Exploring what it means to be curious

In a new book ‘Curious Minds: The Power of Connection,’ Penn’s Dani S. Bassett and twin sibling Perry Zurn weave together history, linguistics, network science, neuroscience, and philosophy to unpack the concept of curiosity.

Twin siblings and scholars Dani S. Bassett and Perry Zurn
Twin siblings and scholars Dani S. Bassett of Penn and Perry Zurn of American University collaborated over half a dozen years to write “Curious Minds: The Power of Connection.” (Image: Tony and Tracy Wood Photography)

Following is an excerpt from “Curious Minds: The Power of Connection” by Perry Zurn and Dani S. Bassett, © 2022 Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Bugs. Sometimes, something just bugs you. A worm in your ear. We have all had the experience. You are going about your day, and something prompts you to wonder. You mull it over. You try on this explanation, or that one. And then you get distracted, and you move on. Or maybe you don’t, and the worm digs in deeper. Or maybe you do, but the worm returns to its wriggling later that night. You can’t shake it off. Maybe you pull out your phone or strike a few keys—or turn to a colleague or ping a friend. Gosh, now you really want to know! Perhaps you hit a few walls—paywalls or prejudices, differences of opinion or the limits of science, or even congenial scoffing at your pet project. Depending on who you are, you might also encounter outright sexism or racism, classism or ableism—all ways of telling you your bug is a bust. Forget this fleeting interest and focus on something that matters.

Book cover of Curious Minds: The Power of Connection by Perry Zurn and Dani S. Bassett
(Image: © 2022 Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Regardless, let’s say, you carry on. Maybe the kids are screaming, or you are in a meeting, or you drive to the store for milk. Despite bombastic blasts from every corner, you hold on to what’s bugging you, refusing to let it bugger off. And then it happens … your mind begins to dance and to weave. Collecting the bits of things that might be relevant and stitching them together. So builds the briefest of webs. Perhaps it was a silkworm after all! Now you are really getting somewhere. This is your brain on curiosity.

And you are in good company. Rewind back to 1928, if you will. Virginia Woolf is sitting on the banks of a river (the Thames, the Cam, the Isis), and she has a worm in her ear: women and fiction. What even are they? she wonders. “Questions,” she calls them, “unsolved problems.” She finds herself walking and thinking, calmly at first and then feverishly. Crisscrossing the Brontë sisters and George Eliot, Charles Lamb and William Thackeray, she wonders not only about women and about fiction, but about their relation and the several ways in which it can be characterized. She strides by the nearby university, a place filled—as she puts it—with obsolete old minds, bereft of body and free of fact, loosed from the roughshod rambling toward truth she is currently undertaking. And then there it is!

Thought—to call it by a prouder name than it deserved—had let its line down into the stream. It swayed, minute after minute, hither and thither, among the reflections and the weeds, letting the water lift it and sink it, until—you know the little tug—the sudden conglomeration of an idea at the end of one’s line….

This is curious thought. Holding out a line. Casting and recasting it. Waiting patiently, watching the river, the waves, the light, sinking into the circle of life. Until suddenly, you feel it: a series of nibbles, and then tugs, and then slowly something coalesces there on the end of your line. Lines of thought agglutinate. They weave themselves together and take shape, gaining felt sense and even power. Ah-ha!

But the challenge of it all is not simply patience. It is also the conundrums and the curtailments. What sort of fish did she find? Was it an as-yet-undiscovered and unnamed specimen? Or was it a species common to the era and area, a carp perhaps, or a perch? Was it a mutant fish, strange from the start? Or was it a chimera of a fish, some fin-bearing aquatic creature that only medievalists can fully appreciate? Would taxonomies need to bend for it or break? Or would they simply breeze by it? What, in fact, was it she discovered? What inkling took shape for her in an instant?

We will never know; for, she is quickly accosted by an old-fashioned version of the campus police. She had wandered onto the college green, where women were forbidden. “He was a Beadle; I was a woman. This was the turf; there was the path.” She rights herself forthwith and heads for the library, only to be informed at the door that she needs a male escort to enter. Alas! She is out walking alone. In both cases, she laments, “They had sent my little fish into hiding.” Determined, she returns to casting her line, over and over again, until the arc of her queries weaves a tapestry: “A Room of One’s Own.” In this masterful essay, she puts two and two together: Thinking requires the freedom to fish, or “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

In “Curious Minds,” we start right there, with the architectures of (and for) curious thought itself. How does curiosity move and how does it build? What are the neural, epistemic, and social bases of that building? How does your brain connect disparate ideas and string together concepts? How does it reconfigure old notions and weave together new ones? Do different people practice curiosity in different ways, building knowledge configurations of different shapes and styles? And how exactly do we practice curiosity together? What does it mean to track down shared hunches? Or to cross-pollinate curiosities across cultures? Is it even possible to characterize how curiosity feels and functions on these multiple registers? And what happens when curiosity falters? By what neural substrates, social structures, or cultural strictures does curiosity get curtailed? For that matter, what would it mean to facilitate the dynamic force of curiosity equitably, cultivating greater freedom of inquiry and counteracting longstanding patterns of epistemic hierarchy? These and so many other questions fuel the book in front of you.

For too long—and still too often—curiosity has been oversimplified. In everyday parlance, it is often reduced to the simple act of raising a hand or voicing a question, especially from behind a desk or a podium. Or to turning an object this way, then that, or perhaps simply “googling” it. Scholars often boil it down to “information-seeking” behavior or a “desire to know.” But curiosity is more than a feeling and certainly more than an act. And curiosity is always more than a single move or a single question.

From the toddler to the most well-trained of scholars, it is never a straight shot. Curiosity comes in waves—mutating, agglomerating, washing ashore, and washing back out again. Curiosity is as much the brisk steps in search of a new vantage point as it is the silent daydreaming by a river’s edge. What falls out of most quotidian—and even scholarly—characterizations of it are the lines that make curiosity what it is. The wandering tracks, the weaving concepts, the knitting of ideas, and the thatching of knowledge systems. In a word, the very essence of curious movement in conceptual and physical space. What gets lost are the networks, the relations, between ideas and between people.

In this book, we offer a new theory of curiosity. Drawing on our own fields of complex systems and neuroscience, literature and philosophy, we propose a network account of curiosity. For us, curiosity is a network practice, a relational practice. It works by linking ideas, facts, perceptions, sensations, and data points together. But it also works within human grids of friendship, society, and culture. Rambling over vast interdisciplinary terrain—as we are wont—we develop an account that is as relevant to the humanities and the sciences as it is to everyday life.

When you query, you connect. And you thread together not simply one piece and another, but within a constantly changing web of individual and collective knowledge. Importantly, that curious connection is never just free play. As Woolf so deftly dramatizes, we weave our knowledge webs within existing contexts rife with constraints, constraints not only in the epistemic architectures of knowledge, but in the social architectures of knowers. Here in these pages, we tackle that complexity. Curiosity connects. And it does so within the connective tissues of brain and body, system and society.

And that matters.

Dani S. Bassett is the J. Peter Skirkanich Professor at the University of Pennsylvania with a primary appointment in the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Department of Bioengineering and secondary appointments in the School of Arts & Sciences’ Department of Physics & Astronomy, SEAS’ Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering, and the Perelman School of Medicine’s Departments of Neurology and Psychiatry.

Perry Zurn is an associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in philosophy at American University in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Philosophy and Religion.

The text above is an excerpt from “Curious Minds: The Power of Connection” by Perry Zurn and Dani S. Bassett, © 2022 Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Used by permission from the publisher.