Related to: Rationalization, Meditation on curiosity, Original Seeing.

Why aren’t you learning faster?

For me, one answer is: because I’m not asking questions.  I blunder through conversations trying to “do my job”, or to look good, or elaborating my own theories, or allowing cached replies to come out of my mouth on autopilot.  I blunder through readings, scanning my eyes over the words and letting thoughts strike me as they may.  Rarely am I pulled by a specific desire to know.

And most of my learning happens at those rare times.

How about you?  When you read, how often do you chase something?  When you chat with your friends -- are you curious about how they’re doing, why their mouth twitched as they said that, or why exactly they disagree with you about X?  When you sit down to write, or to do research -- are you asking yourself specific questions, and then answering them?

Are there certain situations in which you get most of your useful ideas -- situations you could put yourself in more often?

Lately, when I notice that I’m not curious about anything, I’ve been trying to interrupt whatever I’m doing.  If I’m in a conversation, and neither I nor my interlocutor is trying to figure something out, I call a mini “halt, melt, and catch fire” (inside my head, at least), and ask myself what I want.  Surely not stale conversations.  If I’m writing, and I don’t like the sentence I just wrote -- instead of reshuffling the words in the hopes that the new version will just happen to be better, I ask myself what I don’t like about it.  

Thus, for the past six months, several times a day, I've interrupted my thoughts and put them back on an “ask questions” track.  (“Grrr, he said my argument was dishonest... Wait, is he right?  What should it look like if he is?”; “I notice I feel hopeless about this paper writing.  Maybe there’s something I should do differently?”)  It's helping.  I'm building the habit of interrupting myself when I'm "thinking" without trying to find something out, or taking actions that I expect won't accomplish anything.  As a human,  I’m probably stuck running on habits -- but I can at least change *which* habits I run on.

When are you in the habit of asking questions?  Would you learn more if you habitually asked other questions, too?  Which ones?
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61 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:28 PM

I just asked someone for constructive criticism and was told my article lacks a point.

Here’s the point I had in mind:

Consider training your brain to scream “Error! Look for a different way to do this” whenever you’re having a conversation, writing an essay, reading a book, cooking a meal, or mentally rehearsing your views about (the Singularity / why so-and-so’s wrong / whatever)... without being curious about something.

For me, gaining this habit even partially has boosted my learning and my productivity -- maybe more than any other rationality learning I’ve managed in the last year.

“Make sure you’re actually aiming for something” is one of those pieces of rationality advice that’s so obvious, one might think it doesn’t need stating. But for me, at least, implementing this wasn’t automatic at all. So, if you’re like me, consider practicing this habit. It might make your life a lot better.

I don't understand why you say "without being curious about something" instead of more generally "without having a goal to achieve". It seems to me that the goal of learning some specific thing is just one sort of goal that one might be trying to achieve. And even then, when pursuing your curiosity, you might want to ask your self, what goal will this knowledge help me to achieve.

You (and Nesov) may be correct that I should instead say "without having a goal to achieve".

The reason I didn't (though I considered it) was that:

  1. “Am I engaged, interested, and updating?” is an easier thing for me to check for than “do I have (either a learning or an accomplishment) purpose in mind?”.

  2. Personally, I find I can believe I have a purpose while doing a lot of inefficient busy-work. And I find that if I make sure I’m curious -- curious about how to achieve my goal, which of my efforts are/aren’t helping, etc. -- I often notice short-cuts or task substitutions that accomplish more, faster.

However, 1 and 2 may both just indicate that I should learn, better, what purpose feels like. Anyone have any tips for noticing purpose and lost purpose, along the lines of Johnicholas and Theotherdave’s list of what stupidity feels like?

A worthwhile goal is one that either you reflectively endorse as a terminal value, or a subgoal of a worthwhile goal.

It may not be practical to always trace your goals back to a terminal value, so heuristics such as checking for curiosity may useful, with the usual caveat that they will be less accurate than checking the hard way. I wonder if this heuristic works well for you because you are intuitively good at being curious about things worth knowing, so asking if you are curious taps into this intuitive strength.

Personally, I find I can believe I have a purpose while doing a lot of inefficient busy-work.

One technique that comes from my experience in computer science/software engineering, is to be aware of the resource requirements for solving the problem you are working on, where resource usually refers to time. For problems that seem to have large requirements, ask is there an approach with smaller resource requirements, or is there some reason it has to be that way? If you find a better approach take it, if it has to be that way, do it the hard way. If you find yourself getting stuck on these questions after putting in an appropriate amount of effort, this technique is not helping, revert to doing it the hard way. But the key here is to be aware of your requirements so you know to ask if they could be better.

I don't think that framing this specifically in terms of curiosity is a good idea, as distinct from just detecting useless activity (i.e. lost purposes). Same thing as what JGWeissman said.

For example, when applied to my revisiting of basics of mathematics/logic over the last year or so, it could well give a false positive, since I wasn't particularly curious about any tool/idea I was learning, and I was not trying to solve any particular problem that better knowledge of math would help me with. The goal was simply to obtain better skills, so that thinking about decision theory can become more clear/fruitful, in whatever ways.

I (also?) disagree with the criticism. Your article immediately made sense to me. It's a valuable reminder (increase the frequency with which you think and act purposefully), and a suggestion for a valuable habit that can serve to do so.

What are you looking for when you ask people for "constructive criticism"?

Explanations of why pieces I've written are boring or unclear, or any other thoughts on how I might write better. I'd appreciate more such criticism, if you have some to share.

When you chat with your friends -- are you curious about how they’re doing, why their mouth twitched as they said that, or why exactly they disagree with you about X?

I have found, to my frustration, that usually when people ask questions in casual conversation, they aren't really interested in an answer. Often I will consider how to approach answering a question, start verbalizing my first approximation/guess, and notice that everyone else has hit the ignore button and the conversation has moved on.

I have found, to my frustration, that usually when people ask questions in casual conversation, they aren't really interested in an answer.

Yes; often the point of conversation isn't so much the literal meaning of the sentences, but the primate social signals that are exchanged. One can be curious about those, though.

The important thing is missing.

You see, when people are asking these simple-minded questions, they are not looking for the typical answer "I'm fine, thanks" or "Everything as usual" what they want is to trigger the memory button you have so that you will say "Did you know John and Lilly hooked up last night?" or " Jeena had a baby" or "Scott got the job of his dreams" or "Julian and I broke up"

They are looking for information that will give them grand-grand-grand-sons...... even if they must ask 50 times for every time you actually have something awesome to say!

That is why a simple facial or bodily cue is enough for them to know that it is time to push the ignore button.


You see, when people are asking these simple-minded questions, they are not looking for the typical answer "I'm fine, thanks" or "Everything as usual" what they want is to trigger the memory button you have so that you will say "Did you know John and Lilly hooked up last night?" or " Jeena had a baby" or "Scott got the job of his dreams" or "Julian and I broke up"

I did lots of social experimentation and considered myself well socialized. But I just can't believe I've never realized this on a conscious level. I've been systematically studying social interactions for years now yet every now and then another little insight like this strikes me. How much more stuff like this is waiting for me out there?

My experience has been similar, and I'll also add on a related note that probably one big reason why I'm not better at casual conversation is that if I'm not genuinely curious about the answer to a question I'm asking, I often won't have anything interesting to say as a followup to whatever answer I get (e.g. maybe I'll ask "So, where are you from?" or "What school do you go to?", and they'll answer, and then I'll say, "...Ah, um, okay" and not have anything else to say). It seems to me that a lot of advice on conversation (of the type prepared for people with Asperger's syndrome, or social anxiety, or general awkwardness) teaches mostly superficial aspects of conversation, and I suspect that there's a deeper art to it that can't be conveyed so easily. Probably the best way to develop such a sense is to be the sort of person who is naturally actually curious about other people, but for those of us to whom social curiosity doesn't come so naturally, learning to fake it well probably requires a much deeper understanding than can be attained by memorizing standard small-talk questions and such. I expect it's possible to learn to successfully simulate social curiosity, but not if one only understands it at that superficial level.

I expect it's possible to learn to successfully simulate social curiosity, but not if one only understands it at that superficial level.

Rather than simulating social curiosity, have you considered trying to develop such curiosity? For example, you might right now pick a social situation that's coming up in the next few days, and set a five minute timer, and, during the next five minutes, write down as many questions as you can about one of the people who will be there. ("How is X's job going? Why does he tell those stories -- is it because he feels good about himself when people laugh? Because he feels awkward and doesn't know what else to say? Simple habit? ....")

Good advice.

Definitely should be carefully applied by those listed in the previous comment... after all, you don't want to go to the complete opposite and turn into an obsessive, grilling another person about their private life.

I tend to find people don't like that any more than no interest at all. :)

I've been able to turn non-social curiosity into good social interaction. Dale Carnegie says that if you want to be a good conversationalist...if you want people to like you... you need to talk about what the other person wants to talk about. And often the other person wants to talk about themselves, if only for a second. But, what happens if 2 Dale Carnegie followers talk? "Enough about me, lets talk about you". "No no, enough about me, lets talk about you."

I find a better application is, ask a question, or 2, and then rather than asking more questions, make a comment. Doesn't have to be perfect. More knowledge (from basic-research-curiousity) gives you more comments you can make. What little thing do you know about what the other person just said? About fishing, or the university of x, or the story they just told. People don't want to answer questions, they want to relate. "How's the job going?" "Oh yeah I know what you mean...I had a boss who used to do the same thing."

Obviously that can get too banal, which is why the basic-research-curiousity pays off: you can elevate the "we relate" by having something more to say, about things.

You've already identified the weakness of asking questions. It should come as no surprise to you that Pick Up ("that" subject) teaches one to never ask questions. It is advice for dating, but holds for generally any conversation. Compare and contrast a standard interaction.

Question: "What school did you go to?" This allows-> Answer: "" which segues into.... "...Ah, um, okay." It's a bad conversation track. You're asking for effort from them while forcing them to respond in a narrow field, which they probably aren't interested in.

Statement: "I bet you had your pick of colleges." This allows-> Answer1: "I never thought I'd get in!" Answer2:"" Answer3: "I went to , I loved the campus." They can respond in the way that's most interesting for them. It also weaves in an implicit compliment (eg, the subject was smart and had many opportunities).

Behind every question is a statement. The tricky part is finding out what your question says and how to phrase it best. A statement better expresses your feelings "How are you doing?" -> "I hope everything is going well with you." Statements are more confident and harder to say no to "Would you like to dance with me?" -> "I would like to dance with you" And the act of turning a question into a statement lets you know what you're really saying "Do you come here often?" -> "I'm interested in you."

As a rationalist, that last part is incredibly useful. It's easy for us to watch what we're saying when we're making statements, because the brain can skim the surface and catch the meaning. It's much more difficult to understand what we're saying when we're asking a question. A master conversationalist will understand "Where did you go to college?" as a statement of "I think you're cute/smart. I want to know where you went so I can relate stories," even if you aren't aware of it. If you had said the words explicitly as a statement, you would have obviously caught it. This is the reason you should always check your questions for statements.

Sometimes you really do want to know a particular piece of information. In this case you can actually ask a question, but you need to be aware that you are making a request for information. You should only ask a question if you would feel comfortable saying the statement "I want to know ". After practicing for a while you will realize that most of your prior questions were actually statements with question marks at the end. Try it out for yourself.

NB, questions can still be used to great effect. Especially for misdirection or anchoring bias. Naturally these are dark side techniques and I shan't discuss them here. Everything prior is simply good advice for having conversations with strangers.

e.g. maybe I'll ask "So, where are you from?" or "What school do you go to?", and they'll answer, and then I'll say, "...Ah, um, okay" and not have anything else to say)

I actually had in mind less personal questions, that might take some research, insight, and work to get a real answer to.

But since you brought it up, a problem I see with these questions is that you want an answer in the form of a place or a school, a complex object with lots of information that you might be interested in responding to, and what you get is the name of a place or a school, which only really helps you if that name points to some information you already have in your model of the place or school that has that name. So, it might be useful to have generic followup questions designed to get actual information that you might respond to, like "What's fun to do in ?", or "Who was your favorite professor?" (to be followed up with "Why?" if not implicitly understood).

I actually had in mind less personal questions, that might take some research, insight, and work to get a real answer to.

You're not talking about 'rhetorical' questions, are you? Something like "How could someone do something that stupid?" Can be intended rhetorically even though it's a question that should probably be answered for real (unlike the more obviously rhetorical "does a bear shit in the woods?")

The only other non-trivially answered questions that I can think of getting an ignore response are still personal (e.g. what's your life plan?).

Do you have an example?

Yes, what I am describing is asking rhetorically a question that should probably be answered for real.

Do you have an example?

I am finding this quite irksome, but I can't recall exactly what the question was when I clicked on this pattern not quite a week ago. It might have something about the behavior of hospital or doctors, what I remember more clearly is having considered the question for a few seconds and having something to say about, noticing that no one else cared, that this situation was very familiar, and realizing, "duh! they never really wanted an answer." I then started to rejoin the conversation, which probably didn't help for recall. I intend to track this more carefully in the future.

I'm guessing, but I think JGW probably was talking about "open questions" rather than rhetorical ones.

Rhetorical ones imply that they shouldn't be answered. Open questions are ones that, by their nature, require you to answer in more depth than just a single response.

Consider the following. If you start with: "where did you go to school?" or "what did you study?" as opening questions (which could have simple, one-word replies)

Compare the followup question: "what subject did you enjoy most?" where a one-word response would again be an acceptable response. You've already specified what you expect them to say - and they'll dutifully say it and the question is done.

instead try:

"what did you enjoy most in your course?" you can't answer that as easily with one word - it makes a person actually think about their response.

Even if they reply quickly (eg "maths') you can now ask them why and have something else to ask more about. See how far you can go (without boring them or making them feel like you're a creepy stalker). Can you get them to confess that they secretly had a crush on their Math 101 tutor? :)

Leave your questions open to interpretation, and it'll get people talking more. In my experience, people like talking about themselves... and they like talking about why they like what they like. Those are the best smalltalk questions to get started.

Sounds like someone had a crush on their Math 101 teacher....

But yes, this is right on. Ask them a question that allows (but does not require) the other person to tell a story (stories can be quite short...I use the word in a loose sense). Respond with your own, make it as short or shorter, and only one-up someone once.

(by one-up I mean, tell a better story. If they tell you about their cute Math 101 teacher, and you tell them about the time you saw your math teacher on a date or something, and they come back with the math teacher drunk at a casino or something, maybe leave it at that....sometimes people don't like to have their story trumped, unless you have a REALLY good story to throw down there).

Actually it was Knowledge Based Systems... Cute and made me think. :)

Math 101 I spent up the back next to a Mensa guy who kept distracting me with interesting puzzles... but that's another story.

I expect it's possible to learn to successfully simulate social curiosity

What makes you think so? Hope? I suspect most Asperger's types who learn to engage in conversation don't simulate social curiosity, they developed it.

Think of this as pinning your hopes on AIXI when instead you could be better off employing some domain specific hack of a cognitive algorithm.

Also, from signaling considerations, faking social curiosity should be difficult, as the signal wouldn't be reliable otherwise.

The fact that I haven't noticed the same thing in casual conversations either speaks volumes for my conversation skills (lack thereof), or suggests that maybe not all people are as trigger-happy on the ignore button as you suggest.

Or that the people who you have casual conversations with are significant different from whose that JGWeissman does.

Reading this article reminded me strongly of the practice of thought challenging in CBT - essentially training in recognising when your thoughts/emotions are not going in a helpful direction and questioning them in order to reroute them more productively.

Or to sum up my feelings on both CBT and the advice in this article: learning how to practise metacognition in a timely fashion is incredibly useful and important.

Can you list some of the habits you learned in CBT, or any details of what "practicing metacognition in a timely fashion" involves?

My takeaways from CBT:

  1. Don't give your opinions (e.g. probabilities, value judgements) greater weight than other people's, despite having access to information (your running inner speech, for example) that other people don't have. I'm not confident of my justification of this practice, so I won't put it here.

  2. Do respond to inner speech, arguing with it using all the rational-argumentation techniques at your disposal. For example, "I'm a terrible person" should not go unchallenged (and the claim is very susceptible to rational challenges: fundamental attribution error, overgeneralization, doesn't admit the possibility of change, et cetera).

  3. You will feel better if you do something, even if starting to do something feels horrible. Trying to do nothing in order to "recover willpower" or "get in the mood" doesn't work.

I would recommend "Feeling Good" by Burns, as an (somewhat verbose, but easy-to-read) introduction to CBT.

Here are the high-level habits that I think can be generalised to other domains:

  1. Being able to identify the states that I don't want to be in, including what they feel like from inside and their most common triggers. Prior to CBT I had low luminosity with respect to my thoughts and feelings, and often did things like confusing low mood with being tired, or playing computer games for hours or days on end even though I usually felt worse afterwards and didn't even particularly enjoy them while I was playing them.

  2. Setting up a separate cognitive thread whose only job is to monitor my thoughts and feelings and alert me to anything that corresponds to those thought patterns or states that I want to avoid, such as boredom, low mood, or anxiety.

  3. Practising metacognition in a timely fashion - it's no good to realise after the conversation has ended that you should have been more curious, that you were unduly worried about what the other person thought of you, or anything like that. So the third habit is being able to challenge a problem state immediately rather than dealing with it much later. This takes the form of the monitoring thread combined with a cached list of responses to my most common negative states/thoughts, eg. if I go to a party and it turns out that I'm over- or underdressed, my automatic negative thought of "everyone will think less of me for dressing wrongly for the occasion" can be neutralised by the equally automatic responses "will they really?", "if they do, why should I care about being judged by strangers on something relatively trivial?", and "I and everyone else that I will interact with will enjoy themselves more if I stop worrying about my clothing".

As to how I got to stage 3, it mostly involved lots and lots of practice of (2) and (1). At a certain level of mindfulness, my natural bent towards problem-solving kicked in to help me brainstorm appropriate challenges to undesirable thoughts and start applying them fairly consistently, with immediate benefits that created a positive feedback loop - the better my mood is, the clearer my thinking is, which in turn makes it easier to monitor myself for lapses and challenge them before they become really problematic.

So to summarise, the most important aspect of CBT/metacognition is to notice when something is wrong and be able to explicitly label it as such. And the way to get those skills is to cultivate paranoia with respect to the part of yourself you want to change. I have dozens of assorted charts, tables, blog posts, daily monitoring reports, and the like from a period of approximately three months, until being aware of my mood and thoughts started becoming automatic.

I'd say that a lot of my reading definitely is "chase" reading. Mostly on Wikipedia, where it's easy to pursue different concept until I get an answer. For example, I'll be wondering, "Wait, what is bread made of, anyway? Like, molecularly?" which will lead me on a chase through bread, flour, wheat, germ, carbohydrate, cellulose, et cetera. Lots of times looking it up myself is the only way to get the answer I want, because the people I'm talking to don't understand the kind of answer I want, one of real understanding.

My main state of mind these days is either "busy" or "at a loose end."

I spent much of my youth furiously, self-righteously, pursuing new information and ideas, in and outside my area of interest. I advocated this for all.

These days I feel like I've done that and deserve a rest. Being deliberately dull also infuriates the teenagers, which is most entertaining. (You know all those annoying fuddy-duddy old people things your parents did? They were trolling you.) Quite a lot of stuff doesn't actually interest me personally, and pursuing it just because it's there is not preferable to doing nothing. Anything new demanding my interest has to show why I should be personally, subjectively interested.

I think I'm getting bored of late, though. The hard part is finding an area of interest that I'm actually that interested in, and not just more time-filling ("like watching cable, only with fewer hair replacement infomercials"[1]).

So. Suggestions on finding things that I (or, more generally, any given person) would find actually interesting?

[1] Dunn, Sarah. The Official Slacker Handbook. Abacus, 1994. ISBN 0-349-10591-X

Perhaps try:

  1. Writing down your goals. Where do you hope to be in 10 and 20 years? How certain are you of being there? What unknowns are there, that might interfere?

  2. Choose one or two people who play an important role in your life, such as family members. For each one, list the most important things you think you know about them, how you think you know those things, and what the gaps in your knowledge are.

  3. Attempt an ad hominem attack on your own views, along the lines of Nick Bostrom’s suggestion to Write your hypothetical apostacy. Given the causal process that formed your views, how reliable are those views, really?

  4. Spend time with the best thinkers, smartest folks, or most competent folks you can. See what they read, how they think, what they do, and, especially, where they think you're stuck. Try their advice or habits.

Curiosity is one of my major low-level motivators. For example, when debugging, it helps me to consciously refocus from "Let's get X done. Obviously, it's not done yet." to "I've programmed it to do X. How come it does Y instead?" One could say that it boosts productivity just because it is a better-specified goal; but it feels like curiosity working.

Curiosity is also one of my major drives behind procrastination; the other is "getting (irrelevant) things done".

I work as a software engineer, and I've noticed that there seems to be a part of my brain that seems to get happy when someone announces that there is some terrible bug in our software. I suspect that this part is anticipating the fact that I am about to mentally switch gears into chase mode...

I need to work on that. I guess I started to see programming (and even designing programs) as the drudge work that needs to happen to try new ideas (in dumb, statistical natural language processing). I used to be excited by it; in fact, small scope programming problems are still interesting to me in a way that system-building isn't. I think it must be some failure on my part to generate excitement about the intermediate goals in designing and building a system.

I've felt intensely curious about the world around me for... as long as I can remember, honestly. When I first encountered television (I think I was around two or three years old), my first thought was something along the lines of "How is that picture changing? Surfaces don't suddenly change color by themselves--you've got to cover them with paint, or ink, or something!" (Obviously, my toddler-self's thoughts were nowhere near as well-articulated as that, but that was the gist of it. I also remember feeling absolutely dumbfounded when I realized that other children my age didn't think this way.) This curiosity may have diminished somewhat between then and now (I'm 17 years old), but if it has, it's been a small enough decrease that it's hard to tell. And my curiosity still far outstrips that of my peers.

The problem is that my curiosity is too easily satisfied. In more concrete fields like math or the physical sciences, this is okay; when I'm feeling confused about a particular concept, I can simply look it up, or resolve to look it up later if there's not a computer or textbook at hand. After I look it up, one of three things happen:

  1. I comprehend the explanation, in the sense of understanding the words, but I don't grok it. At this point, I end up intermittently pondering the problem during my free time until it finally just clicks with me. This can take anywhere from a few hours to several weeks, but the longest I've ever had it take was about two months. I've never been mistaken about my ability to grok something; if I feel intuitively that I should be able to "get" it, then sooner or later, it happens. (Possible placebo effect, though I doubt it could have that strong of an effect.)
  2. I grok it immediately. (This is a fairly uncommon occurrence, but it happens from time to time.)
  3. The explanation is so dense and/or so reliant on domain-specific knowledge that I can tell, at a glance, that I won't be able to comprehend it until I've undergone some major study in the topic. At this point, I take the issue and file it away in a little corner of my brain, to be taken out and reexamined once I acquire the necessary expertise to understand. My curiosity hasn't quite been sated, but it has been put off for now.

Any way you look at it, there's no danger of me suddenly ceasing to try to understand the topic. As long as I'm curious about it, I'll keep hacking away at the edges.

The problem arises when there's no way to determine the correct answer by simply looking it up, usually because (a) experts themselves aren't sure, (b) the literature on the topic is obscure and hard to find, or (c) there's significant disagreement on the topic. This phenomenon doesn't occur much in mathematics or in the hard sciences, but in fields like social science, it's quite rampant. When that happens, you might think something similar to what I described in 3 above takes place, where I file the issue away for later, and my curiosity isn't quite sated, but it is postponed...

Unfortunately, that's not quite what happens. My curiosity gets sated anyway.


By me.

For whatever reason, I'm, like, really, really good at coming up with just-so stories. And the thing about System 1 is that it doesn't differentiate between a scientifically sound, peer-reviewed conclusion that I read about in a respectable, reliable source, and some random story I just came up with myself that happens to mesh well with my current worldview. So I think of a possible explanation, and it just sounds so elegant (where by "elegant" I mean "Wow! This fits perfectly with what I already know!") that I instantly accept it. And all of this happens entirely below the level of conscious awareness. And suddenly I feel that exact same thrill that I feel when I suddenly understand something new--and I'm not curious anymore. After all, what's there left to be curious about? I know the answer, right? At least, it certainly feels like I do.

Needless to say, this is a problem.

I'll end with a metaphor: I'm not a particularly stubborn horse. If there's water right in front of me, I will drink. In fact, since I'm constantly thirsty, it's actually really easy to lead me to water (of course, I'll need to sniff the water first to make sure it's not poisoned or anything). Problem is, when there's no water readily available, I start drinking my own urine.

And what's worse? I seem to be perfectly fine with that.

A related realization I made on my morning walk: We often don't have any conscious awareness of the moment we decide or conclude something. If we are prompted in some way - for example, if we are asked to make a choice - then we have access to our decision after the fact. If we are listening intently, or even if we're just waiting for something to end, then it's like we're polling for the decision, and we're aware immediately. However, in a lot of other cases, the decision happens outside of our awareness and only later does something prompt us to access it.

This makes it very hard to avoid concluding something prematurely. This is why it's so easy to mistake an association with something you don't like for a well reasoned refutation. This may be a part of the reason why prejudices of all kinds are so prevalent.

This is very useful advice. I'm still a student, and I've frequently tried to employ my own curiosity to learn about whatever it is we're studying in class. I'm actually in an interesting honors program, outside my own major (chemistry) that is interdisciplinary. We have to study everything from philosophy to astrophysics. Right now I'm in a World Literature class, and I'm wondering if anyone can give me any advice on activating my curiosity about whatever book I'm supposed to be reading. I'm a fast reader, and I will sometimes enjoy the book we're reading (assuming it's any good, and many classics are not), but I'm typically not actively "chasing something".

Considering most of us here are science people, there probably are not a whole lot of individuals with large backgrounds in literature, but if anyone has a good idea for something to chase while I'm reading, it would be greatly appreciated.

When I'm reading fiction that I enjoy, I'll try to predict what's going to happen next (if it's a plot-based book, i.e. mystery/thriller) or imagine mini-scenarios with the characters (if it's a character-development based book, i.e. most literature.) Ask yourself "Why did the author choose to have this character do this action? How did he/she make it plausible that this character would act in this way? Was it rational for the character to act this way? If not, what is causing them to act irrationally? Is there any other action the character could have taken that would have served the same plot purpose and been more 'in character'."

It makes it easier to be actively curious about reading fiction if you also write it. I don't suppose being good at writing fiction is important; it's the process, the mindset. You could try writing fanfiction of classics where the main characters are rationalists; that could be very interesting!

That is a very good idea. We recently read Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther and Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, and I wound up writing an essay basically on just how irrational the characters were, and found it to be a very interesting and engaging topic. While I was thinking about that, I was more engaged with the book. I don't write much fiction, but I do enjoy it when I'm doing so. For a writing competition a while ago, I wrote my own version of the Faustian legend (the original version of selling your soul to the devil) with the protagonist being a rationalist and a transhumanist.

Thanks! (Upvoted)

It can be very interesting to suspend disbelief and critically look at a classic work; I did it once for The Tale of Genji:

Possibly related: at one point I was spending lots of time on mailing lists. In particular lots of time composing long replies.

At one point I noticed something: I was replying to things that weren't questions.

I taught myself to notice whether what I wanted to respond to had the useful punctuation that some human languages use to signal a question: "?". If I didn't see that, I wouldn't write anything in reply.

Now I was spending much less time on the lists.

(This was a good first step, but what you're talking about in the above - noticing when you have questions - seems harder to me.)


Curiosity is a drive to know. I love the feeling of being driven to know. It gets you off your butt, right? Metaphorically speaking. Like this kitten at wikipedia which illustrates the curiosity article. The kitten isn't curled up dozing, it's on its hind legs peering into the flowerpot. It's active. Being active is why we're animals, why we have muscles, so if we lose the drive to activity, it's like we're losing the drive to be.

The activity of exploration is very different from the activity of directed activity built around a specific purpose. An example of the latter would be stalking and chasing prey. The animal who is stalking its prey isn't terribly curious.

Curiosity seems closely allied with play (play often satisfies what-if curiosity, play is often simulation), and play is characterized by lack of important immediate goal (it has the more distant goal of training the animal for life). Play is frivolity, as contrasted to the purposefulness of stalking. Small wonder that both curiosity and play are associated with the young, who are not useful (yet) and who have plenty of time to play, explore, be curious. The adult has no time for these things. Adult behavior is characterized by purpose. Child behavior is characterized by lack of (immediate) purpose. So curiosity seems to stand at an opposite extreme from purposeful behavior, when looked at in this way.

However, the lack of curiosity in the adult is poorly adapted to our rapidly changing world. A lack of adult curiosity is doubtless well-adapted to the largely unchanging world of our distant ancestors, but in this day it's a liability. So it makes sense to try to cultivate curiosity, play, exploration. We should probably resist our natural tendency to lose curiosity. This may be one situation where we need to struggle against our own nature, just as overweight dieters struggle against their nature, by for example resisting the lure of sugar.

It might not be that easy to cultivate genuine curiosity, just as it's not easy to ignore sugar.

But here's hope. I notice that when I read novels, the better writers, the writers whose work I want to read again, are the ones who want make me read what happens next. This criterion may be "low class", but the point is that the page-turners successfully cultivate the reader's drive to know, and this is pleasant. Yes, the reader's brain is being tricked, because the reader isn't actually learning anything, the novel is all lies, all fantasy. But the psychological point remains, that writers are managing to cultivate in the reader a desire to know. Which suggests that it may be possible to cultivate the desire to know. Literary suspense may not be exactly the same thing as curiosity, but I find it subjectively to be a similar experience, because here too I get off my butt, I make the effort to read more (and for me reading is a struggle if I don't care about what happens next). The pages fly by when I want to know. Time passes and I don't notice. I'm not bored.


I would summarize what I think is the most essential insight of your comment as: 'Curiosity is playful exploration. Chase is directed pursuit. Do not confuse the two'

However, you seem to be too big a fan of curiosity. Most of us intellectually curious types are probably too unconditionally curious for our own good. Your enthusiasm for your favorite novels is a good example. You admit it artificially cultivates in you a desire to know what will happen next, via clever plot trickery. Unfortunately reality and your goals are such that following your curiosity will not lead to information/knowledge with the highest payoff, especially in this modern technical environment, where our ancestrally-adapted curiosity heuristics probably go often astray. Following the smell of curiosity by your nose will lead you to ultimately learn about stuff irrelevant to your goals. It is highly unlikely that the marginally most interesting stuff leads in the direction of greatest marginal expected benefit of new knowledge/info for your achieving your goals. Effective goal pursuit requires crossing valleys of boredom.

I would say curiosity is an investment, and like all good investment it should be targeted, but when you really need/want to get something done, chase.

But curiosity can also be like R&D, and the funding of basic research, which can have huge payoffs that are unexpected compared to what they were originally targeted for.

Curiosity should at times be targeted, but if you are too targeted you can miss a lot of stuff, for example: how things work. Not "a thing". But "things", in general. In order to be good at life you need to know a wide variety of things, in order to be able to generate your own overall fabric of how the world works.

Also, being too targeted makes you boring.

But note that R&D, basic research, is unexpected in the sense that we as outsiders don't know which narrowly focused group will succeed. It is very rare that when some group does succeed that it consists of undisciplined dilettantes pursuing research in an unfocused matter. So it's a matter of not knowing which research goals have highest payoffs, instead of not knowing which goals you as a researcher are interested in pursuing.

Or think about it this way, the existing social epistemology setup already implements what is necessary to reap the rewards of curiosity on this larger scale. You as an individual researcher, should rather narrow your curiosity to what you are immediately working on.

Being mediocre makes you boring. I am all for interestingness. The optimal curiosity-focus balance for that is somewhere in between.

I'm sometimes very curious; however, I think the primary reason I'm not learning more is that I forget things very easily. This might just be me, or it might be fairly common.

Anyway, if you periodically blow away (lose track of, stop using) the external-memory tools that cue and reinforce your good habits, then there is a ceiling to your tools' sophistication, and your average set of tools will be significantly less powerful than the ceiling.

For example, I rewrote a programming-process helper recently and it's not that much different from the previous version, that I might have written two years ago.

Mostly, my tools are for programming, but I've had procedures and tools for systematic reading and retaining knowledge, procedures for evaluating arguments critically, procedures and tools for developing mathematical theories including proofs, conjectures, and examples.

To become stronger, you might have to plan for forgetting your current passions, and throw your memes/tools outwards like dandelion seeds or boomerangs, hoping that even after forgetting, you will re-encounter them. This suggests that even very personal tools need a certain sort of polish, in order to be taken up and re-adopted by your future self - small size, readmes, source distribution, good comments, extremely portable implementation, and so on, all help with reuptake.

(This also connects to my belief that you should not identify with your genes alone, but also your memes.)

I used to chase things all the time. But it often annihilated the continuity in my thinking, to the point that I couldn't return to what I was originally doing. So nowadays, I just try to take notes of the things that I want to chase later, and I do eventually end up chasing them later.

I guess the real question is whether it's more efficient to process information in a very intensive way, or just to gather a lot more of it, and let your brain work out the answers at a slower pace; I use both approaches.

Curiosity-as-such seems to work pretty well for me to absorb lots of information - I try to read at least one book every week, so as days weeks months fly by at the same time I truly feel that my overall understanding of things improves. I'm absorbing the same subjects multiple times (through different books), and I find that slowly the things work themselves out in my brain, connections are made etc. I'm not sure stopping all the time and do background research would get me better results.

On the other hand, the 'Asking questions'-approach for me is something I use for high-intensity things like solving technical problems. That seems to work pretty well there. As mentioned here already, debugging is a good example.

Is there a tradeoff?

For example, suppose that after choosing your next book you read the cover and the table of contents, took a guess about what was inside, and then spent ten minutes jotting down questions you hoped it might help you answer, before reading it. Would make your reading better?

I'm not advocating "stopping all the time to do background research". More like, making sure your brain is alive, and you're bothering to ask questions, notice potential updates, etc. Because for me, it's easy to go through life (including reading) partially zoned out.

Well, what I tried to convey is that for quite a bit of my non-fiction reading, I don't have too many specific questions beforehand. Say, I pick up a book about Neanderthals. My main question might be something really general, like 'how does this fit in with my general understanding of homonid evolution', but apart from that, I'll just read it. For any questions that I have, I usually check some other sources.

So, I was not really opposing the usefulness of goal-oriented reading, just that for quite a bit of my reading, my goals are not very specific. When I have some specific goal in mind, of course asking questions is a good way to structure your information-soaking process.

Anyhow, for my next book (or probably when deciding what to read next), I'll try to follow your advise, let's see if it helps me to read more effectively.

But you can broaden the questions as well.

Looking at Neanderthals/hominids:

How does this relate to the understanding of art, creativity, madness, motherly love? The notions of greed in children, in adults, in a capitalist economy, and how does that relate to the regulation of markets, conflicts of interests, incentivization and moral hazards? How does this relate to the notions of religion/theology, race, climate tolerance? How does climate tolerance relate to the social structure of Californians, and what does air conditioning mean for society going forward? How does early hominid tool use relate to our ability to drive cars, use computers, integrate robotics with human life, and parkour?

Obviously one can get lost in mindless ramblings of curiosity. But if you make an effort to be constructing an overall fabric of "how things work", you have a reason and a direction for your curiosity. It combines being mindful with entertainment. Over time you create a your own grand unification theory (not specific to physics, mind you), and you have a framework into which you can easily slot new information (or update existing).

Interesting articles on chasing vs search reading.

I have to say that I prefer search-reading.

Sure - I see the benefits of chase-reading if you happen to want to know about a particular question. But most of my curiosity is about broad subject areas.

I'm following my curiosity into physics right now. I don't have a goal "I want to learn physics" - because I don't want to "be a physicist" just as I don't want to "be" a chemist, biologist, psychologist or mathematician - though I've learned a bit (or a lot) about all those subjects. I'm learning because I enjoy knowing stuff about how the world works.

That's about as precise as my goal gets. If I try for anything more specific, the sense of fun often disappears - then it becomes "work", and that's not the point. Various commenters have suggested that one needs a goal to really push ourself - but I have found that not to be the case.

In the past I've tried to convince myself that I "need a goal" to motivate myself... mainly because other people seem to think they're so important "what, you don't have a goal, but then you might just drift!"

Well, in my drifting I've learned a lot more about physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, mathematics than most other people I know... does that means I've failed?

I don't think so.

I totally understand that there's drifting and "drifting"... that drifting without actually doing anything can certainly mean you're not pushing yourself to "be your best".

of course we should be careful not to be judgmental about the choices of others to follow different life-preference - who's to say a life of pleasure is less worthy than a goal-oriented business-person building a personal empire... or a person that just enjoys learning for its own sake?

What my experience has repeatedly taught me... is that if I personally try to force myself to have a specific goal - I actually lose motivation. Life-goals must be intrinsic for them to be of any use. I push myself far more, get more done if I allow myself to follow my curiosity rather than try to impose unnecessary requirements on it.

Of course, there are easy traps to fall into... A lot of the time it's easy to make an excuse that any particular sub-goal is not worth pushing-through because it's not fun... but maybe it's necessary to get you to the next step of your real goal... I make sure I do actually push myself, and not just do easy stuff simply because its easy.

but I tend to find that if I truly follow my curiosity, I will dig into the tougher stuff naturally - and be motivated to do it far more than if I told myself "right, I'm learning quantum electrodynamics, and I must have it done by next month".

For me - I'm far more successful if I just ask myself "hmmm, I wonder what this Fenyman guy's got to say about how the world works?"


In the past I've tried to convince myself that I "need a goal" to motivate myself... mainly because other people seem to think they're so important "what, you don't have a goal, but then you might just drift!"

This gives a hint about what purpose these goals usually have. They are kind of like 'election promises'. ;)

Yeah, I can see that. Kind of like boasting to make sure that if you give up - you'll have embarrassed yourself by making a liar out of yourself.

I've done that myself, and sometimes it works.. I've finished NaNoWriMo three times through that technique (amongst others) :)

I can understand it as a mind-hack... but it's one that doesn't work as well, for me, as others do. I also only tend to use it when the goal is something short-term. If something's really a long-term interest for me, I don't need to convince myself to work on it through social pressure.

...and election promises don't always work either... then you end up with "non core promises" and post-hoc rationalisation over why you didn't manage to get this one done this time... and I tend to think that is often more poisonous in the long run. At least for me.

Once you allow yourself to fail after promising yourself convincingly that you'd definitely do X... it makes it easier to flake out in future.

If I go for goal-based motivation strategies, I much prefer the "visualise yourself having achieved something you want" techniques instead. Still a goal-based technique, but I think more effective than making election promises, because it's a way of hooking into your positive motivators - carrot instead of stick. and the fallout from failing, or even just falling-behind schedule - aren't as catastrophic. Fall behind on a stick-based motivation and you get the stick... and then what? The motivator's already spent. Fall behind on a carrot-based motivator, and the carrot is still there for you.

Of course, maybe the election promise does hook into the "visualise" method... though it's generally used to try and motivate other people to do what you want...

Hmmm - probably diving too deeply into a detail :)

Anyway - yeah, I can totally understand how they work. I even use them myself - mainly for things that I don't want to do but must (eg working for money) or for jump-starting me to get out of a rut... after which natural motivation takes over again. I just find that natural motivation and interest is more powerful than any of the artificial ones I've ever used.

I've been told I'm very curious. However, this tends to show itself mainly during intense conversations and discussions. Being curious about what I'm learning in school is somewhat more of a challenge. Being curious about anything while extremely sleep deprived is MUCH more of a challenge. Any recommendations?

Being curious about anything while extremely sleep deprived is MUCH more of a challenge. Any recommendations?

Go to bed earlier. (Or, take modafinil.)

You should only do this when you are sufficiently frustrated. Most of the time you should just do things. So if asking questions were to be a habit, it should be a conditionally triggered one.

Also, too much curiosity can get you stuck in local maxima, you should throw in some randomness once in a while.

Funny because I find that I'm so fond of the feeling of being curiousity that I'd actively construct experiences that I can feel curious about and seek out subjects that I can learn about, sometimes even act upon. It's done to the point where I go on real, elaborate learning binges which of course would distract me from "real work".