Sunday, November 30, 2014


Ian Leslie’s book Curious and Walter Mischel’s The Marshmallow Test happened to arrive on my reviewing pile at the same time. As the daughter of an educational psychologist I have an intense curiosity of how people’s minds work. Having been the guinea-pig for many a school-aged child screening test, I resist classification and abhor labels. The revolution in discovering the plasticity of the human brain points to more fascinating lessons from psychology and neuroscience in the future - so I’m hooked.

Mischel is a granddaddy in the modern psychological field; his famous test devised at Stanford in the early 60’s (asking young kids to delay eating a marshmallow or playing with a toy in order to get two, sometime later) demonstrates the importance of delayed gratification and self control in achieving our heart desires and society’s best rewards in the future. His body of work, as well as all the related research his groundbreaking work inspired, has reinforced our perception that the “hot” immediate response to stimuli system needs to be countered by “cool” skills of self control to achieve better social and cognitive functioning, healthier lifestyles and a greater sense of self-worth. Mischel is candid about how his research began: “As both my students and my children can testify, self-control does not come naturally to me.” Clearly he has a strong degree of investment of moving beyond the fact that self control is a natural trait. His research was essential in demonstrating self control can be honed. Techniques to reinforce the belief that tough mental exertion is stimulating not depleting are helpful. Mischel warns about not falling into the trap of never enjoying the fruits of our labour, continuously delaying is to be avoided making us miserable and unfulfilled.

Mischel describes eloquently the research that gave rise to the “If-Then” strategies common in cognitive behaviour strategies that enhance our executive function and that are so useful at re-programming negative thinking and repetitive self-destructive behaviours. Recognizing one’s own stressors and teaching kids to self-distract, to create self-distance instead of self immersion and the reinforcement of choices that have consequences are great ways of creating optimal conditions for healthy self control. By understanding abilities and intelligence as skills and competencies that can grow if effort is made to improve performance our children are preparing for a life-time of balancing the hot and cool systems of our minds. Mischel also reminds us that the goals we set ourselves are as important as our innate abilities or even those we have refined: “No matter how they are formed, the goals that drive our life stories are as important as the [executive function] we need to try and reach them.”

Now, as a parent myself, my research population of two has led me to some scepticism as to how much influence any adult can have on a teen, let alone their own child. I am however like most of us, eager for any help to encourage my kids to flower as happy, productive contributors to society. Mischel astutely remarks that your reactions to his research depend on your own beliefs about how much people can really control and change what they become. His maxim is a nice twist on Descartes’ famous dictum: “I think, therefore I can change what I am” but he further reminds us that we have to want to change to achieve it. I’ll take that as inspiration!

Which brings me neatly to Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, a fascinating book uncovering the absorbing human trait of curiosity. What Ian Leslie observes in many different ways is that the curious mind is “unruly” and prone to being stigmatized, yet it is the spark that has fueled many great advances in human development. Leslie recognizes that employers are seeking the hungry minded, the creative problem solvers, the out-of-the-box leaps that lead to disruptive change.

Leslie describes simple curiosity, or “the itch to explore” as diversive curiosity. Left untrammelled, diversive curiosity can become futile, sending us haring after useless facts or disappearing down rabbit-holes. When curiosity is transformed into a quest for knowledge and understanding then it is epistemic curiosity, a driving force for innovation. Leslie argues that this “font of satisfaction and… sustenance for the soul” flourished on a widespread scale as a result of sharing ideas in print and having time to think and explore ideas created by post-industrial revolution societies.

Leslie surprisingly tolls a warning bell that the internet instead of being a beacon of opportunity for epistemic curiosity has instead become a harbour of diversive curiosity as we effortlessly find out facts and distract ourselves with cute kittens or celebrity lifestyles. Here then is a building from Mischel’s understanding of delayed gratification that using one’s executive function to control and further explore at a deeper level is what is beneficial at a societal as well as at a personal level.

Leslie’s secondary theme in the book is the importance of empathetic curiosity to bringing us out of ourselves: he gives several examples of people who have managed to navigate themselves out of a deep depression through engaging in ideas as simple as wanting to know how a storyline ends or as complex as a thirst for learning. Curiosity is contagious but so is incuriosity: Leslie’s book is a call to arms to invest in one’s own deep curiosity, he urges us to value learning for itself and not merely for goals to be achieved.

Reading these two books back to back reminded me of how much potential we have in our world today and how much we have a duty to our complex world, with all its joys and challenges, to invest in our innately human capacities. We really are an extra-ordinary species and we have the capacity to create extraordinary things and undertake amazing feats: we just have to put our minds to it and work hard to try, while enjoying the process itself. 

- Rosslyn Bentley

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