The Hard Way Will Be Easier Later

By Rising McDowell

CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It

Ian Leslie, Basic Books Publishing, $16.99

Have you ever read an interesting article hoping to learn something new, but looked back a week later feeling like you hadn’t absorbed the information? We often read amazing things on the internet but why don’t they stay in our long-term memory?

In Ian Leslie’s “Curious,” Leslie paints a refreshingly approachable and useful picture of the mind that reminds us to be aware of how we interact with the world. We are constantly bombarded by an incredible variety of information, but much of it never ‘sticks.’ As we see in “Curious,” a base of existing knowledge is what gives new information staying power and what ultimately feeds our curiosity.

Leslie covers a lot of ground in 200 pages, touching on how curiosity plays into major arenas like technology, innovation, business, socio-economics, child-rearing and personal life. It seems nearly every page is replete with an illuminating research study, excerpt or anecdote. “Curious” has forever altered how I see things and its implications could not come at a more poignant time. Whether you are a Baby Boomer or a Millennial, there is something valuable to be gleaned here. Indeed, perhaps those who stand to gain the most from “Curious” are Gen Zers who have never known life without smartphones.

It’s become all too easy to forgo learning something because you can just look it up later. But real learning creates an associative network of information into which new facts can settle into place. When they fit into a bigger picture in our long-term memory, instead of being forgotten these facts can become permanently integrated into our foundation of knowledge. We can use them to move on to bigger and better questions. This is why Leslie contends that “anyone who stops learning facts for himself because he can google them later is literally making himself stupid.”

The role of the Internet in our cognition comes up again and again in “Curious,” and while he issues warnings about the web, Leslie does not come off as a mere techno-skeptic. When he calls the Internet “a precision-tooled, hyperlubricated machine for the delivery of answers,” I have to agree. The web never allows our questions to remain unanswered. And precisely because human curiosity depends on the awareness of ‘missing pieces’ and the desire to close information gaps, Leslie asserts that the ease with which we can google the answers to every question is actually stifling our curiosity.

He powerfully counters the argument by “progressive educationalists,” like advocates of the Montessori and Waldorf methods, that schools should focus on fostering children’s curiosity instead of teaching facts. The facts we learn in school aren’t just random bits of information—they create the associative network we need to answer bigger questions without having to first figure out their fundamental principals. The greater our store of existing ideas and reference points, the more we are able to create rich combinations and forge interdisciplinary links that can become the starting points for innovation.

'Anyone who stops learning facts for himself because he can google them later is literally making himself stupid.'

Leslie’s investigation of curiosity is thoughtfully well-rounded, first analyzing curiosity’s workings in infancy before describing its rewards in old-age. In his exploration of early childhood curiosity, Leslie cites developmental psychologist Jean Piaget who proposed that curiosity is stoked when a discrepancy is perceived. Because children are “operating on a few very simple theories about how the world works,” they are constantly faced with situations that do not fit into their theories and are thus always seeking explanations.

This is where we get to the important question of why some kids remain curious through their childhoods while others lose the drive to keep asking questions. Leslie poses that home environment and education account almost entirely for how and why curiosity strengthens or atrophies over time. He refers to multiple studies suggesting that children whose parents return their questions with more questions, probing them to think critically and make associative connections, are much more likely to continue asking questions.

Leslie cleverly points us to another crucial but less obvious part of this dynamic—the learning of question-asking itself. The fact that question-asking is largely learned over time through osmosis is easily taken for granted by those raised in middle and upper class households, but knowing how to ask questions is important, and being able to confidently formulate them is a necessary skill in many social and professional settings. Constant competition means that modern workplaces will always “place a premium” on those who can ask good questions.

In his closing chapter, ‘How to Stay Curious’, Leslie lists 7 ways to foster your curiosity. While I was disappointed to find lengthy anecdotes here instead of more practical suggestions, the abundance of insights presented throughout the book doesn’t leave me short of ideas. I know now that visiting the library instead of doing a google search will more likely result in quality learning. Delaying gratification and allowing my questions to ripen will give me time to contemplate possibilities for myself. Above all, I feel a stronger desire to learn more things, a deeper purpose beneath that, and a drive to broaden my associative network of knowledge.

“Curious” shows us that learning not only embellishes life with detail, color and texture, but the acquisition of a seemingly “unnecessary breadth and depth” of knowledge isn’t so unnecessary after all—it creates the network by which we can more permanently integrate new information into our memory, adapt to a wider variety of environments and situations, and make connections that lead to deeper insight. In the age of digital primacy, perhaps the most important thing we can do to protect our curiosity is to use the Internet not as an end in itself but as a means to truly widening our foundation of knowledge so we can better tackle the things we haven’t yet figured out.

Dig into your own curiosity.

CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It

Ian Leslie, Basic Books Publishing, $16.99