Active Curiosity vs Open Curiosity

post by Unreal · 2019-03-15T16:54:45.389Z · score: 67 (25 votes) · LW · GW · 19 comments

I think the word ‘curiosity’ is used to describe two distinct things that I will now differentiate as active curiosity and open curiosity.

Active curiosity is driven & purposeful. Like thirst, it seeks to be quenched.

When you see a blurry object among distant waves and it looks like it might be a humpback whale, and you want to know.

When you are asked a trivia question like, “How many people have seen the broadway show Hamilton more than once?” or “What’s the life expectancy of people my age in the US, in 2019?” And you find yourself wanting to go to Google.

When you watch a YouTube video of someone doing something crazy, and you’re like, How did they DO that?

When you hear someone mention your name from across the room, and you become anxious to know what they’re saying about you.

Active curiosity activates the part of your brain that anticipates a reward, and it can enhance learning, making it easier to remember surprising results. [1, 2]


There’s another kind of curiosity that is often referred to by therapy books and practitioners. It is phenomenologically different, and it seems good to be able to distinguish the two types.

This type of curiosity, which I’ll refer to as open curiosity, is best achieved when you feel safe, relaxed, and peaceful. In my experience, it basically requires parasympathetic nervous system activation.

I’m aware of at least one person who can’t recall experiencing this type of curiosity. So I don’t expect this to be a common or universal experience, but I think it’s achievable by all human minds in theory.

This type of curiosity isn’t very driven. It doesn’t need satisfaction or answers. It is open to any possibility and can look without judgment, evaluation, worry, or anxiety.

It is evoked by the Litany of Gendlin and the Litany of Tarski. It is related to original seeing [LW · GW] / boggling / seeing with fresh eyes.

When I have open curiosity, I do have things I’m curious about! So it isn’t a totally passive experience. I often use open curiosity to get curious about myself or another person. It’s a very useful state for doing therapy-related work, as all emotions and thoughts feel acceptable and manageable, rather than overwhelming or undesirable.

Perhaps strangely, this type of curiosity is open to knowing, in addition to not knowing. It is open to understanding, in addition to not understanding. It doesn’t need to know or understand things, and as such, you can sit with confusing, upsetting, or vague things. And you can just ask questions about them, with an open mind, ready for whatever response or reaction comes. If no answer comes, it doesn’t feel like a problem. You can just ask another question.

I don’t recommend using open curiosity to study for your exams or read Superintelligence or learn how to make things. It’s not good for downloading lots of new information or developing a skill. Active curiosity is what you want for that.

I do recommend it for the following:

  • Introspection
  • Holding space for a friend who’s upset / has a lot of feelings
  • Trying to resolve a heated conflict that you’re involved in or mediating
  • Understanding how you relate to things like death, insanity, suffering
  • Creating an intimate moment with someone
  • Watching weird, surreal, artsy movies
  • Being in nature or somewhere very unfamiliar
  • Circling, meditating, therapy, IDC, etc.
  • Gaining insight into the universe, yourself, etc.
  • When I try to use active curiosity to understand how a person’s mind works, they often feel examined under a microscope, like they’re an experiment on my surgical table. When I try to use active curiosity to watch an artsy movie, I feel frustrated that it doesn’t make any sense. When I try to use active curiosity when my friend is upset about something, they feel unheard and like I’m just trying to fix their problem to make it go away; I also tend to ask unhelpful questions (more selfish interest in understanding the situation / update my opinions than trying to help them).


    Now that I’ve described these two types: Do they resonate with you at all? Do you basically know what I’m talking about, and it’s crystal clear? Or does this seem confusing and alien? I find it quite easy to distinguish the two in myself, and I wonder if others feel the same.

    ( It also seems very plausible this distinction is already covered in research literature or even on LessWrong, and I just didn’t look very hard! References welcome. )

    I would like to start using these terms to be less vague when I talk about “curiosity.”

    I notice I try to talk to certain people based on which type of curiosity I expect from them. Sometimes, I want active curiosity, like when I’m trying to think through a concrete problem or I want their opinion or advice. Other times, I want open curiosity, like when I’m having emotions, going through a confusing situation, or want to feel heard or accepted.

    I have a list of people I can rely on for active curiosity; and a separate list of people I can rely on for open curiosity. (These lists don’t really overlap?)

    But I haven’t really tried to just ASK for one type or another from someone.

    Now that I’ve named the types, maybe it will be easier to refer to which one I’m wanting, and people can help by saying which one they can potentially offer.

    ( For the record, if you want open curiosity from me, this is something I can usually switch on, especially on a good day. If you want active curiosity, it depends more on the topic of the conversation and on the object-level details, so you may want to tell me what the subject matter is first. )


    Comments sorted by top scores.

    comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2019-03-15T08:46:57.498Z · score: 13 (5 votes) · LW · GW

    Open curiosity very much sounds to me like a familiar aspect of the state that IFS [LW · GW] calls "being in Self": you're curious about the nature of your parts and those of others, but you don't have any particular agenda that you would want to achieve, and are open both to the possibility of learning more about your parts as well as to the possibility that they won't tell you anything more on this particular session.

    When facilitating someone else's IFS session while in Self, you are also not driven by any particular goal (including wanting to "fix" them), but are also just open to exploring things together and seeing what you will find. It's a familiar and pleasant state to me.

    In my IFS training, I explicitly heard Self being described both as a curious state and as a state where you don't have an agenda, so I don't think that this is just my interpretation either. Also watching other people who got into a strong state of Self, definitely seemed like they were very much in a state of open curiosity.

    Meditation has also once brought me into an even stronger state of Self / open curiosity than IFS work has managed to: one where I've been totally open to all mental and physical experience, without even the slightest need to experience particular thoughts and emotions, and have just been deeply at peace with whatever I might experience.

    comment by Unreal · 2019-03-15T13:11:43.489Z · score: 8 (4 votes) · LW · GW

    yes, this is basically what I'm referring to

    comment by Alexei · 2019-03-15T01:54:48.154Z · score: 13 (8 votes) · LW · GW

    Yes! For me one area where it’s super clear is relationships. On first dates I’m 100% active curiosity. I’ll ask lots of questions, trying to get to the heart of who the person across the dinner table is. But after a while, once I’ve “accepted” them, I switch more to open curiosity. It feels more playful. I’m less interested in their version and more interested in exploring together. There’s trust.

    comment by cousin_it · 2019-03-15T13:01:05.527Z · score: 12 (4 votes) · LW · GW

    I'd call it concentrated vs. diffuse curiosity instead. Strong desire to know one particular thing vs. many weaker desires to know many things.

    1. You receive a big wrapped gift but can't unwrap it until tomorrow. This is concentrated curiosity. (Less pleasant variant: the results of your health test are due tomorrow.)

    2. You unwrap the gift and it's a strange device with a big green button. You wonder what will happen if you press it? This is still concentrated curiosity.

    3. You press the button and a panel opens up, showing fifty more buttons. Now your curiosity has become more diffuse and exploratory, spread out across all the buttons.

    comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2019-03-15T13:29:14.134Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · LW · GW

    Do you mean to say that open curiosity is diffuse curiosity? If so, then that feels a little off, since you can have open curiosity about e.g. one particular emotion that happens to be in your mind.

    comment by ESRogs · 2019-03-16T08:15:30.697Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

    It seems to me that perhaps the major difference between active/concentrated curiosity and open/diffuse curiosity is how much of an expectation you have that there's one specific piece of information you could get that would satisfy the curiosity. (And for this reason the "concentrated" and "diffuse" labels do seem somewhat apt to me.)

    Active/concentrated curiosity is focused on finding the answer to a specific question, while open/diffuse curiosity seeks to explore and gain understanding. (And that exploration may or may not start out with its attention on a single object/emotion/question.)

    comment by Unreal · 2019-03-17T00:07:39.143Z · score: 8 (4 votes) · LW · GW

    Open curiosity does not actively seek to understand. Which is why I call the other one 'active'.

    I suspect concentrated and diffuse curiosity are both referring to types of active curiosity. Open curiosity is talking about something different.

    comment by mr-hire · 2019-03-17T20:42:51.354Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · LW · GW

    I'm reminded of Malcolm Ocean's article "questions are not just for asking." Open curiosity feels more like holding a question while active curiosity is asking it. He also links to my favorite web-comic ever which seems to advocate a sort of open curiosity.

    comment by Tiabllort · 2019-03-15T14:36:35.220Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

    Active Curiosity (AC), Open Curiosity (OC)

    I would consider the example with a panel of many buttons still AC or concentrated since it is simply a continuation of the desire to understand the [particular] object.

    I do, however, accept your description of OC as diffuse and exploratory: a series of AC questions in rapid succession.

    I suppose on some level, all curiosity could be boiled down to a simple question, which by this post's definition is AC.

    comment by Unreal · 2019-03-21T19:42:35.121Z · score: 10 (2 votes) · LW · GW

    Ian McGilchrist came out a book on brain hemispheres and their specialized roles called The Master and His Emissary. This summary was useful:

    The Left Hemisphere handles narrow focus (like a bird trying to pick out a seed among a bunch of pebbles and dirt), while the Right Hemisphere handles broad, open focus (the same bird keeping some attention on the background for predators). The LH is associated with tool use and manipulation of objects. The RH is associated with exploration and experiential data gathering.

    I don't immediately know how the hemispheres may be involved in the types of Curiosity. But a plausible hypothesis might be that Active Curiosity would be more left-brained and Open Curiosity would be more right-brained.

    comment by Raemon · 2019-03-21T22:48:43.087Z · score: 10 (4 votes) · LW · GW

    fwiw, I'd kind of like to see this book epistemically-spot-checked before building too much off it (I was chatting about it recently and some of the claims seemed iffy to me. It seemed like it should probably be able to identify easier-to-check claims and check to make sure he's at least getting obvious things right)

    My understanding is that the last time people got really into Left Brain / Right Brain as a dichotomy it ended getting kinda pop-sci-simplified (which eventually resulted in it falling out of favor), and I'd like to "do it right this time" if it's going to be a thing people are building theories and models around.

    comment by Unreal · 2019-03-24T06:36:54.135Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

    I've been watching a bunch of videos on this, and I'm finding them quite interesting so far.

    Also I agree lots of precision and discernment are useful to maintain here. It could get "floppy" real fast if people aren't careful with their concepts / models.

    comment by romeostevensit · 2019-03-15T00:30:24.883Z · score: 9 (5 votes) · LW · GW

    Consider the mental move you're performing if you're doing a word search and you switch which word you're currently actively hunting for. Or searching for a word on the tip of your tongue. Gendlin called this a sharp blank or a blank that knows what it is looking for. This seems related to active curiosity vs the more exploration based open curiosity.

    Also related: forward vs backchaining, open vs closed mode, exploration vs exploitation

    comment by mr-hire · 2019-03-15T11:55:24.322Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW · GW

    Babble vs. prune.

    comment by rhollerith_dot_com · 2019-03-17T16:40:31.213Z · score: 8 (4 votes) · LW · GW

    When someone says that an important business meeting should start with small talk they usually mean that it should start with open curiosity before proceeding to active curiosity.

    When I was in my late teens and early 20s I spent almost no time in open curiosity (basically because I was very bad at it, and like many young men I was driven to achieve mastery in something quickly, which entails getting better at the things I was already good at). Now that I am in my 50s I find myself avoiding active curiosity most of the time when the stakes are high (!) because I have noticed that I make more serious mistakes if I don't force myself to avoid active curiosity most of the time that I spend thinking about the things that matter to me the most (with the result that most of my hours of active curiosity are devoted to tangential concerns, e.g., improvements to my personal software environment, e.g., learning a little linear algebra, both of which a tangential concerns in my particular life). There are reasons to believe that my mind would work much better and that I would be able to stay actively curious a much larger fraction of the time I spend on my core concerns (without my finding in retrospect that I was making worse decisions) if I had established the habit in my teens and 20s to interleave my intervals of active curiosity with long intervals of open curiosity.

    Years ago IIRC I came across a web page that claimed that the people running MIT were publicly seeking an explanation for why the careers of successful MIT grads tend to peter out later in life relative to the careers of successful grads of Harvard. It is possible that the explanation includes the fact that hard science and engineering require the practitioner to spend more of their time in active curiosity or "focused attention" than other high-powered careers do. (The things I spend my teens and 20s being actively curious about were mostly computing and math.)

    Note that the flow state is usually highly pleasurable (which is why people spend so much time talking about it on the public internet) and that if you are in the flow state, switching from active curiosity to open curiosity will cause an abrupt cessation of the pleasure.

    comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2019-03-15T00:22:21.226Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · LW · GW

    Hmm, I think I haven't yet found a good personal memory for what you are referring to as "open curiosity" based on the things you wrote. Do you maybe have a video or a blog-post or an audio-clip that shows someone being in an archetypical form of that state?

    comment by Tiabllort · 2019-03-15T08:24:05.038Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW · GW

    I find this description on point. I often go down what I call "weekend rabbit holes" where like Alice I may start out with a spark of active curiosity but then coast through a sea of topics, allowing one idea to lead me to the next, in autopilot. I also find the terms active and open appropriate, particularly open. Like allowing one mind to stand back and be ready to receive any and all.

    I wonder how I could tap into this concept for leadership... To cultivate an environment where both types are nourished and directed fruitfully.

    comment by Jay Molstad (jay-molstad) · 2019-03-15T10:34:13.809Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

    I get it. As extreme cases, consider reading Proust vs. looking for an answer on an open book test. One is meditative; you're reading a whole book about the memories triggered by eating a cookie, following the associations wherever they go. In the other case you're actively, quickly searching for (say) an equation relating dielectric constants to refractive indices.

    comment by Noah Walton (noah-walton) · 2019-03-21T04:11:52.868Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW


    Getting stuck solving a problem should ideally trigger open curiosity. I was thinking about this in the context of solving a Project Euler problem (math problems that usually require some programming). There seem to often be alternating phases in solving where you find some low-hanging fruit, and then get stuck. Stuckness can be for example conceptual (you need to speed up your algorithm; you haven't found an algorithm that works at all; you don't understand the problem) or related to code (you have a natural-language framework for your problem but not code; the only code you can think to write is really ugly; there is a bug).

    The thing I call "stuckness" perhaps often indicates there is no clear path to go on -- if there is, I would be going on it. Sometimes this should trigger taking a break to rest. Other times it should trigger open curiosity about the problem. Even if I am remaining openly curious about the problem, it seems more likely that I will do something like get up from where I am sitting at the trigger point.

    A common failure mode is to continue being actively curious when stuck; this is associated with treating the situation like something it's not.