Imagine a young Leonardo Da Vinci out exploring the hills around his birthplace of Tuscany. What do you think would spark his curiosity?
We take it for granted that children are naturally curious. And it would seem that a young Leonardo – who would grow to be one of history’s most iconic innovative, high achieving individuals – would be particularly curious. How would that curiosity express itself and develop?
Leonardo Da Vinci has long been one of my personal intellectual heroes. I’ve been fascinated and intrigued by the scope of his interests, the depth of his skills in multiple fields, his prescient ability to blend science and art, thinking and living. I’ve invested many hours avidly reading and working through Michael J. Gelb’s work on thinking like the great master.
From the outset, I’ve been curious about Leonardo’s curiosity. Was he just more naturally curious than others right from the start? How did he go about developing his curiosity?
THE CURIOSITY OF YOUNG LEONARDO DA VINCI
Interestingly, we don’t know many details about Leonardo’s childhood. In his voluminous notebooks, he only recorded a few memories from his youth. One of these does give us a glimpse into his curious mind at work:
Having wandered some distance among gloomy rock, I came to the entrance of a great cavern, in front of which I stood some time, astonished and unaware of such a thing…after having remained there some time, two contrary emotions arose in me, fear and desire – fear of the threatening dark cavern, desire to see whether there were any marvelous things within it (Codex Arundel, fol. 155r).
Here in this one incident, Leonardo experienced two of the emotions most commonly associated with an encounter with the unknown: fear (because the unknown always pushes us away from our zones of comfort – especially when that unknown is a giant dark cave!) and desire (specifically the desire to see, to explore, to find out – in other words, the desire we call “curiosity”).
As is the case with all intrepid individuals, Leonardo ultimately chose to follow his curious desire in spite of his fear, and he did eventually enter the cave. And his curiosity was rewarded. Embedded in the walls of the cave, he discovered what appears to be a gigantic fossilized whale! This was a magnificent discovery, one which reinforced his sense of the weighty effects of time on even the mightiest of creatures:
Oh, powerful and once-living instrument of formative nature, your great strength of no avail, you must abandon your tranquil life to obey the law which God and time gave to creative nature. Of no avail are your branching, sturdy dorsal fins with which you pursue your prey, plowing your way, tempestuously tearing open the briny waves with your breast. Oh, how many a time the terrified shoals of dolphins and big tuna fish were seen to flee before your insensate fury, as you lashed with swift, branching fins and forked tail, creating in the sea mist and sudden tempest that buffeted and submerged ships (Codex Arundel, fol. 156r)
Some scholars have been skeptical as to whether this incident actually took place, interpreting Leonardo’s writing as a poetic reference to classical authors, such as Seneca or Ovid, both of whom wrote of the grand metamorphosis of the earth and of cave encounters. But recent research bears out the strong probability that Leonardo did, in fact, go exploring in a Tuscan cave and find an ancient fossil – in recent years, prehistoric whale bones have been discovered across Italy, including in Tuscany.
This evidence seems to me to be in keeping with what we know of Leonardo’s core principles. As someone who always valued first-hand, direct observation over the words and teachings of authorities, Leonardo would be the first to cherish his own explorations above and before classical readings. He is known to have said, “Those who study the ancients and not the works of Nature are stepsons and not sons of Nature, the mother of all good authors.”
Curiosity drives us to go out and explore the world with our own eyes.
THE NATURE OF CURIOSITY
Human beings seem compelled to explore, from the deep recesses of a cave to galaxies far away. But why are we so curious? To help develop an answer, some scientists are now attempting to study the nature of curiosity itself.
In his recent book Why? What Makes Us Curious astrophysicist Mario Livio examines the curious fact that though plenty of animals display an interest in new objects and situations, human beings are the only species to look for causes. We are the only ones who ask: “why?”
Livio’s book offers in-depth profiles on the curiosity of Leonardo Da Vinci and another uniquely curious scientist, Richard Feynman, as well as insights from interviews with a variety of living individuals who exemplify curiosity over a range of specializations. Livio also reviews recent psychological and neuroscientific research regarding curiosity to see what the studies suggest.
In accordance with his findings, Livio distinguishes perceptual curiosity from epistemic curiosity, and specific curiosity from diversive curiosity. Perceptual curiosity is our response to the surprising or strange; it is the curiosity that motivates us check out something in order to quell a sense of uneasiness. This contrasts with epistemic curiosity, which is the quest for knowledge and the desire to learn more about the universe. Along these axes specific curiosity is the desire for a specific piece of information, while diversive curiosity reflects a “restless desire” for exploration.
What I think is most significant in the desire for wide-ranging learning is causal curiosity, the motivation to seek out the underlying causes of what we observe. Causal curiosity is that driving force that is distinctively human.
Of course, the purpose of seeking out causes isn’t merely to increase the state of our knowledge as an end in itself. The purpose of seeking for causes – and of pursuing any knowledge for that matter – is for the sake of action, specifically the action of value-creation. If we want to live happier lives filled with more meaning, fulfillment, and achievement, we do well to cultivate our causal curiosity.
Though curiosity may be more “natural” to some, we can all choose to ask more “why?” questions and add more curiosity into our lives.
Personally, I like to follow the lead of Leonardo, remembering to choose curiosity over fear. He can serve as inspiration to us all to go out to explore why and how things are as they are, so that we may create our own innovative technologies and timeless artistic masterpieces.
Do you cultivate causal curiosity in your life? What has been your experience in exploring why?