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LUMPENPROLETARIAT—On today’s edition of free speech radio’s Against the Grain, co-host Sasha Lilley spoke with developmental psychologist Dr. Susan Engel., a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.  This excellent interview deserves our full attention, whether we are parents, educators, or simply lifelong learners.  Dr. Engel provides powerful insights into the origins and nature of curiosity.  It turns out curiosity is a powerful catalyst for learning.  Yet, educational institutions have largely discouraged excessive inquisitiveness and questioning in the classroom.  Free thinking, it also turns out, has been viewed as dangerous by state educational institutions.  Why has curiosity not been studied much in the field of psychology?  For various reasons, but primarily because it’s dangerousListen (and/or download) here. [1]



AGAINST THE GRAIN—[27 MAR 2017]  [CART: kpfa event]  [Station identification by Erica Bridgeman(sp?)]

[Against the Grain theme music]

“Today on Against the Grain:  Evidence shows that, the more curious we are, the better we learn and the happier we feel.  And, yet, much of our schooling discourages curiosity.  And our curiosity shrinks with time for complex reasons.  I’m Sasha Lilley.  I’ll speak with developmental psychologist Susan Engel about what drives and inhibits our curiosity.  That’s after these [KPFA] News Headlines.”  (c. 1:26)

[News Headlines omitted by scribe]  (c. 5:42)

SASHA LILLEY:  “From the studios of KPFA in Berkeley, California, this is Against the Grain on Pacifica Radio.  I’m Sasha Lilley.

“Curiosity is a universal impulse.  But what isn’t universal is how curious we remain, as we go from ravenously inquisitive infants and small children to adolescents and adulthood.  And, yet, curiosity is fundamental to how much we learn and how happy we are.

“Developmental psychologist Susan Engel turned her attention to the question of curiosity, which up to very recently has been a very neglected field of study.  In The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood, which was ten years in the making and was published by Harvard University Press two years ago, she explored what fuels curiosity and what diminishes the drive to understand the world.

“Engel teaches in the Department of Psychology at Williams College and is the author of many books.

“Susan, it’s good to have you back.  Obviously, infants and toddlers are enormously curious about the world.  They’re impelled to explore everything, that they can.  How does curiosity appear to diminish during life?”  (c. 6:59)

DR. SUSAN ENGEL:  “Well, I think it, both, appears to diminish and, to some extent, it does diminish.  I don’t think that’s all just appearance.  Let me just say that to begin with.

“You know; babies are born with this enormously powerful tool, which is their ability to detect novelty.  And, at the same time—I mean—that implies, then—in fact it is—an equal capacity for identifying patterns, whatever is the same as, or familiar to, whatever they’ve experienced.  So, they recognise their mother, or their primary caregiver’s voice almost immediately, and his or her face.  And they quickly sort of have a scheme for that, a schema.

“Then, they notice when the voice is different, or when they hear a new voice, or when they see a different face.  And that ability to, both, identify patterns and recognise what’s familiar and, particularly, what’s unfamiliar is the mechanism, that powers this enormous amount of learning that happens in the first few years of life because they’re quickly getting these schemas or scripts or whatever you wanna call them, these sort of frameworks, that guide them through the day and tell them:  You know this. You know this. Oh, yes, that’s a face. That’s an animal. Oh, that’s breakfast. Oh, this is what happens at breakfast(c. 8:22)

“What they do is, if something unusual happens, so suddenly instead of eggs you put a big piece of chocolate cake on their high chair, you know, or someone they’ve never seen walks in the door, they do what any really good investigator does.  They stop.  They look for a long time.  They show all these quote-unquote ‘symptoms’ of interest and attention.  Their breathing changes.  Their voice and their skin changes.  They’re attentive.  And why are they attentive?  They’re trying to figure out whatever’s unknown, which is an incredibly adaptive mechanism because it means you’re learning the world around you all the time.

“So, that explains—that’s only part one of my answer—that explains omnivorous, ubiquitous, devouring hunger for new information, that little kids seem to show.

“And, so, we think—I mean psychologists think—there’s an inevitable diminishing of that because less and less of everyday life is filled with surprise.  You know?  After a while, you sort of know what people look like and what animals are and what trucks do and different routes to daycare, for instance.  So, daily life becomes a little more predictable and familiar.  And you’re not in a—you know how babies seem like they’re in a constant state of surprise?  Well, they are, um, because there’s so much to absorb and study.  As you get older, you don’t have to study everything all time time because lots of it is familiar to you.  So, in that sense, curiosity diminishes ‘cos there’s just not so much to be learned all the time every day.  (c. 10:02)

“At the same time, as we get older, we also develop interests.  So, even by the age of two or three, one kid can’t get enough of mud puddles.  And another kid can’t get enough of dinosaurs or bugs or trucks or any number of things.  It might be something more unusual like music, sounds.  As they get these specific interests, they sort of hone their curiosity antennae in on these specific domains.  So, curiosity gets a little less omnivorous and all-pervasive; and it gets a little narrower and deeper.

“That explains the kind of overall, if not diminishing, kind of narrowing of curiosity.  And, you know, by the time we’re older, or by the time we’re eight or ten or even grown-up, not everybody’s curious about everything.  I mean nobody’s curious about everything.”  (c. 11:02)


DR. SUSAN ENGEL:  “That said, it’s also the case that, um, some ways in which curiosity seems to diminish in the first—let’s say—eight years of life seems to be less inevitable, less a part of a sort of developing organism and more having to do with how various kinds of exploration are responded to by adults, more by the environment.”

SASHA LILLEY:  “Right.  So, on the one hand, there is a trajectory, you are saying, we all follow, which is just: As the world becomes more familiar to us, we’re not probing every single thing.”


SASHA LILLEY:  “On the other hand, that might be more social and may vary from person to person, depending on their experience.

“So, focusing on that second part, what sort of things appear to affect curiosity, as children move, especially, through the elementary school years?”

DR. SUSAN ENGEL:  “Yeah.  So, there are a couple of things.  And some of them actually sort of predate school per se.  So, there’s an increasing body of work showing that, actually, a sense of security is very important to exploration.  So, kids, who feel secure—and the original sort of, like, paradigm for that is secure attachment—kids, who feel constantly attached to a caregiver, we know are much more likely to explore their environment.  And, actually, some research shows that kids, who have a secure sense of connection or attachment to a caregiver at [age] two, actually, when brought into a lab at age four and offered a chance to explore a novel toy or an object, they approach the object more quickly and they explore it more thoroughly.  So, it does seem that, actually, that early sense of security has a long-term impact on children’s curiosity or exploration.  So, that’s one thing.  (c. 12:58)

“I mean I have come to think—and we can talk about this more later, if you want—that, actually, as kids get older, it’s not just the original, primary attachment security, that matters, but a sense of security in any given environment.  And I think that’s really important for thinking about kids at school because kids, who are scared all the time at school, whether it’s being scared of the overall place or the neighbourhood or even of their teacher are just less likely to explore.  And people are too nervous.  When people are too inhibited by fear, they feel less curious. [2]  ”


[snip]  (c. 59:59)

Learn more at AGAINST THE GRAIN.


Another Brick in the Wall” (1979) by Pink Floyd


[1]  Terrestrial radio transmission.

Summary from kpfa.org archive page:

Evidence shows that the more curious we are, the better we learn and the happier we feel.  And yet much of our schooling discourages curiosity and our curiosity shrinks with time, for complex reasons.  Developmental psychologist Susan Engel reflects upon what drives — and inhibits — curiosity.


Susan Engel, The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood Harvard University Press, 2015

[2]  Dr. Engel noted how fear can diminish our curiosity and hinder our learning.  Indeed, we know that fear and stress releases hormones, which can be toxic when sustained and recurring.  And fear and stress actually diminishes the capacity of the human prefrontal cortex.  See Dr. Robert Sapolsky for excellent research on this topic.


[Image of Dr. Susan Engel by source, used via fair use/creative commons.]

[30 MAR 2017]

[Last modified at 06:06 PST on 3 APR 2017]