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20210725 – The Hungry Mind



MAIN IDEA:                                      

The main idea of this book is to present curiosity as a very important natural phenomenon specific for humans, review vast range of experiments that supports specific understanding of curiosity development in human children, demonstrate vulnerability of this process and negative impact on educational and consequent wellbeing success if this curiosity suppressed. It is also to provide some recommendations on methods to support curiosity in children.


1. Capturing Curiosity
Author begins with her childhood recollection of all kinds of experimentation as free child in 1960s and how much it was driven by the plain curiosity, which then decreased over time. Then she refers to research demonstrating that curiosity decreases between ages 7 and 12. She refers to work of Daniel Berlyne who identify the human specific feature: curiosity without immediate utilitarian application, which is mainly prompted by need to resolve uncertainty. Author also discusses research related to development of curiosity that led to conclusion that sometime between ages 3 and 11 children either develop appetite for knowledge or they don’t. At the end of chapter author discusses in some detail individual differences in curiosity, needs for knowledge acquisition, and formulates her objective this way:” 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. The twenty-two-year-old bears the imprint of all these experiences, which act as a series of layers on which each exploration or question in adulthood rests. This book is about why some children remain curious and others do not, and how we can encourage more curiosity in everyone.”

2. Safe Havens and Expeditions
In this chapter author looks at different periods of human development starting with curiosity of baby, which is universal and practically insatiable, but only to the point of familiarity. Author discusses several experimental works related to genetical equipment necessary for human specific need to know:” At a surprisingly early age human babies show how different they are from the young of other species by attending to differences beyond the bare necessities—novelty that helps them simply survive. They have what is called epistemic curiosity—an interest not only in what, who, when, and where, but why and how. Not only are children between the ages of nine months and thirty-six months eagerly absorbing information about what objects look like, taste like, sound like, can do, and can be done to, they are beginning to try to figure out why things happen the way that they do. They don’t always know that they are looking for reasons and explanations, but their behaviors tell us they are.” After that author discusses what quells curiosity in toddlers, confirming once again that it is familiarity, but also stating that it is highly personal and depends on temperament of a child. She refers here to works of Jerome Kagan on individual development, Nachman Stern and Best on novelty, and Simon Baron-Cohen of autism. Author also goes beyond individual internal process, stressing:” equally important idea that emerges from the work: human relationships are a key ingredient in the child’s ability to investigate the physical environment. Indeed, a series of experiments has shown that children with greater emotional and self-governing resources do in fact exhibit more curiosity as they get older.”

3. The Conversationalist
This chapter is about the next step in human development: use of language to obtain information from others. Author discusses the process of development of ability to ask questions that begins with pointing and then normally develops into highly intensive process of questioning. She looks at works of William Labov and his wife who traced in minute detail linguistic development of their child and questions this research asked. Author also present another interesting research:” Using the CHILDES database, Michelle Chouinard analyzed the questions of four children from the time they were fourteen months old until they were five years and one month of age. The recordings provided a total corpus of 24,741 questions and represent 229.5 hours of conversation. The children in this study asked an average of 107 questions per hour—an extraordinary volume of questions” Obviously all this is highly individual, but among consistent findings is strong correlation between levels of language acquisition in early childhood and future success in learning or lack thereof. Author also refers to cross cultural studies looking not only at quantity, but also quality of questions and type of information a child is trying to obtain.

4. Invitations and Prohibitions
In this chapter author moves to discuss exploratory behavior of child that starts with ability to move independently.  However, this independence is generally limited by adults, which encourage some behavior and limit other. Author reviews this process by comparing environment and limits on exploration of city vs. rural children. Author also looks at methods that adults use to control children behavior and especially curiosity. It turned out that adult attitude has huge impact on development and curious and innovative people usually grew in permissive and supportive environment where they were encouraged exploring whatever they were interested in and supported in this exploration.

5. Curiosity Goes to School
In this chapter author discusses process of encounter of developing child with formal educational system. Author presents research in which incidents of curiosity in class were observed, counted, and analyzed. General finding is that formal education generally causes curiosity level drop over time. Here is author’s explanation of this process:” So what might explain the drop? When you look at children’s sensitivity to social clues, and their increasing selectivity about what makes them curious, and you put this together with teachers’ reluctance to deviate from a plan, the pressure they are under to meet certain goals (goals that are not consonant with sating one’s curiosity), and the general neglect toward providing young learners with the materials that speak to their particular curiosity, one begins to see why children seem so incurious in schools.”

6. What Fuels Learning
Here author discusses drivers of learning referring to specific experimental work:” We’ve had experimental evidence for at least the past fifty years to support the idea that children’s intrinsic interest is the most powerful ingredient for learning. Daniel Berlyne’s experiments were premised on the idea that curiosity was a drive, much like hunger or sexual desire. And much like other kinds of arousal, it can be negative or positive. Either way, it motivates the person feeling it to reduce the arousal. The reduction of such arousal feels temporarily rewarding. The greater the arousal and its reduction, the greater the sense of reward.” She also discusses role of attention in learning process and experiments demonstrating how it works. Finally, author looks at variances in individual curiosity and approach to learning and presents some experimental evidence that it could be improved via interactions with other children and adults:” To sum up, from an early age, some children are more curious than others. But there is also great fluctuation from one setting to another. A child who is usually timid about opening things or asking questions can be beckoned into inquiry. Children who are ordinarily inquisitive can be hushed into a kind of intellectual listlessness. The characteristics that fuel curiosity are not mysterious. Adults who use words and facial expressions to encourage children to explore; access to unexpected, opaque, and complex materials and topics; a chance to inquire with others; and plenty of suspense … these turn out to be the potent ingredients.”

7. The Gossip
In this chapter author moves from the processes of curiosity and learning to object of these processes, which is for the gossip is live of other people. Author discusses how gossip is naturally developing in children from the early age, forming foundation of ability to learn from words of others about something not directly accessible or observable by individual. Finally, author discusses how the process of gossiping used as social weapon applied to manipulate people and obtain some objectives of gossiping individual. She also uses her childhood memories about Truman Capote, who was close friend of author’s mother, to discuss how gossip in its highest form could produce literature.

8. The Uses of Time and Solitude
In this chapter author expands the discussion of gossip as precursor of literature by moving to books and human:” ability to understand the world as a series of stories (hence the primacy of scripts in early cognitive development). Anthropologists and cross-cultural psychologists have found that though every culture uses stories, cultures vary greatly in how frequently they tell stories, how they form their narratives, and why they tell stories. But one thing everyone everywhere seems to have in common is the ability to follow a plot. And therein lies the first reason reading satisfies curiosity”. She then connects this with solitude and discusses unappreciated importance of this process:” Solitude plays an important and often underrecognized role in a child’s chance to pursue her questions and interests. In recent years there has been such focus on the importance of peer relations, and on the value of good instruction and good schooling, we may have lost track of an equally vital strand of childhood experience—free time and time alone. The bulk of contemporary developmental research has emphasized the perils of time alone, which tends to be cast as loneliness rather than solitude. Research has focused on children who have trouble making friends, or who are alone because of adverse life circumstances (weak family structure, poverty, and so on). It’s no wonder then that a relationship emerges between solitude and various kinds of problems—depression, and difficulty in social situations, to name two. The link, once established, leads to research that frames solitude in its most extreme or persistent forms—children who unwillingly spend time alone, or spend copious amounts of time alone.

This is reflected in society at large, where sociability is valued so highly. When children report on how they feel when they are by themselves, they may unconsciously see such time as the absence of companionship, rather than the opportunity to think, garner one’s personal resources, or experience things without the noise or dilution of others. The bias toward sociability overlooks the importance of unstructured solitude when it comes to developing one’s interest and feeding one’s curiosity in specific domains. A look at the lives of many of our greatest minds suggests that time spent daydreaming and exploring while alone, free of responsibilities, is crucial to the acquisition of knowledge—in other words, crucial for the curious mind.”

In the second part of chapter author discusses an importance of time available for free and unstructured research and experimentation, which is necessary for developing some area of deep interest and curiosity. Author discusses relevant research with use of internet and some implications of overzealous use of SWIBAT (for “students will be able to.…”) that leads to time limitation on free search. Here is how author summarizes the finding of research presented in this chapter:” Curiosity is an internal phenomenon—a feeling like a tickle, or an itch. But it’s a feeling that leads to action (including the act of thinking). This book for the most part has not focused on fleeting moments of curiosity, but the kind of curiosity that persists, unfolding over time and leading to sustained action (inquiry, discovery, tinkering, question asking, observation, research, reflection). Such sustained inquiry may be more likely to blossom when children have free time, and some time alone. This chapter began with a book—because reading is one of the most accessible and richest ways for people to satisfy all kinds of intellectual appetites. But books require time alone, and the kind of reading that satisfies curiosity depends on freedom to read what you want.”

9. Cultivating Curiosity

The final chapter is about methods of cultivating curiosity, which includes embracing ambiguity and promote a free search to satisfy curiosity, rather than formal data acquisition directed at success in testing. Author then discusses various methods used to cultivate curiosity, and concludes with the following statement:” Einstein was only partly right when he said, “Curiosity is a delicate little plant which, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom.” It turns out that like many delicate plants, in order to flourish, curiosity needs to be cultivated.”


I find that lots of experimental data presented in this book pretty much consistent with my believes based on what I know from both books and my own life experiences. I generally agree that methods of cultivating curiosity presented in this book are valid and do work, but I am afraid that their implementation is not realistic in settings of formal educational system that treats individuals as machine parts on conveyor to be filled with some knowledge and indoctrinate into some set of believes. The cultivating of curiosity and development of individual’s routine ability to use scientific method in knowledge acquisition could be achieved only outside of formal educational system. Some lucky individuals have time, ability, and supportive adults around so they are able to develop the precious ability to maintain lifelong curiosity, but great many others do not, the circumstance that makes some lives much more satisfactory than others. I believe that this complex process could be implemented only in one-on-one individual unstructured interactions between competent adult and child. It could not be achieved in factorylike settings of contemporary educational system. This could occur only after full completion of restructuring of society from industrial method of production to AI method, which would probably take a few decades.    

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