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July, 2017

A Sense of Curiosity

by Valerie

As biological entities, we are equipped to survive in the physical world surrounding us. This generally means that we must gather information about our environment in order to adjust our behaviors for keeping our bodies safe and healthy. If food tastes or smells sour, we reject it. A finger placed on a hot surface is quickly withdrawn. The sound of nearby thunder alerts us to the danger of lightning, and nobody in his or her right mind would casually step off a 10-foot high retaining wall. Our five physical senses help us make choices about our actions, determine our preferences, and usually protect us from harm. We place so much emphasis on the interface between us and everything else that we tend to use the word "sense" in a large number of related contexts. Common sense, a sense of self, sixth sense, a sense of wonder and even nonsense are all familiar colloquialisms for specific ways in which we interact with our decidedly sensual world.

Humans evolved outdoors. There were no cities, buildings or even houses until quite recently in our species' history. A cave might serve as shelter from outside dangers, but it was probably never a truly attractive place where people would choose to spend more than the necessary amount of time. Just the fact that caves are dark and we cannot see without light makes them less desirable than being out in the sunny landscape.

But somewhere along the line, our ancestors managed to improve their security by distancing themselves from the rest of the environment. They created not only simple shelters, but all sorts of structures to provide entire artificial ecosystems that are as unlike our natural surroundings as possible. There is a trend encouraged by our species' advances in technology, urbanization and information overload: people more often than ever before choose to either observe or ignore the natural world around them. As I spend time with different groups of people, those who are interested in environmental or scientific pursuits and those involved in the arts or other anthropocentric fields, the gap in how each perceives the world around them is striking.

An unsolved riddle; best guess is some sort of insect cocoons or pupariums. Even the ant seems curious about them.

It's a given that we all must learn to deal with the relatively unnatural aspects of our civilization. We interact with machines and other manmade objects on such a regular basis that it has become second nature (pun intended). Our fundamental biological needs are met by way of utilizing such artificial constructs as electricity, money, plumbing and the wheel. There was a time when the average person could understand any tool or contraption encountered. It probably didn't take a lot of explanation to grasp the purpose and implementation of a stone spear point or a gourd used to hold water. Wedges, needles, axes, pulleys and even gears won't bewilder even the most spatially challenged individuals. But things change. Progress in our industrial age has meant complication multiplied exponentially. Almost anyone can construct and use an abacus, but practically nobody can build a pocket calculator from scratch. Many tools we use now are so complex that questioning how they work would be an exercise in futility; we just use them. And sometimes "just using" is difficult enough. A case in point: there are people who choose not to own a computer, play a musical instrument, or drive a car.

So, if we are inured to having so many complicated things around us that we just accept the myriad aspects which we don't really understand, do we have to turn off our sense of curiosity? It is certainly engaging enough to spend most waking hours just using our various toys and tools, communicating with each other through short phrases and snapshots, and partaking of all the synthetic conveniences we've surrounded ourselves with. The comment I made earlier about different circles of acquaintances having varied outlooks seems to also include the degree of curiosity they exhibit.

People continue to learn throughout their lives. Some do it more than others. It can be as simple as adapting to new circumstances or unexpected events, or as involved as purposefully exploring a new field beyond our current areas of expertise. Curiosity-driven learning starts with questions and the desire for answers. It continues with persistence, even when the answers are not easily realized or understood. It ends, well, maybe never. This kind of learning is not for everyone, as it involves hard work. It can be quite frustrating to research something, then come up with dead ends, ambiguous possible solutions, or outright contradictions. Only the passion of true curiosity can sustain the kind of intense examination necessary to answer difficult or confusing issues, or to understand the mechanisms behind complex systems, both natural and artificial. For many people, a superficial explanation, even if it is not necessarily a reflection of fact, is better than taking the time to delve deeper. Critical thinking is not easy, but with resources like email connections to experts, the sharing of observations and insights with other people and the Google accessible WWW reference library, nobody has to go it alone.

I'm particularly drawn to the natural world and find that the study of animals, plants and ecology offers plenty of grist for my curiosity mill. With almost every outing I discover a constant supply of enigmas that are either new to me or help provide another tiny piece to the environmental system that I am puzzling out. I frequently observe phenomena that don't fit my preconceived notions, but only by reviewing even widely held ideas and holding them up to scrutiny against actual observed facts will I gain a better understanding of how our environment here on Planet Earth works.

As with our basic five physical senses, curiosity is a tool that we use to examine our world and, upon doing so, hopefully informing the decisions we make to better our lives and those of the people and other creatures around us.

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