece of my knowledge. I want to fill the holes I just revealed.
This idea comes from the Feynman method, which makes you explain a topic to yourself to reveal what you’re missing to to really master it. It works great for the original purpose, but I also find it useful to rekindle the flame of my curiosity.
Sometimes, everything in my life feels drab. Not only what I do and my prospects, but even what I read and watch. When that happens, I’m usually falling for the curiosity stopper “Not Interesting”. It’s a mindset thing, because given the right spin, any topic can be really interesting—i.e. generate discoveries. But when this curiosity-stopper rears its head, nothing looks worthwhile.
Because this one doesn’t need examples, let’s get right to the solution: remember why I considered it interesting in the first place. I maintain a collection of pieces that I want to read, videos I want to watch, and other kind of things I’m curious about. When I add something to this collection, it’s because it excited my curiosity in one way or the other; I sensed some cool discovery along the way. So pushing myself to remember this feeling, to recall why I was excited, usually gives enough of a twist to my perspective to actually do the thing and enjoy it.
The natural dual to “Not Interesting” is “Not Useful”. I want to change the world for the better, and make something out of my life; so I care deeply about how useful my actions are. That’s usually a good thing. But in some contexts, this attitude becomes a curiosity-stopper. The issue and solution differs depending on whether I’m in a “useful phase” or in a “relaxing phase”.
In a “useful phase”, I’m actually trying to do the most good with my time. Yet most of the times, questioning the usefulness of an action I chose beforehand (like studying Real Analysis) usually only serves to delay over and over this action, replacing it by the excruciating reflection of whether it is really useful or the most useful or high-priority. These questions have their purpose, but they must be asked when new information appears, not at every task switch.
In a “relaxing phase”, I just want to enjoy my time. Thus usefulness is irrelevant. If I’m looking for something to read while I eat, reading anything that makes me curious should be enough.
Following this split, I have two distinct strategies to deal with this specific curiosity-stopper: remember why I found it useful and remember I’m not trying to do something useful at the moment. These are pretty self-explanatory.
Fear of Pain
Lastly, sometimes my curiosity-stopper comes from the nature of what I’m about to experience. I don’t like felling bad, or distressed, or in pain. So when I see a post about distressful things from the real world, or when I consider reading a sad or grim or plain horror novel, or even when I’m trying to grapple with complex and difficult issues, I might back away. My curiosity, my need to understand, to discover what it means, to experience it, is subdued by this fear of the negative emotion.
Fleeing from public debates which depress me is a good example: I so rarely try to learn more about climate change or racism, even when I am curious and recognize the importance to deal with it. But this looming distress, this risk of pain, makes me feel in my guts that there’s nothing interesting here, even though I disagree intellectually. This is also a big curiosity-stopper against epistemic honesty: not wanting to learn that you’re wrong, because it hurts.
My “solutions” to this feel less than satisfactory: remember that you don’t have to act on what you read, and remember that negative emotions underlie many of the most important part of human existence. The second one might be cliche, but it rings true to me, and that’s what it’s here for. The first one feels… cowardly. Of course I should act. Of course I should do whatever I can to help those in need and fight injustices. But the truth is, with this mind set, I either don’t read anything on the subject, or spend all of my time “fighting injustices directly” by screaming on social media. I believe (and it might be my cowardly rationalization) that I can bring more to the world by doing the work I’m doing right now. But I also believe that I should not stay deaf to the Dark World. That’s my compromise.
In this post, I listed and explained the curiosity-stoppers in my life, and proposed my counter-measures for each. Here is a summary of this.
Curiosity-Stopper: “I am too tired to do this.”
Solution: Force myself for 5 minutes.
Not Enough Time
Curiosity-Stopper: “I don’t have enough time to do this properly.”
Solution: Force myself.
Curiosity-Stopper: “I already know the important parts of this.”
Solution: Explain the topic to myself.
Curiosity-Stopper: “This is boring.”
Solution: Remember why it excited me.
Curiosity-Stopper: “This is useless”.
Solution: Remember why I found it useful or Remember I’m not trying to do something useful right now.
Fear of Pain
Curiosity-Stopper: “This will hurt me.”
Solution: Tell myself I don’t have to act on it and Remember that negative emotions underlie much of value.
Among the curiosity-stoppers described above, not all impact me at the same scale. I would say that Fatigue, Not Enough Time and Not Interesting are the most frequent. Already Know is definitely rarer, but it causes more problems for my more serious endeavors like learning maths.
I want to conclude by telling a little story. All my life, people have called me lazy. I tended to agree grudgingly, because I created neither in quantity nor in quality. But that tag, “lazy”, never fitted with my constant efforts to find my passion, to try new things and build stuff, to use each of my holidays as free time to launch projects. I know think curiosity-stoppers are partly to blame for that discrepancy. Because when my curiosity stops for a subject, another takes its place. This results in field hopping like a rabbit on crack, and nothing to show at the end of the road.
Maybe your own frustration with your learning, your productivity, your failings to follow-up on what excited you, maybe they also stem from curiosity-stoppers. And maybe now you know The Enemy, and have a chance to fight back.
Thanks to Alexis Carlier and Jérémy Perret for feedback on this post.