The hungry mind: The origins of curiosity in childhood (I)

“I will […] argue that curiosity is a fragile seed — for some the seed bears fruit, and for others, it shrivels and dies all too soon. By the time a child is five years old, his curiosity has been carved to reflect his personality, family life, daily encounters, and school experience. By the time that five-year-old is twenty-two, the intensity and object of his curiosity has become a defining, though often invisible part of who he is — something that will shape much of his future life. But the journey curiosity takes, from a universal and ubiquitous characteristic, one that accompanies much of the infant’s daily experience, to a quality that defines certain adults and barely exists in others, is subtle. In the chapters that follow, I’ll try to show that there are several sources of individual variation, and each has its developmental moment. Attachment in toddlerhood, language in the three-year-old, and a succession of environmental limitations and open doors all contribute to a person’s particular kind and intensity of curiosity. […] This book is about why some children remain curious and others do not, and how we can encourage more curiosity in everyone.”

Here’s what I wrote about the book on goodreads:

“I’d expected more from a Harvard University Press publication. The book has too many personal anecdotes and too much speculation, and not enough data; also, the coverage would have benefited from the author being more familiar with ethological research such as e.g. some of the stuff included in Natural Conflict Resolution. However it was interesting enough for me to read it to the end, despite the format, and I assume many people who don’t mind reading popular science books might like the book.”

I’ve mentioned before how my expectations sort of depend, a bit, on who the publisher is; I have one set of (implicit) criteria for books published by academic publishers, and a different set of (implicit) criteria which needs to be met if the book is published by other publishing companies. Over the last couple of years I’ve pretty much exclusively read academic publications (I think I read two or three non-academic non-fiction publications last year, out of 72), but at least I’m aware there’s an argument to be made for having different standards for different kinds of books. I gave this book two stars, and part of the reason why it did not get a higher rating is that this kind of publication is the kind of publication I’m actively trying to avoid by sticking to only reading academic publications. I don’t care about reading anecdotes about somebody’s grandmother, and I don’t need two-page long anecdotes used to introduce readers to relatively simple concepts which could be covered in a paragraph by a skilled textbook author. I consider much of the fluff in normal popular science publications to be a waste of my time, and I get annoyed and confused when I find that kind of stuff in supposedly academic publications (this book was published by Harvard University Press). The book is not bad and it has some interesting ideas, but there’s way too much fluff for my taste. In the post I’ll talk a little about some of the ideas presented in the first four chapters of the book.

This observation from the book, made early in the coverage, might arguably be one of the most important things to take away from the book: “People who are curious learn more than people who are not, and people learn more when they are curious than when they are not.”

Attention is an important variable in the learning context, and curiosity helps with that; the author notes both that it’s quite obvious that curiosity helps children (much of the book is about the curiosity of children) learn, but also that we don’t actually know a great deal about how to make children curious about stuff in order to help them learn – this is not something people have researched very much. I find this, curious. An important observation in that context is however that we do know that curiosity is not what you might term dimension-less; people are curious about different things, and children are most curious when they are given the opportunity to inquire about things that mystify them or attract their attention. Research indicates that children are very curious early on in their lives (babies, toddlers), and that curiosity then seems to decline later on. One way to think about this is that babies don’t have good working models of what to expect will happen in the world around them yet given specific input, in part because they don’t have a lot of experience, so they’re often surprised; later on, they come to expect certain things to happen in specific ways (gravity causes both the plate and the cup (and the cutlery…) to drop to the floor if you pick it up and throw it – my example, derived from avuncular experience…), and as their working models improve habituation kicks in and removes the need to attend to the inputs which previously demanded their attention, freeing up mental resources which can then be devoted to other purposes. Actually adults wouldn’t be very well off if they were all as curious as two-year-olds, because the need to constantly react to new stimuli presenting themselves would likely mean they’d never get anything done (the author does not bring this up, but it’s also not really important in the context of the coverage). As put in the book: “during the first three years, children are gathering the material they need to establish, and then enrich, the schemas that help them navigate the physical, psychological, and social worlds. Key to this mastery of pattern and order is their alertness to novelty. This fundamental characteristic of early development explains why toddlers seem practically voracious in their appetite for new information.”

Curiosity has multiple faces, but a working definition presented early in the work is that “curiosity is an expression, in words or behaviors, of the urge to know more — an urge that is typically sparked when expectations are violated.” Breadth and depth are important variables, as is persistence. Even if there’s sort of an identifiable general trajectory for the variable during childhood, with much curiosity early on and then lower values later, you still as argued in the quote above have a lot of interpersonal variation, and the book spends some time trying to figure out why it is that some people end up a lot more curious than others and how they might be different. It seems to be the case that differences present quite early, and as usual Bowlby‘s name pops up. It pops up because although exploration of the unknown may have positive consequences, it also involves taking a risk – anxiety is argued to be an important curiosity-mediator, so that children who are worried about abandonment may be less likely to go exploring than are children who have a secure attachment bond and feel that they have a safe haven to which they can retreat without much risk. Longitudinal research has indicated that at least for one curiosity conceptualization (a so-called ‘curiosity box’-setup), individuals who were securely attached at the age of 2 were more curious two to three years later than were individuals who were not securely attached at baseline. A study on monkeys done more than fifty years ago likewise found that monkeys raised without an attachment figure were more fearful and that fear prevented the animals from exploring their environment. Not impressive, but it seems plausible. This is incidentally one of the only (if not the only? Can’t remember…) monkey studies included in the coverage, and if I had to explain my annoyance in my goodreads review at the absence of such research, the main reason was that the author in my opinion early on in the coverage pushes the ‘humans are exceptional’-point further than it can be supported, which is the sort of behaviour that always tends to make me irritated.

It seems likely that feedback processes start early and may be important; if you explore and have positive experiences doing it early on, you’ll probably be more likely to explore in the future; and if you’re too fearful to go look behind that curtain, you may never realize it wasn’t dangerous. Although trait variables matter, environmental mediation also seems really important and there’s quite a bit of stuff about this in the book. There’s incidentally some research suggesting that too little inhibition may not be desirable, but too much will certainly contribute to a lack of curiosity.

Although it’s very obvious that children in what might be termed the ‘asks a lot of questions’-age are incredibly curious, it’s become clear from research on these matters that they’re actually quite curious even before that time, if you know where to look for this curiosity; in a series of experiments it’s been shown that children will point at objects to get information about them long before they learn how to verbally form questions, and it’s clear both that children point more often at unfamiliar objects and events than familiar ones, and that they’re more likely to point when they’re in the presence of someone they consider to be a knowledgeable informant (e.g. a mother). When they do reach the asks-a-lot-of-questions age, they, well, ask a lot of questions, and it turns out that some people have actually collected data on this stuff. One really neat sample mentioned in the book involved four children followed for almost four years, from they were fourteen months old until they were five years and one month old, and here the recordings included 24,741 questions presenting 229,5 hours of conversation; the children asked an average of 107 questions per hour. That’s an average, and it hides a huge variation among the individuals even in that small sample; one of the children asked an average of close to 200 questions per hour, whereas another asked only slightly less than 70. I’d suggest these numbers are higher than average due to selection bias and perhaps also due to Hawthorne, but I find it quite incredible that data such as this is even available in the first place, and the numbers do sort of illustrate what kind of level we’re talking about. It’s obvious from the conversational strategies the children employ at that point in time that they aren’t just asking questions to get their parents’ attention or in order to monopolize their time (though this may be a convenient side-effect); children act differently depending on how questions are answered and question-sequences display path-dependence, indicating that they use the questions to gather knowledge about the world around them, rather than e.g. just to train their language skills.

Most children acquire language in roughly the same sequence. They point long before they start talking in sentences, and after pointing they begin to use an object to represent another object. After that they realize that objects have names, and at that point they start learning new words very fast. While their vocabulary develops very rapidly during this first learning-new-words phase, they start combining them in orderly ways; i.e. they start speaking in sentences.

In diary studies the data seem to indicate that children who hear adults ask many questions in their environment are more likely to get their questions answered (causality is iffy, though). How many questions they ask depends on what they consider to constitute a satisfactory answer, but in general they are more likely to continue asking questions than are children who rarely see other people ask informational questions and who are not rewarded with satisfactory answers when they ask questions. The data suggest that three-year-olds generally ask more questions than seven-year-olds, but also that there are already at that point (at the age of three) important differences in terms of how many questions are asked by different children; interindividual differences can be spotted quite early and the feedback processes involved may be one mechanism leading to those differences growing over time.

Small children depend a great deal on their parents and other adults to interpret stuff in the world around them, and they don’t quickly outgrow this dependence on adults; however as children age the range of responses towards specific stimuli expands. A toddler might want to know whether or not a fear response is proper in a specific context and so will observe the parents before reacting to a new stimuli to learn what’s the proper response; but as the child ages and the cognitive abilities increase the child might also have to make a decision, implicitly or explicitly, of e.g whether or not to play with (how many of?) the toys on the floor. In a study on this stuff they tried to manipulate the curiosity of the mother of a child by asking her either to manipulate objects lying on a table, look towards the corner of the table, or talk to another adult elsewhere in the room, with the child observing through a one-way mirror – the child was then later let into the room, and it turned out that children who had observed their mother manipulating the objects were not only more likely to manipulate the toys in manners similar to how the parents had done, but they were also more likely to explore to the toys in other ways. How parents (and other adults) behave will be noticed by children whether or not the parents know they’re being observed, and I think many parents might be surprised to learn how much observed behaviours, as opposed to verbally communicated behavioural norms, matter. A quote from the coverage:

“To sum up so far, from infancy until at least the elementary school years, children look to adults for cues about how to respond to objects and events, how to interpret the things they witness and experience, and how to interact with the world. The cues children take from adults are powerful in the moment, but have long-term impact as well. Moreover, the influence extends beyond problem solving. Children also learn from the adults around them what kind of stance they can or should take toward the objects and events they encounter as the day unfolds. This is particularly important when it comes to inquiry. Because, as should be clear by now, inquiry does not bubble up simply because a child is intrinsically curious. Nor does it simply erupt when something in the environment is particularly intriguing. Whether a child has the impulse, day in and day out, to find out more, ebbs and flows as a result of the adults who surround her.” [my emphasis].

Parents aren’t the only adults with whom children interact, and multiple studies have indicated that when preschoolers receive informative answers by their teachers they ask significantly more questions. In a curiosity-box setup (basic setup: Leave a box with lots of drawers, each one including a small item, in a classroom and then observe how many children approach it, how fast they approach it, how often they do, etc.), “there was a direct link between how much the teacher smiled and talked in an encouraging manner and the level of curiosity [as measured by box-related behaviours] the children in the room expressed.” Even subtle adult behaviours like encouraging nods and smiles by a teacher may affect behaviours/curiosity.

A very important point in the context of social modelling is that many of the behaviours adults display are not necessarily geared towards the children, but that these behaviours still matter:

“Parents and teachers are not always gearing their behavior directly toward the children they are with. They are to a great degree just being themselves. They lift lids, tinker, look things up, watch things carefully, and ask questions. Or they don’t. In fact, many adults do not express much curiosity in their everyday lives. There are plenty of adults who rarely want to find out about something new, or probe beneath the surface. Why wouldn’t this have an impact on children? […] children watch and learn from adult behavior in the short run and in the long run. And now we have some evidence that the same is true when it comes to children’s interest in finding out more. When parents give their children some freedom to wander, explore, and tinker, it makes a difference. When parents express fear or disapproval of inquiry, that too has an effect. But parents are just the beginning. When it comes to their urge to know more, children at least as old as nine continue to be extremely susceptible to the behavior of adults. And here it’s worth remembering that children learn a lot at home from behaviors not directed toward them, and that at school the same is true.”


April 12, 2015 - Posted by | Books, Psychology

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