Are you a busy person, a hunter or a dancer? A new book on curiosity reveals it all (2023)

IIn the early 17th century in a house in Copenhagen there was a room with hundreds of objects: bones and shells and migratory birds, not to mention weapons and stones and a stuffed polar bear hanging from the ceiling. That was itWormianum-Museum, collected and edited by the Danish physician and philosopher Olaus Wormius, or rather Ole Worm. Four hundred years later, this basic cabinet of curiosities still inspires philosophy professor Perry Zurn and bioengineering professor Dani S. Bassett, identical twins. What caused Worm to rally? What electrical signals were fired in his brain? How would the Enlightenment eccentric have behaved and had access to Wikipedia?

These are questions posed in Zurn and Bassett's recent work:Curious Minds: The Power of Connection, in which they explore the neurological, historical, philosophical, and linguistic foundations of curiosity. What exactly is curiosity? Where does it come from and how does it work? In a manuscript full of questions, scientists examine everything from Plutarch to Google's algorithms, arguing that curiosity is connected. "It works by connecting ideas, events, perceptions, sensations and data points," they write in the book. "However, it also works within the human webs of friendship, society and culture."

It all probably started with her grandmother, a modern Ole Worm. Bassett describes her as a "super collector" - she had a basement and a crawl space full of antique paraphernalia, including chairs, books, crystal glasses, silverware, paintings and buttons. "I remember Dani and I crawled in on our hands and knees and got lost in these mazes full of mazes made of old stuff," says Zurn -- at one point Bassett burst into tears when they realized they couldn't remember how to get out again. The twins say this unofficial cabinet of curiosities influenced their young spirit. "Time and history become so real when you're four years old and you see something that's really, really old," says Zurn.

Neither Zurn nor Bassett are technically historians, but you wouldn't tell that from reading their book. The former researches political philosophy at the American University of Washington, while the latter is a professor of physics, astronomy, engineering, and neurologyAndPsychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Still,Strange Headsis full of historical facts, such as Roman essayist Plutarch's antidotes to the "disease" of curiosity (keep your letters open, don't have sex with your wife, avoid exciting background noises!)

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In fact, the book is extremely multidisciplinary - where else could you read 25 pages on the brain's motivational circuitry before delving into the work of Japanese poet Naoki Higashida? Like the twins' interest in Ole Worm, the book's interdisciplinary approach was also based on their childhood.

"We were homeschooled in a way that allowed a lot of flexibility in what we could learn," says Zurn — growing up with nine siblings in rural Pennsylvania, the twins had "unlimited freedom" with their reading. They also learned a lot of practical things outdoors. "And yet at the same time," adds Bassett, "there were strict limitations on who we were allowed to be socially and how far learning could go."

Are you a busy person, a hunter or a dancer? A new book on curiosity reveals it all (1)

The twins' parents believed that men should go to college and pursue careers, while women should get married and "serve and obey" their husbands. Bassett and Zurn were identified as female at birth - the twins now use the pronouns "yy/them" and "he/him" respectively.

“School was really my heartbeat. And for as long as I can remember, I've known that this had to be a part of my life," says Zurn. "I remember being incredibly disappointed and disappointed when we were faced with the expectation that we would not continue in academia."


Luckily, the seeds that had been sown could not be uprooted: the twins' home schooling made them curious about everything, and as they devoted themselves to science, they became curious about curiosity itself we would ever get the chance to write a book together because our fields were so different," Bassett says — but back then, as a graduate student, Zurn was studying the philosophy of curiosity. while Bassett was studying the neuroscience of learning. "And then we got talking. That conversation led to seven years of collaborative research,” says Bassett. "This book is the culmination of that."

How exactly do philosophy and neuroscience complement each other? It all begins with the book's first and deceptively simplest question: what is curiosity? "Many researchers in science have pointed out that the field may not even be ready to define curiosity and how it differs from other cognitive processes," says Bassett. The ambiguities in the neuroscience literature prompted Bassett to turn to philosophy, "where there's really rich historical definitions, styles, and subtypes that we can then bring back to neuroscience and ask, 'Can we see these in the brain?'"

Regardless of whether we are discussing neuroscience or philosophy,Strange Headsreinforces the idea that curiosity is networked—“Knowledge is a network, and curiosity is the growth principle of that network,” the twins write in the book's introduction. "Being curious means connecting ideas and people and building knowledge together," explains Zurn. But are he and his twin particularly interested in this theory precisely because they are twins who are bonded at birth and have been together ever since?

"Oh yes, yes," says Zurn. "It's fascinating that we have two independent bodies and two independent minds, but at the same time, together, we constantly develop our knowledge of our worlds." He adds that this didn't lead the twins to their interconnected notion of curiosity, "but ever the more we develop this connectionist theory of curiosity, the more resonance it will have.”

Are you a busy person, a hunter or a dancer? A new book on curiosity reveals it all (2)
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How exactly do twins from different backgrounds (let alone different cities) write a book together?Strange HeadsIt took six years, and Zurn and Bassett wrote it at different times, usually whenever one of them was on leave. "The number of emails I get from Dani saying, 'Check out this quote from this book' and 'Check out this article' is just an avalanche," laughs Zurn. The twins surprised their publishers when they said they wanted to include hand-drawn diagrams in the book to illustrate the theories - they wanted the reader to feel like they were sitting in a café with them, chatting and watching them sketch ideas on napkins .

"The editors thought it was a bit odd at first," says Bassett -- but when they were shown examples, they were hooked on the idea. A drawing in the book shows two smiling faces looking at a screen that says "Wikipedia." The backs of their heads are missing, replaced by a series of connected lines and dots to illustrate how different people connect different areas of knowledge. For example, when you click through the online encyclopedia, do you surf to closely related sites, or somehow jump from "Cream Cracker" to "List of Entertainment Affected by the 9/11 Attacks"?

Depending on how you answer, you might be a busy person, a hunter, or a dancer. An interesting theory inStrange Headsargues that three basic ways of exercising curiosity correspond to three archetypes. Busy people make it their job to know everything and everything – they want to learn as much as possible and fly like a butterfly from topic to topic. The hunter, on the other hand, has a pronounced curiosity and, like a hunting dog, is tirelessly in search of new discoveries. The dancer leaps through knowledge creatively, relying on his imagination to do so.

Zurn developed these archetypes by looking back at the history of Western intellectual thought. He read countless descriptions of curiosity in historical texts and found that busybodies, hunters, and dancers were "words, terms, and concepts that kept cropping up." Zurn says he's "pretty sure" these aren't the only oddity archetypes, but "it's a good start."

Bassett says that at certain times they feel more like one archetype than another. When they read for personal pleasure, they are busy: "I am very curious about many different areas and I read very selectively." When they do research, they are more like hunters: "I wake up and want to know the answer, and I search harder and dig deeper.” Zurn agrees – at different times in our lives, even in our day, we can embody these different archetypes.

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Are you a busy person, a hunter or a dancer? A new book on curiosity reveals it all (3)

Okay, sure, okay - but here's a question that might suddenly pop into your head: What's the point? What does understanding the archetypes of curiosity really do us - how to apply this knowledge? As interdisciplinary scholars, Bassett and Zurn both argue that education should be "de-disciplined," meaning students should be encouraged to move between fields. Questioning the way curricula and norms of knowledge are decided, the twins refer to 20th-century educational reformer Abraham Flexner, who advocated "the utility of useless knowledge." Flexner challenged narrow-minded approaches that forced academics to answer utilitarian questions rather than venture into uncharted territory.

"It's really important to be open to how the mind can move," says Bassett.Strange HeadsIt's also deeply about whose curiosity is encouraged and whose is controlled - the twins deal with marginalization, power and privilege throughout the book. A fascinating passage states that not everyone is famed for the same qualities as Leonardo da Vinci, who spent his days "compulsively taking notes and sketching" and traveling between math, science, technology, music and art.

"The ability to think outside of established frames of knowledge can be grossly underestimated, depending on who you are and where your curiosity takes you," the twins write, before citing the native botanist's work.Robin Wall Kimmerer, disability theorist Alison Kafer, feminist Gloria Anzaldúa and Native American philosopher Shay Welch, all of whom experienced rejection from academic advisors early in their careers.

“These women, who are now cornerstones of their subfields, disciplines, or founders of new fields, followed their curiosity, rooted themselves in themselves and their communities, and yet said no,” the twins write. "Luckily they weren't listening."

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Zurn and Bassett weren't listening either – escaping the narrow confines of expectation and embarking on a meandering half-decade journey through the science and philosophy of curiosity. "It's not so much 'Here are all the answers,'" Zurn says of the book, "and more of an invitation for the reader to join us on the journey."

  • Curious Minds: The Power of Connectionby Perry Zurn and Dani S Bassett is published by MIT Press (£22.50). In support ofGuardianAndobserver, order your copy Shipping costs may apply


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