Active Curiosity vs Open Curiosity

(2: Dioecious Junipers)

I've also run into several instances of "maybe open curiosity" while studying botany.

My experiences with junipers have lead me to wonder about the relationship between active curiosity and open curiosity, and especially about the nature of "general active curiosity".


I was listening to a lecture on the taxonomy of non-flowering plants, which touched on the cypress family and mentioned junipers. I didn't listen to it all at once, and there was a point where I'd paused just after the professor had talked about ferns, but before she'd gotten to conifers.

I already knew a little bit about junipers. I knew, for example, that gin is flavored by passing the vapors of wheat or barley alcohol over juniper berries, then collecting the condensation. (It's also sometimes made by just plopping the berries right in the liquid, though this makes for a harsher-tasting gin.) So I'd already recognized some of the plants in my area as "probably junipers", from their gray-blue berries.

But, having just learned a little about fern reproduction, I realized that many of the other plants in my area, ones without blue berries, were also junipers. They were just male junipers. I was on a drive with Duncan, watching out the window, and I remarked, "Huh, you can really tell that junipers are dioecious!"

[footnote: A dioecious species is one with distinct male and female organisms. Humans are dioecious, while roses produce both male and female reproductive organs on a single flower.]

I want to zoom in on the moments just before I made that remark.

We had not been talking about botany at all. We were not on a drive to look at the scenery; we were just headed out to the mailbox. There were many, many kinds of plants, as well as rocks and animals and man-made structures, for me to look at.

Yet I noticed the berry-covered junipers in particular. And I noticed the other plants that looked just like those junipers, but without berries. I felt a tiny confusion about it, one I'd never felt before even though I'd passed these same plants many times. Ever since scheming to fill my backyard with holly bushes for Christmas time, I knew that some plants require both male and female individuals to reproduce. So all the pieces were there. Why did they suddenly come together, with no apparent effort, in that moment?


I figure there must have been some sense in which I was "curious" about junipers, on that day. This was not paradigmatic "active curiosity". That would have been more like, deliberately and consciously setting out to investigate the local junipers to discover whether they are dioecious or monoecious, looking specifically at their reproductive organs.

But it wasn't paradigmatic non-curiosity either. That would be more like my orientation toward the road signs, which I definitely saw but did not register on this particular trip to the mailbox.

Still, I have a hypothesis that some pre-conscious part of my mind was quite actively trying to understand local junipers, in general, in a way that it was not trying to understand chocolate during the chocolate tasting. During the chocolate tasting, I was very attentive to my experience of flavor. During the drive, I think I must have been attentive to "information about how junipers work" or "information about what's up with junipers".

This "how it works" or "what's up with it" orientation seems pretty essential to my current concept of curiosity. In Catching the Spark, I described "head tilting" as "What is this? What's going on here? Is this right? Is it really so simple? Could I be confused somehow?"

When I said that my chocolate tasting involved "openness" but perhaps not "curiosity", it was the absence of this head tilting posture that left me doubtful.

I'm a little bit inclined to locate instances of curiosity on a grid with one axis for "active to passive", and another axis for "specific to general". But I'm also inclined to suspect that I am confused enough that my concept of curiosity ought to fall apart and be re-built from scratch.


If you're trying to decide whether to correct me about juniper reproduction, be patient. This was not the end of my conifer studies. We'll get there eventually.

Active Curiosity vs Open Curiosity

(1: Chocolate Tasting)

It's been a bit over a week. I've been wearing my counter ring, and turning it every time I notice something that might be open curiosity.

The first time I ran into "maybe this is open curiosity" was during a chocolate tasting.


I ordered six different brands of single-origin Ecuadorian chocolate, laid them all out, then slowly tasted them one by one while taking notes on my experience of each. I'd break off a piece, paying attention to the sound and feel of the snap. Then I'd bring the piece to my nose and smell it. Then I'd set a one minute timer, let the chocolate melt on my tongue for the whole minute, and finally chew it up. I took notes off and on the whole time.

Here's a bit from my notes on To'ak's Rain Harvest 2018 74% dark chocolate. "A little boy climbed into the canopy to harvest flowers from the tallest vines during a rain storm, then brought them down to the dew-covered irises, sprinkled all the petals with clover honey, and brought them to his grandmother who is taking a mid-day nap in a darkened room."

Whatever it was I did with my mind to generate notes about the flavor had a quality I'm strongly inclined to describe as "open". There was a feeling like stepping out of the way, letting go of something, or welcoming. If I had to name the something I was letting go of, it might be "making literal sense of things".

I definitely wasn't letting go of trying, though. I was being very precise, discarding a lot of description pieces that weren't quite right. The thing was, I discarded them after considering them, rather than pre-determining what kinds of descriptions were allowed to present themselves. I think it was probably the space of pre-determined answers that was "opening".

By contrast, I completely failed to do this "open" thing when describing my experiences of snapping the chocolate pieces. I wrote notes like, "snappy little pop" and "crunchy crunchy snap". By the end I was feeling some combination of dismissive and frustrated about the chocolate textures. Of the last chocolate, I wrote, "I don't fuckin know, it goes 'pop' when i break it. Maybe a little quieter and lower pitched than the others." I was sort of trying to convince myself that the textures didn't matter.


Although I definitely identified a quality of "openness" in chocolate tasting, it's much harder for me to recognize "curiosity" in this experience. I'm left feeling very unsure whether there is anything to "open curiosity" beyond "openness".

If I assume that there is a difference, and that this experience contained "open curiosity" rather than mere "openness", then I'd guess it has something to do with the frame. I orchestrated the experience with an intention to discover something. I wanted to know what the chocolates tasted like, whether I like Ecuadorian chocolate in general (this was a follow-up to an earlier tasting where I tried chocolates from several different parts of the world and found that my favorite was from Ecuador), what differs among different chocolate manufacturers who start with basically the same beans, and whether the much more expensive brand is of noticeably higher quality than the others (it is).

All of that sort of melted away, though, during the tasting. I intuitively knew that it had to, that if I kept all of those intentions at the font of my mind as I tasted, I'd basically experience what I expected to, in little more detail than my priors already contained. ...Which does sound an awful lot like a reasonable distinction between "active curiosity" and "open curiosity".

If I suppose, though, that there is a difference between "open curiosity" and mere "openness", and that this was an experience of mere openness without the curiosity, then I'd guess it was missing some kind of question-holding that is "open" rather than "active". While I was tasting, I was not aware of any interest to learn anything. My whole attention was on close observation of the chocolate and its effect on me as I interacted with it, and on the task of describing those observations in words. And I wonder whether curiosity of any sort requires some kind of question-shaped box that is held in front of you to catch some bits of information, and not others.

So I think that in chocolate tasting, I have at least explored my first question ("How can you tell when you're experiencing open curiosity vs. something sort of similar that isn't curiosity at all?"), but I don't think I have an answer yet.

Active Curiosity vs Open Curiosity

(0: Orientation)

I am not sure whether or not I recognize this. I have a feeling of familiarity, but it's still very vague and imprecise. Seems super relevant to my work, so I'm gonna try to get more of handle on it over the next couple weeks.

Stuff I wanna answer:

  • How can you tell when you're experiencing open curiosity vs. something sort of similar that isn't curiosity at all?
  • Is "open curiosity" relatively joint-carving? If I go looking for it, is it the sort of thing that will reveal itself to be a misunderstanding, something that will dissolve into a loosely related family of phenomena, or something that will prove to be fairly distinct and unitary?
  • What exactly does open curiosity feel like?
  • What sorts of things am I likely to be doing when I find myself in open curiosity?
  • What sorts of things am I likely to be doing just before I end up in open curiosity?
  • What mental postures am I likely to be holding at times when I'd be well served by open curiosity, and which motions can take me from those postures into open curiosity?
  • What else tends to be going on in my mind during open curiosity?
“PR” is corrosive; “reputation” is not.

It's like virtue and reputation ("honor") were one thing at the time

When I read this, I thought (with my feelings, not my words) "It sounds like Rob thinks honor is a combination of virtue and reputation, but I do not think that honor is a combination of virtue and reputation."

So before I go and try to write a bunch about what I think honor might be, I'd like to check: Do you think that honor is a combination of virtue and reputation? Do you think that's basically right but incomplete description of honor? Do you think that honor is some other thing entirely, which you could state? Do you not know what honor is in a way that you could state without a lot of time and effort?

“PR” is corrosive; “reputation” is not.

I just re-read the OP looking for something that I'd possibly describe as "sly insinuations about the PR industry", and I couldn't find any. What I read in it was a bunch of straight-forward claims about what the concept of PR tends to cause in people who use it, and some as-far-as-I-can-tell-completely-honest attempts to gesture at intuitions about how that works and why. Can you give an example of something in the OP that seems to you like it contains a sly insinuation about the PR industry?

Catching the Spark

Thanks Raemon! Those are some very nice things you said about me blushes. I hope this post doesn't disappoint.

Most of my previous writing has been pretty "here's a bunch of thoughts and experiences I had in no particular order, which I'm telling you about so I can digest them better myself". The series I'm working on right now is a lot more "I've put a lot of actual work into building a coherent curriculum and I'm writing this for other people rather than just for myself". (Most of it is a more mature version of the noticing stuff you've been trying to get me to post here for ages.) So if you (or anyone else on the LW team) ever do get around to engaging with the strategy directly, I'd love to hear how it goes, and I'd especially love to hear what you wish had been different about my presentation of it. I know how to write for people who specifically subscribe to my personal blogs, but I... really do not know how to write for LW.

Catching the Spark

This is a good point.

I think one of my central original seeing exercises does walk people through (a version of?) phenomenological reduction, and I wonder if you'd agree. It goes like this.

  1. Find an object. Doesn't matter what it is, but this will probably be easier if it's a concrete, physical object you can hold, such as a pen or a box of tissues.

  2. Write a sentence about what the object is and how you're relating it.

  3. Set a timer for two minutes. During that minute, snap your fingers whenever you notice something new about the object, something you haven't already snapped your fingers for. If you're not sure whether something "counts" as worthy of a finger snap, err on the side of inclusion.

  4. After the two minutes are up, list the strategies and tactics you used to get finger snaps.

  5. Then extend the list, including strategies and tactics you didn't use, but perhaps could have, to get even more finger snaps.

  6. Set the timer for another minute, and continue snapping your fingers every time you notice something new about the object.

  7. Notice if any of your snaps felt like they were borderline, especially the ones that felt that way because it wasn't clear that your object is quite what you were snapping about. In the next round, plan to count those sorts of borderline cases as straightforwardly worthy of finger snaps.

  8. Set one more one minute timer, and keep snapping when you notice something new.

  9. When the time is up, write a new sentence about what the object is and how you're relating to it.

(Once you've done this a few times, you can do the whole thing very quickly in one smooth motion, no finger snaps required.)

Edit: A cautionary note may be appropriate here. A couple people who have done this exercise reported "feeling like they're going crazy", or variations on that. I don't think there's actually much danger, but if things start to feel frightening or terribly uncomfortable in the middle of this, I recommend that you stop, do something normal like making dinner, and then evaluate what happened and whether you want to try again.

Catching the Spark

I'm pretty sure you don't mean these things, but I don't know what you do mean.

Catching the Spark

A lot of people helped me write this post! They gave me excellent feedback, and it would have been way worse without their help. Thank you so much timepoof, erratio, Phoenix Eliot, Nora Amman, Robin Goins, Matt Goldenberg, and Duncan Sabien. Y'all are the best.

Catching the Spark

Footnote #2: 

If that line made perfect sense to you, go straight to “The Orientation Procedure”. Otherwise, here are a few options.

1. If you’re sort of panicking and just need something object level to grab onto immediately, try to catch a spark of curiosity about “confusion”.

2. If you’re overwhelmed by all the sparks you see and are anxious because you don’t know what kind you’re supposed to catch, take either of the other options, or read the sub-essay in the coda at the very end. (It might help, it might not. If you’re not stuck at this point, I recommend saving the coda for later.)

3. If you’re stuck on, “What even is a spark of curiosity and how do I know one when I see it?”, read the main essay without trying the procedure. Then, watch for things that might be sparks of curiosity in your daily life over the next week or two, and come back to these instructions once you think you may have found one.

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