Curious Minds: from building knowledge networks to inciting political resistance
Okay, welcome everyone to this ML Talk on curiosity, curious minds. My name is Philipp Schmidt. I head up the Learning Initiative here at the Media Lab, and we try to understand how the Media Lab as a social system for learning works, and how we could design experiences for other people to participate in similar learning experiences. So curiosity is very near and dear to our hearts, and we think is really part of the DNA of the Media Lab, and I’m extremely excited about the two speakers we have here today. Danielle Bassett is an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She’s clearly very curious about many different things because she has formal affiliations with at least four departments: bioengineering, physics and astronomy, electrical and systems engineering, and neurology. I think that says a lot about her work also in her group. She studies biological, physical, and social system, and uses and develops tools from network science and complex systems theory to better understand these systems. Perry Zurn, Fellow at the Center for Curiosity at the University of Pennsylvania, and an assistant professor of philosophy at the American University, and looks at curiosity really through a completely different lens, political theory, political science, philosophy, and curiosity as a philosophical method and political practice. So I’m very excited that we get to hear from both of you about the different perspectives on curiosity, and engage with all of you and our livestream as well. I know there are people watching on the Media Lab website, as well as on Facebook live, so welcome to you. Anyone who’s following us on the interwebs, please use the #mltalks hashtag on Twitter and we’ll keep an eye on your comments and questions throughout, and we’ll try to weave them into their conversation. The flow is I’ll say a couple of words about what we’re trying to do here in this talk. Then Danielle and Perry are gonna give short presentations. We’ll have a chance to kind of chat a little bit about the things in your presentations, and then we’ll open it up to everyone both here and online. We’re hoping for kind of a lively discussion. So I’m gonna keep this quite short, but in the context of my work here with the Learning Initiative we think of curiosity in a way as kind of the oxygen or the rocket fuel that drives learning inside the Media Lab. We think of the Media Lab as, actually when I read about the fellowship at the Center for Curiosity I was like Center for Curiosity? That’s the Media Lab, like there’s another one somewhere? So I think we think of ourselves as a very curious place full of curious people, curious in both meanings of the term maybe sometimes. But as curiosity as kind of the rocket fuel that drives learning here. But there’s obviously also another side to curiosity, right? Both historically, which we’ll get to later, but curiosity hasn’t always been this positive thing that we think about it as. In the context of a lot of the technical systems that are being developed today, are the underlying mechanisms that make curiosity this great source of learning the same mechanisms that make it impossible for us to stop scrolling through Instagram videos when we know we should be getting out of bed in the morning? Like are those two things related? What’s the relationship between them? I hope that in the conversation we can touch on three large buckets related to curiosity. The first one is just getting a sense of what is curiosity? What do we mean when we talk about curiosity? The goal is not to have one definition of this is exactly what curiosity is, but more to highlight different lenses, different ways to think about curiosity and talk about curiosity and study curiosity. The second one is the political and social dimension of curiosity, which I think often people underestimate, but in the context of the Media Lab disobedience is something that we care about. I think that’s a particularly interesting aspect of the conversation. Then, finally, of course we wanna come to some thoughts on how would you design learning experiences and learning environments, both physical and social, that would foster and support curiosity and learning and the connection of those two. So I think that’s all I’ll say to set the stage. Dani’s gonna start with a talk, then Perry, and we’ll kind of from one to the other. So if you have thoughts or reactions either tweet them or write them down, and we’ll open it up to questions afterwards. But yeah, thank you for coming. I’m really excited about the conversation. Thanks.
We’re excited, too. Shall I stand or– Whatever you, would you like to stand? I’m gonna stand.
I would prefer to sit, is that okay?
Sure, yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay, I tend to move a lot when I speak so it may look funnier when I’m sitting than when I’m standing. So today the title of the talk that I wanted to offer to you is Curiosity and the Science Behind Knowledge Network Building. But before I get into the specifics of how I think about curiosity as knowledge network building, I wanted to share a little bit about myself. What I specifically wanted to share is that I like to talk to neurons. All of us have this little secret thing that we don’t tell anybody. My secret thing is that I really like to talk to neurons, and I talk to many different neurons from many different walks of life, and they each tell me their stories. Some of these stories are really unusual, some of them are sort of mundane, and anywhere in between, but I received one message recently from a neuron that I found particularly mysterious, and I wanted to share that message with you because it motivates a lot of the work that I do in my lab. So here’s the rather mysterious letter that I received recently from my friend, a neuron. Mankind and monkeys, ostriches and partridges, antlered stags, ganders, spiders, unfathomable fishes that dwell in the deep, and all creatures too small to be seen, every living thing and life itself all has come to and end of its melancholy realm and is now extinct. Thousands of centuries have passed since the earth bore any living creature, and this poor moon lights its lantern all for nothing. No more do the cranes wake and cry in the meadows. No more are the May bugs heard in the lime groves. There’s nothing but the cold, the cold, cold emptiness. Emptiness and more emptiness. Terrible, it is terrible. It is terrible. The bodies of all creatures that ever lived are as dust. Their indestructible matter has become stones, water, clouds, and their souls are become one soul, and that soul is me. I am the souls of Alexander the Great, of Caesar, of Shakespeare, of Napoleon, and of the lowest of the leeches. In me god-like reason is fused with animal instinct. Every memory is my memory, and every life is lived again in me. I am all alone. Once in a 100 years I open my lips to speak and my voice echoes dismally in the void, and there is no one to hear me. Why is this a rather mysterious letter to receive from a neuron? I think there are actually many reasons why this letter is rather mysterious to come from a neuron, but the one that really strikes me most is that last sentence: Once in a 100 years I open my lips to speak and my voice echoes dismally in the void, and there is no one to hear me. This is mysterious because when neurons speak there are many other people to hear that neuron, right? The fact about neurons is that they share their information immediately with many other neurons. In fact, that constellation of cell bodies and interactions between them allows for communication and computation and inference and perception and behavior and what makes us humans. What my lab is particularly focused on and what I find amazing and interesting to study is how does the pattern of connectivity between neurons allow that ensemble to perform the functions that it does for us. Obviously that’s a question that we can ask at the cellular scale, which is illustrated here, but it is also a question that we can ask of the entire human brain. So here is an image of diffusion imaging data, which is a type of data that can be acquired on an MRI machine, so a magnetic resonance imaging machine. And this type of imaging can watch the diffusion of water molecules inside of the brain. Interestingly, water molecules diffuse by Brownian motion in your head, and those molecules bounce up against certain constraints. One of the common constraints are large bundles of axons that link one set of cell bodies to another set of cell bodes, or one region of the brain to another region of the brain. So each of those little threads that you see in that video, or that sort of picture, are large bundles of neuronal axons that can connect up different parts of the brain and form a pattern of interconnectivity that allows for large-scale computations in a human. Importantly, that pattern of connectivity differs in each person and individual differences in that pattern relate to what each of us finds easy to do, what each of us finds more difficult to do, and possibly what makes us, what it is that we each find curious. So the way that we have been tackling trying to understand that pattern of connectivity and what it means for how humans think is using tools from an emerging field called network neuroscience. So network neuroscience asks the question of how does that pattern of physical connections or functional interactions between different neural units in the brain support computation, cognition, and eventually behavior? We use a set of mathematical tools and actually sort of a very fundamental language that has come from statistical mechanics and physics from graph theory in mathematics, from computer science and engineering, that together allows us to quantify patterns of connectivity or patterns of interactions, the architecture, the potential functions that they provide, and the dynamics that can occur on top of them. So this work is very interdisciplinary. It pulls from many different areas of science to try to say what is it about that pattern that allows the functions that we observe, either at the small scale between cells or at the large scale between different areas of the brain. So here is a picture of the network inside of your brain. This is from one example individual. What you can see here is that we’ve plotted it so that the color of each of the individual nodes or circles in the graph corresponds to the color on the brain. So when you see red in the graph, you also see red on the brain, and that’s because those regions are present in that portion of the brain. So what you can see on your left is that the pattern of interconnections between different parts of your brain has interesting clustering structure, meaning that there are groups of brain regions that tend to be strongly and densely interconnected with one another, and that group may not be strongly connected to another group. So this clustering structure is very evident. What’s interesting about that clustering structure is not only that it exists, but each of those clusters seems to be formed of regions in your brain that help you perform similar functions. So for example, regions of your brain that are important for moving your body all tend to have strong and dense interconnectivity with one another. Regions of your brain that are important for vision are also strongly and densely interconnected with one another in their own cluster. Region of your brain that are important for executive function and cognitive control, working memory, strategizing, and decision making tend to be all densely connected with one another as well. So this picture that you see on your left illustrates not just that the network architecture has interesting mathematical characteristics, but that those mathematical characteristics mean something for how your brain actually functions. Having this local interconnectivity allows for those regions to collaborate and support the cognitive functions that you have. That observation that there’s clustering structure in these networks, and that each of these clusters maps onto specific cognitive functions has led to a really interesting industry of fascinating questions. I’ve just written down a few here, and I’m actually going to read them so that you can see how this connects to many different areas, both in science and in the humanities. So in psychology we are asking, how do network modules change in different brain states as you’re performing very different functions? In neuroscience we want to understand what role neurophysiological processes at the sort of neurotransmitter level play in these modules. In medicine we want to understand how these modules are altered in psychiatric disease or in neurological disorders, and what that means for how we can intervene. In mathematics we’re asking what type of graphs brain networks are most like and why? Can we build generative models for them? In statistics we’re asking how we can parse significant structure from noise in these networks. In physics we ask, what role does the network structure play in material properties? That actually becomes particularly important in traumatic brain injury. That complex architecture of interconnectivity that you observed actually changes the transmission of forces through the brain during a traumatic brain injury, and so that’s really important to understand. In engineering we’re asking how we can control this network or design new networks. That’s particularly important in epilepsy when we want to design stimulation interventions that can quiet seizure dynamics so that individuals can have a fuller and happier life. Then in art, what role does the network structure play in the creative process and why? So while I think all of these are interesting questions, and I could certainly talk for another five to 10 minutes just about these questions, I wanted to mention the fact that there’s one important characteristic of your brain that is not illustrated by this idea of a modular network, and that is the fact that the system has a level of changeability that is important for how you can actually respond to external cues. To illustrate that I wanted to show you these two pictures. On the left-hand side you see your brain. On the right-hand side you see a social network of Caltech Facebook friends. Each circle indicates a person, and then a link between two people indicates a connection between them on Facebook. What’s interesting about this architecture is that you can see certain regions, or certain people, I want you to focus on the very center of the graph, there are certain people that have a color, let’s say that one in the center that is red. The color of the individual node tells you what house they belonged in in Caltech, and you can see that red person is not actually friends with any of the red people, so the other friends in their house, but they’re friends with many other people from many other houses. One could suggest that that person might want to move. Maybe they don’t like anyone in their current house. Or you could also argue that that’s a beautiful place for somebody to be having strong connections with many very disparate and diverse individuals. In fact, what we find in the brain is that we have regions of the brain that are very much like that red person in the center, that they flexibly move between communicating with very different modules in your brain. So the picture that we have of the brain is a lot more like this where we’ve added the dimension of time. Now instead of having a static network that can be captured by a drawing, or a photograph, or a picture, or a network, now we have something that’s actually a time-evolving network that captures the changing reconfiguring properties of these interconnections that allow for us to change our cognition and behavior. That is what we’ve found is most important for learning. Learning is not something as well characterized by a snapshot of a person’s brain, no matter how beautiful and orchestrated the architecture seems to be. It’s best captured by a dynamic video, a way of understanding the reconfiguration processes fundamentally. But once we start thinking about dynamics and dynamics of cognitive processes supporting learning, I think we’re faced with a new challenge, and I think that challenge is very well illustrated by this quote from Alexander Pope: “There’s some peculiar in each leaf and grain, “some unmark’d fibre, or some varying vein. “Shall only man be taken in the gross? “Grant but as many sorts of mind as moss.” And while I’d also love to give a talk on the many sorts of species of moss, I’ll leave that aside for a second and say that this is an illustration of the many different kinds of humans that we should admit exist. We don’t want to only understand man in the gross. We want to understand man in its diversity and not just man. So what we have been doing over the last couple of years is trying to understand how this flexibility and reconfiguring in our networks is related to how somebody learns, and how that may differentiate successful learning from unsuccessful learning. So this was a very early study where we found that flexibility of these networks inside somebody’s brain are correlated with how much learning occurs. Individuals with more flexible brain networks are those that learn better than individuals who have less flexible brain networks. That’s driven by many different brain regions that are supportive of a broad array of cognitive processes, and that’s illustrated on the right-hand side. But that’s motivated some questions about what could potentially enhance flexibility. If flexibility may be important for learning generally and adaptive cognitive processes, could I do something to make my brain more flexible? I could try to drink more coffee. Many people suggest I should not do that. I drink plenty of coffee as it is, so that’s probably not a very good idea for me. I should certainly eat more vegetables. I love carbohydrates and I don’t eat enough vegetables, so I should probably do that. Not sure if it would make more flexible. I’m sure my mom would think it would. I should probably read more original, classical literature. Maybe I should spend more time hiking with my husband and my two sons. That’s what the picture is on the bottom right. But what we’ve found, kidding aside, scientifically is that positive mood, so when you’re in a positive mood your brain is more flexible. When you’ve had rest the night before and had breakfast your brain is also more flexible. And there are also for those who cannot change either their mood or how much they rest or eat for medical reasons, there are pharmacological interventions as well that can enhance flexibility in someone’s brain. So there are ways to become more flexible. But if that is in general important for learning, then the question is, you know I’ve thrown around this word learning a couple of times now and I’ve never actually defined for you what I mean by that. I think most of our studies of learning classically could become even richer by considering what it is that humans learn, and what are the sort of the complexities in what humans learn. When I think about human learning, and whether that’s learning something that is instantiated in a book, or in a research paper that I write for my lab, or in a conversation like the conversation that we’re gonna have in a few minutes, or a lecture in a classroom situation, or others, what I think of is that each of those methods of transmission are trying to present a network of ideas. It’s not a single idea that’s being transmitted. It’s also not a bucket of ideas that I’m offering to you. It is connected pieces of information that I am presenting, or connected pieces of concepts. So in earnest what I think I am trying to do is transmit a network to an individual, whether that’s in the book, paper, conversation, or lecture form. So let’s take this network on the left-hand side as an example. I have 15 ideas I would like to share with you, and those 15 ideas are interconnected with one another in a particular way. If I want to share with you that network, the question is how do I do that? I think it’s maybe a more complicated question than it seems at first. The reason is that there may be that high-dimensional object, I’ve mapped it in two dimensions right here, but there may be a high-dimensional network object I want to transmit and my challenge is I need to map that into the one dimension of time because I can only say one word in front of the next, right? So my constraint is that I can only have one word in front of the next, have one sound in front of the next. I’m constrained to take a high-dimensional object map it into one dimensional space in such a way that the person on the other side can optimally reconstruct the high-dimensional object that I am trying to transmit. So you can sort of think of this as a problem of network mapping high-dimensional into one-dimensional so that the reconstruction into the high-dimensional space is easy for the person. Interesting questions are what is an optimal map? You can all probably think back to your least favorite lecture in college where it seemed that it was a set of disconnected ideas, not actually an organized network that was being transmitted, or that the manner of transmission was so disorganized that it was impossible to see what the whole picture was at the end. So I think interesting questions are: What is the optimal mapping? What is the optimal reconstruction? Do each of us prefer to have information shared with us in different ways? Do we each learn different network architectures differently? So here I’m showing you a modular graph that has clustering structure. What if I was trying to transmit to you a lattice graph, or a random graph, or some other network that has very different architecture? Do you each prefer a different type and see that and reconstruct it more easily? And if so, could we use that understanding to better help individuals with learning deficits, for example? But that motivates this last quote that I wanted to share with you which is from Dewey’s Democracy and Education: “In other words, knowledge is a perception “of those connections of an object “which determine its applicability in a given situation. “Thus, we get at a new event indirectly “instead of immediately by invention, ingenuity, “resourcefulness, and ideally perfect knowledge “would represent such a network of interconnections “that any past experience would offer a point of advantage “from which to get at the problem “presented in a new experience. “Curiosity is not an accidental, isolated possession. “It is a necessary consequence of the fact “that an experience is a moving, changing thing “involving all kinds of connections with other things. “Curiosity is but the tendency “to make these conditions perceptible.” So that fact that we are sharing with one another knowledge networks is something that is, I think, important for helping us to understand how to transmit information, but it’s also important for us to understand how each of us seeks out information. We are seeking information not as independent units often, but as a network. We stand or we sit in one particular place, and then we search out new information along a path of connected ideas. Sometimes we jump, sometimes we even leap across to other stones inside of this stream, but we’re doing so often to make the connections from something far away to something that we already know. I think this is a nice illustration of one type of curiosity that allows us to build these networks over time. To study that from an empirical perspective, we are engaging in this study called the KNOT Study, Knowledge Networks Over Time, where we have individuals browse Wikipedia for many, many days in a row, and then they share all of that information with us. There’s an app installed on their computer, and we can see very different transversals of the knowledge space of Wikipedia. So importantly, you can map out the distance between any two pages in Wikipedia based on their semantic content, or based on the link architecture between two Wikipedia pages: Were they a direct link, a single click, were they multiple clicks away, etc. So we can map out the distances that exist inside of the Wikipedia network, and then we can ask how do people traverse those distances? Here are just three different examples of individuals and their personal traversals. So on the left-hand side you can see this is an individual who is connecting up very relatively nearby pieces of information and content, and seems to stay roughly all connected; everything connects to something that they already know. In the middle you see the existence of several independent networks, so they’re curious or they’re following information in this space, and then they also follow some information in this space even though there’s no direct connection between them. On the far, here, far right for you, there’s somebody who is dropping at very, very distinct web pages each time. So an interesting question is which of these people is the most curious? Is it the person who is connecting up information into a single graph? Is it a person who is finding disconnected pieces of information? That leads us to the question of what does your curiosity look like? And I like to liken this to Ernst Haeckel’s Radiolaria, so here are his microscopic sea organisms. When I see these figures, I think about the curiosity of many different people in my life. Some of them have very stringy curiosity, a little bit like what you’re seeing there where they like to follow an idea for a really long time before branching off into something new. Others build a very dense web of knowledge around one space, so they’re a little bit more like what you see here on your left-hand side. Then others do a little bit of both, and so what they end up with is a knowledge space that looks a lot more like what you see in the center, so there’s density but there’s also loops inside of their knowledge spaces that they haven’t filled in. Maybe care not to fill in. Maybe will fill in eventually, maybe not. With that, here are my last open questions, then I’ll kick it off to Perry. So what is the network architecture of curious thought? What are the networks that are built up over time? And then, is there a map, and what is that map between curious thought networks and these flexible brain networks that are important for learning? That’s the direction that our lab is going right now, and I’d be very happy to take questions about that after Perry’s talk, so thank you. Great, thank you. (applauding) On to you. All right, so quick thanks to Philipp and to Catherine for organizing this event, and to Dani for that intriguing presentation. This is going to be a bit of a let’s stretch out now from considering curiosity as it functions within the brain and start thinking of it on a social and political level. I’m here to convince you that curiosity is political. It’s a big task. Why political? I like to define curiosity at this point as an ensemble of investigative practices. By that I mean to emphasize that curiosity is not one thing, it’s not one desire, it’s not one practice, it can’t be defined in one way, but that there’s an ensemble, or a collection, or a series of ways in which curiosity functions. The more specific we get about those functions, I think the better we’ll understand curiosity. Those practices are, I think, propelled by knowledge desires, desires to know, but those desires that we have are deeply embedded and kind of directed and trained by the social structures in which we find ourselves and the political hierarchies in which we’re placed. So for this reason curiosity is political. Who is curious, when, and especially how, and in what context reflects, I think, the differential allocation of power in a society. Think about what kind of questions are normalized and which ones are pathologized, what questions are legitimated and which ones are delegitimated, which ones are acknowledge and respected and which ones aren’t. These are the hierarchy of questions is produced by social and political commitments. We inherit those and live through those which makes not only curiosity political, but curiosity capable of effecting the political, or of changing the polis. So curiosity can if we follow those sort of normalized questions, those traditional questions, we can maintain the status quo. If we start tracking some of those more delegitimated questions perhaps we can transform, or those disobedient questions, perhaps we can transform society. Curiosity isn’t just political today, it’s always been political. Interestingly in the Ancient Greek and Roman times curiosity was first attributed to politicians and to empires. Politicians because they’re interested in helping to guide everybody else’s life, and empires because they’re interested, again, in helping to guide other nations and lands. So there’s some kind of interest in other people’s business and directing, or leading, that. That’s kind of the earliest sense of curiosity. This is why it was first applied, the term curiosity, was first applied to anthropologists and geographers, their interest in people and in land, and then more generally to scholars after that. In the Medieval period, curiosity became thanks to kind of Christian theology and the reign of the Roman Catholic Church, curiosity was a religious vice. So it really took a hit in the Middle Ages. It was not good to be curious. And just towards the end of it as we’re getting out into the Renaissance curiosity becomes aligned with secular inquiry and especially with secular travel. So if you were traveling through different spaces not on pilgrimage you were called a curiosus, or if you were traveling in groups you were the curiosi, so secular inquiry, secular travel. Of course, in the modern period that’s when curiosity really comes back and is endorsed full strength, and we’ve inherited that today, so as the source of early modern science in particular. But this is during the rise of the early modern era of science, this is also when we’re seeing a lot of colonization and imperialism and then globalization, such that the practice of curiosity is not just scientific but is kind of directed at foreign spectacles or exotisized objects. So it’s always throughout each of these steps you’ll notice it’s about, curiosity is about inquiry, yes, but it’s always inquiry within a given political structure and political commitments, and I think political affects or implications. When I think about curiosity as an ensemble of investigative practices part of me wants to, again, get specific about what those practices are, and what are some of the models of those practices, or how can we model and represent those curious practices. This is again my attempt to get away from a singular definition and more into a praxeological or a functional account of curiosity. So I thought what I’ll do is I’ll track this word curiosity across Western philosophy, the canon of Western philosophy, and see what kind of figures or what kind of characters keep popping up as, oh, this is a curious person because of their behavior in this way. So I tracked specifically the Greek words polypragmosyne and periergeia which are then translated into Latin as curiositas, so they’re the sort of first curious words. And then curiositas, and the the French curiosete, the German especially Neugier, this is a desire for the new or a greed for the new. So there Neugier, curiositat, and then of course English curiosity. So track all the uses of these words, and then say, again, what are the characters that keep popping up? These were the three at least on first pass, or 30th pass, or 300th pass (laughing) through the history of Western philosophy. These are the ones that really pop up. The busybody, the busybody is someone who loves to be at the center of town hearing everybody’s news. Just wants to collect a lot of disparate pieces of information. Is sometimes up in everybody’s business, right? That’s a kind of curiosity that keeps popping up across the history of philosophy and political theory. The second figure, very different, the hunter. And again, this is the language that’s used in the text. Plutarch was the one who really focuses on the busybody as this person in the center of town. He says though we should get rid of this busybody like curiosity, this I wanna be interested in a lot of things, interdisciplinary things perhaps. Focus, he says, become a hunter. Choose to be a scholar. You can be an astronomy, he says, you can be a botanist, you can be a historian, but choose something. Focus. Get serious. Nietzsche later in the 1800s, German philosopher, he’ll say, I want to round up the hounds and the hunters, and I want to dive into the history of the human soul, he says, so I can get to know why it is that we are the way we are and perhaps how we can change it. So hunt, right, this is a different kind of thing. It’s very focused. It’s not everywhere. But then the dancer, this is the third one, it’s a little but less common, but I think it’s again there’s a different what I call kinesthetic signature to each of these figures. The dancer, Nietzsche again, he will say, I don’t have a book, I usually have a book for this, but the first thing he asks of a book is, “Can you walk? “Can you dance?” And he won’t read it if it can’t dance (chuckling). We’ve all read those books that can’t dance, right? But he says these sorts of books are marked by leaps of imagination. This is creativity. This is artistry. This is a dancer-like curiosity. I narrow these down to what are really the practices here, the curious practices? The busybody collects information. The hunter tracks down a specific answer to a question. Then the dancer is busy imagining. Each of these, again, is a thread or a function of curiosity. So we can do this, we can start to understand these a little bit better I think through a network neuroscience perspective, and that’s one of the things that we’ve been working on together, but we can also start to understand it from a social and political valence. So the busybody, again, is one who collects discreet bits of information, and therefore creates loose knowledge networks. There were several loose knowledge networks that you showed earlier where there’s gaps, right, in what is known. This is also gonna be at the political level an act of social collection, collecting information. The hunter is going to create targeted connections, is gonna build that one piece of information on the next piece of information on the next piece of information. It’s that PhD thesis sort of process and, therefore, tight knowledge networks, or at least that’s what your advisor wants, right? (laughing) This might be sort of a form of social investigation at the political level. So not collection, but investigation: One inquiry down one pathway. Then the dancer, the dancer’s gonna be marked, especially in ideational space, with discontinuous concepts. It’s gonna have some over here, and some over here, and some over there, and therefore will be constantly remodeling knowledge networks, will be changing the significance of each of the nodes in the network, I think. We see this again at the political level as social imagination. What does this look like on the ground? I think we have a sense of what it might look like in the brain based on your previous presentation, but what does that look like on the ground politically? One of the other projects I’m engaged in is trying to understand curiosity’s role in political resistance. I first started with just tracking down a few political philosophers and what they said about curiosity and political resistance. So I used Friedrich Nietzsche, you’re noticing he’s one of my favorites, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Each of these folks when they’re talking about political upheavals they say or they indicate over and over again it’s not that curiosity is always on the side of political resistance, but that rather political upheaval is marked by a clash of curiosities. There’s an institutionalized curiosity, there’s a status quo curiosity where you ask those normal questions, those kind of accepted or inherited questions, and then there’s a resistant curiosity that upends all of that, all right. So again, institutionalized curiosity entrenches social structures, keeps them, maintains them; whereas, resistant curiosity will transform, does transform social structures. This is what the theorists say, but what does it look like in an actual political movement? I’ve done an analysis of a number of political movements, Black Lives Matter, for instance, a lot of prison revolts because some of my research focuses on prisons, but I wanna just focus on something that’s perhaps more easily connected to or familiar, which is the Civil Rights Movement. When you look at the Civil Rights Movement you can track a difference between, or a clash or a war between, institutional curiosity and resistant curiosity. At the level of the institution the media outlets were covering many things, right? Many questions were being asked to develop news, to follow out journalistic investigations, but not segregation in the way that it needed to be, right? National policy was addressing many, many problems, but not race in the way that it needed to. So there were questions of problems and solutions, right? But not the kinds of questions that needed to be asked. And the US future was being imagined, but primarily by white elites and for white elites. So resistant curiosity in the Civil Rights Movement counters each of these point by point. First, it began with fact gathering. I don’t know if any of you are familiar with the We Charge Genocide book published in 1951, but it is a damning collection of facts of the beatings and the lynchings, and the burning and bombing of African American homes and churches, of the segregation rates in schools, and in housing, and in jobs, and it was just developing a massive proof that there was a problem. This is how it starts. And then how do you mobilize that? How do you mobilize those facts? You problematize race through nonviolent protest. So a fellow named Leroy Pelton, he argues in his book Nonviolent Protests that the point of protest or the power of protest is that it draws and energizes public curiosity around an issue such that you see something as a problem that you didn’t see before. And then the practice of political imagination. This is MLK’s I Have a Dream, right? How do we imagine a new world, a world that is not the one represented by the facts that have been gathered? How do we do something different? Each of these is a kind of curiosity. If you think back to the busybody which collects information, the hunter who focuses in on a problem, and the dancer who imagines something new, here we see all three of those mobilized on the ground for the sake of transforming how we live with one another. So where is this going for me today? I’m very interested in inserting or centralizing the language of curiosity in diversity work in higher ed. Why, why does curiosity need to be in the talk of diversity work? First of all, because I think this is the easiest way to answer that question, if diversity work is simply adding different bodies, and for many people this is the basic thing, just add some different bodies to this mix, well, different people will ask different questions, and a diverse body of people is more likely to ask new questions or to innovate, this means that the value of diversity is precisely in creating a robust social foundation for curiosity, right? Diversity will produce more curiosity based on much growing literature in the diversity field and beyond. But i find this particular framework to be dissatisfying. This additive model, just add some new bodies, for a number of different reasons, one of which is the diversity should be valued in itself and not because it will produce innovation later. But also because I think it misses a genealogical question: How did we get here? How did we get to a non-diverse higher educational system? I think it’s when we analyze how we got here that we’ll be better equipped to change the future of higher ed. But also the phenomenological question, which is what is it like to be a diverse person in academia? I know a lot of people who’ve got this question. I’m not even sure that diverse person is a meaningful phrase, right? But what is it like to be seen as the person who adds diversity to the mix? I think diversity work has to address these two questions at least. So I like to follow Sara Ahmed here, her book called On Being Included, she defines diversity work as attending to what gets passed over. And Chanda Prescod-Weinstein in her piece Curiosity and the End of Discrimination she says, “This takes curiosity, attending to what gets passed over.” When we attend to what gets passed over, even when we’re adding different bodies to the equation in higher ed, one of the things that we see is that marginalized faculty over and over again testify that our curiosity often goes unrecognized or dismissed. You can track this out through faculty testimonials. You can track it through staff and student testimonials as well. Some of the examples of this, Alison Kafer and her book Feminist Queer Crip, when she was a graduate student she said she proposed to write a paper on disability studies, which at that time was not a thing in the way that it is today, and her professor said, “No, no, no, that’s a self-help project. “You can pursue therapy. “That’s not an actual intellectual interest of yours.” So her own personal curiosity as a disabled person was suppressed as just personal interest and not academic curiosity. Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book Braiding Sweetgrass, she’s a member of the Potawatomi Nation, and she says as a graduate student she was taken with the co-appearance of goldenrods and asters, and this yellow and this purple coinciding in the field. She says she wanted to know why these two grow together, goldenrods and asters, and also why are they so beautiful to the human eye. She said she came with this sort of passion to her professor and her professor says, “You know, I really think that you should leave your PhD in botany, and you should go be a poet.” So there was a dismissal of her curiosity, which she only later kind of embraced as an indigenous curiosity that brings together the plant and the human together. A few others, so in Erich Pitcher’s book called Being and Becoming Professionally Other, a fellow called Aaron he says he does a lot of work on trans people in higher ed, and he consistently gets asked, “Why are you doing that?” as if to ask are you trans and, therefore, is this project a personal project? A pet project and not a truly academic project. So again a way of dismissing. Then finally in Presumed Incompetent this book on The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia, Angela Wiley there says, or Willig I think, says specifically that the often female black professors will hide their questions behind the language, or the words, or the frameworks of other people who’ve been assigned in the class because they know that their questions will be given more weight by students if they’re not taken on their own merit but kind of through the voice of somebody else who’s more normalized in the profession. Part of the work here is to be able to recognize the curiosity in the many places in which it appears, right? If we’re going to diversify higher ed and we’ve got all these new voices, but their curiosity is dismissed or lost, we’ve lost the game. We need to be able to recognize not just different modes of curiosity, but curiosity coming from different bodies, voices, people. So, in conclusion, curiosity is for me always embedded in and therefore though capable of disrupting social practices and political structures. That leaves us responsible for understanding how we’ve inherited the questions that we have, and how we can change the questions that are asked. Thanks.
(applauding) Do you wanna come a little closer, we can– Sure, yeah. A little more intimate. So first of all, thank you so much for your presentations and your thoughts on this topic. I feel like for a curious mind these were the perfect presentations, because there were so many different ideas floating that one would wanna learn more about and kind of go deeper, but then also jump to the next one, so I thought this was brilliant. I’ll start with a total kind of softball question. Like how did you get curious about curiosity? Maybe not a softball question. (laughing) You wanna go?
Go ahead. Okay, I think you convinced me (laughing). You can also answer for each other. Yeah, no, I think I became interested in curiosity definitely because we started talking about it, but also more just generally I was interested in the fact that often what is supported by the current organizational structure in academia tends to while lauding curiosity also pressure individuals to sort of focus in on specific ideas. So I think that that was pointed out to me early that I didn’t quite fit in the box of focusing. I think then I sort of questioned, oh, is that, was that really bad? I believe I first got interested, I mean, this is one of those things where you can map your current interests till you’re tiny, right, your whole life. But I think to be fair, this specifically, the concept of curiosity, I got excited about it when I was reading St. Augustine, his Confessions, while I was in college. It was assigned in at least three different classes. What I found was that, well first of all he’s torn up about how he can’t get rid of his own curiosity, and he thinks that his curiosity draws him away from God, and he keeps begging God, please, please, take away my curiosity. I just thought, God, please never take my curiosity. (laughing) So it was that kind of, no, there’s gotta be something more here; this is special. Great, so I think I wanna start kind of historically. You talked about these three modes, or patterns, of curiosity, and I’d be curious are those the only ones you’ve found? Are those the most important ones? And I’ll make one little remark when you showed the translations, the German translation actually is a fairly negative word. Gier is greed, right? So it’s like a very, it has a very negative connotation, the greed, the desire, but this like negative desire. So I wonder historically kind of why did it have this negative connotation, when did that change, and how did we end up where we are? Yeah, this is a great question. So the history of curiosity, or the story of how curiosity grew up, is a complex one and there are many, many, many great pieces out there about it so I can’t cover all of it. But I might pause just around the shift in the mode of early modern science, okay, so when curiosity is no longer considered a religious vice, because that’s part of why it was dismissed for so long, but becomes something useful, becomes something productive for science, for the citizen, for industry. Precisely at that moment there’s a kind of curiosity that’s still dismissed as kind of gossipy and transgressive and disruptive, and this is assigned to women specifically. So it’s at the rise of early modern science you get this split which you didn’t have before between a kind of masculine curiosity that’s useful, that’s productive, that’s scientific, and a feminized curiosity that’s social, and that’s transgressive, and that’s less valuable. So that’s just a little window into the history of curiosity, but there’s much more there. That’s interesting, and the models, like those three models, like what were some other things that you came across or… Yeah, so these are the three that really, again, really jump out at me. But one of the things I started doing. You’ll notice that the busybody, the hunter, and the dancer, these are all human figures or characters, but I started noticing how many animals were associated with curiosity. I mean we have some of this today, right? Curiosity killed the cat. We have Curious George. I’m not sure why cats and monkeys get preference here. But there’s a fantastic, and I shared this with you, there’s a fantastic book of virtues produced by Cesare Ripa in 1603, virtues and vices. There’s a picture of a woman who’s supposed to be kind of be curiosity. Apparently her hair’s standing straight up, she’s got big wings, and she’s wearing this robe that is covered with two things, first of all, ears, second of all, frogs, why? Why frogs? So that was the 1600s in Italy. (laughing) Then my other favorite would be the octopus. I think the octopus is a little bit like the busybody; has many, many arms, can collect a lot of different kinds of information, but it’s also got these suction cups that draw out whatever is below, whatever is hidden underneath. So I’ve been trying to think about curiosity not just the side of it in this two-dimensional space, and I wonder what you think about this, not just as a two-dimensional network, but what is the kind of curiosity that tries to bring up maybe first principles in science or presuppositions in philosophy or biases in political thought. What is this curiosity that brings things up? I’m not sure the busybody, the hunter, the dancer do any of those things, but let me know what you think. Yeah, I mean absolutely. Even in the networks that I showed here were all two-dimensional representations of networks, but I think that knowledge itself, so what we are curious about, is a much higher dimensional network object, and one that really to be optimally embedded to really show the correct distances between ideas would have to have many dimensions for embedding. The more dimensions you have obviously for a network embedding, the more different types of walks through that space you could take. So I sort of think about curiosity as are there different sorts of walks that you can take through a network that are more or less characteristic of how we humans walk through ideas. I mean in mathematics a very simple walk on a network is called a random walk, and that is where you just when you are at an existing node and there are a certain number of connections coming out of it. You have an equal probability of following along any connection that comes from that node, and that’s a random walk. There are many other kinds of walks that one can take on networks. Some of them can be biased in certain ways according to the network topology. Or they can be biased by the type of node that you’re sitting at. So I’m very interested in trying to understand whether we can build mathematical models of the different types of curiosity that are embedded into a much higher dimensional representation of the knowledge network itself. I wonder actually if we could continue on that thread from these maps of knowledge and networks of knowledge to the things you are starting to see inside the brain, like these patterns of connection or connectivity, what can we already see about curiosity in the brain? What are we about to be able to see? What are some of the things that you’re seeing there? Yeah, absolutely. So much of the work that’s been done in understanding the neural signatures of curiosity has focused on which regions become activated when you are curious. There’s also… And then there are a few different studies that are also trying to probe which connections are being used as well. Those are often patterns of connections that are also used when you are searching for novelty. They’re somewhat even related to sensation seeking of other sensations, not just epistemic sensations, and so that’s sort of interesting. Then there’s also circuitry that’s involved in reward, so when you actually see the thing that you were looking for there’s a huge amount of reward circuitry. The activity at that reward circuitry sort of gauges how much, or is a good predictor of how much, you will continue seeking. What will come next, I think, honestly I think what needs to happen is the building of more complex ways of measuring curiosity in terms of the task itself rather than the imaging component, because often some of the tasks at least are much more like the busybody; they are probing that type of curiosity. Do you want to see this new piece of trivia, or do you want to see that new piece of trivia? That’s quite different than searching for something that you care about for another reason, or searching in a sort of directed way in a path through ideas that are connected with one another. So I think we could, there’s a lot of work to be done to develop tasks that a human can engage in that probe the different sorts of curiosity, and that will help us to parse the neural signatures of it as well. And do you think there will be a point where kind of tracing curiosity in the brain lets us say something about the potential for learning both at the individual level or kind of at a more general level? Is that where some of the research is headed? Yeah, I think that that would be a wonderful use of it. I think what’s interesting though is that then there needs to be a simultaneous conversation of maybe even the different stages of curiosity. Because eventually, yes, you want to search for a while, but you also have to know when you’ve found it, or you have to know when to stop, and so the engagement of the executive circuitry, so that’s parts of your brain that are important for really difficult decisions, for controlling your own behavior, for stopping, inhibiting behavior from continuing, those are all extremely important in order to allow you to do something productive with the new information that you gathered. So I think eventually it’s going to be a conversation between the search itself and the capacity to close the search, and both will be important in learning. I think there’s a real preference to the way that I staged these three models, the busybody, the hunter, and the dancer. I think that this is preferred in higher ed today and in scholarship today. So the practice of having gen ed classes, speaking of all the kind of stages or the steps, have all your gen ed classes, then focus in on a major, so you’re a busybody, you’re a hunter. Then the senior project, do something. Do something, create something new at the end. Or articles, you do a literature review. What has everybody else said? Now do your study. Now do the discussion of future directions, right? So part of me wants to think, I mean, when we first started talking about this we thought, well, maybe some people are busybodies, and some people are dancers, and some people are hunters; they have different strengths. Or maybe we’re all all of these all the time, and then the question is why is that particular trajectory privileged, and if we mixed that up would we serve learners better? You said that kind of the functions in the brain that we most associate with curiosity are this kind of closing a gap, or seeking there’s something that seemingly missing and we’re trying to reach that, the information, or that there’s kind of a reward for finding something. It made me think there’s kind of a community here that thinks about mindfulness quite a bit, and we have a directive fellow whose done a lot of work on meditation, he’s a Buddhist monk. In Buddhism and in meditation often you’re trying to be fully present, right? So this idea of like trying to close the gap is almost like the opposite of what you’re trying to get to. But then that would mean that there, would that mean meditation is less curious? Or what do you, I mean, I’m not trying to set it up, but what are your thoughts on this? Is there a different kind of curiosity that maybe we find through meditation, or how are those two things connected? I think curiosity is often associated with talking, or receiving information, or gaining information, and not silence. But there’s a kind of curiosity that one can practice in silence, I think, and this is more an attentive, practice of attention. Mindfulness is this series of attention practices, or practices of attending to the present, so I think it shifts how, I think it’s a different level of curiosity that again is not privileged in standard educational structures, but is consistent with curiosity, yeah. Yeah, I think the more common measure of curiosity is open questioning, like vocal, actually making sounds, and clearly one can be curious without making any sounds. Then an interesting question for the empiricist is how can you develop methods to quantify that type of curiosity? And could you even quantify how curious someone is while they’re meditating? I think neural signatures may be a way, but we’d first have to understand those signatures better. I’d like to shift a little bit into the political space, because as I told you and maybe some of you don’t know, the Media Lab kind of celebrates disobedience. So we have a Disobedience Award that we started last year where we gave away $250,000 to a project or group of people, in this case the people who had kind of disclosed what was going on with the water in Flint and who published essentially before their work had been peer reviewed, and they kind of risked their academic reputation and received a lot of pushback, and we kind of want to celebrate these acts of disobedience. So I would say that we’re a community that really thrives on creative disobedience. So I wonder if you could, you talked a little bit about the Civil Rights Movement, but you also said that you’re thinking about other, maybe more current, movements, so I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about kind of how you see political disobedience today related to curiosity and how places like the Media Lab might play a role in that? Yeah, so I think the first thing I would underscore is just that curiosity isn’t essentially disobedient. This was a real shift for my research. It was to think about the questions that are institutionalized and the ways that questions are institutionalized, but the ways that disobedient questions can become co-opted or normalized or put into a bureaucratic structure. So I do think that this clash of curiosities between institutional resistant, or between obedient and disobedient, this is more true of how curiosity works. Yeah, I think that’s the first thing that I would underscore. And do you wanna give some of the examples that you’re working on now? Like I’d be curious to, like what are some of the movements you’re tapping into? Then also how do you work with them? Are you observing and reflecting on their practices, or are there also kind of strategies that you could develop on how to be more resistant curious if you’re trying to change things? Yeah, I think one of the things that I appreciate about the Disobedience Award is that you’re particularly asking for not the most likely candidates, or the most well known, or the best heard already, and this kind of connects up to my are we recognizing curiosity from marginalized or underserved or disempowered communities? Insofar as the disobedience prize is targeting some of those folks who need, who could use more to have their voice magnified, right, not to be spoken for but to have their voice magnified, I think this is part of the being a good ally and co-conspirator to disobedient curiosities. Some of the work that I’ve done is specifically on the history of prison resistance movements and how much this is a history of information, information war, but therefore also a war of curiosity. Which questions get asked? Are the questions for prison reformed people coming from prison reformed people, or are they coming from prisoners, for instance? Which questions are we listening to, and which are guiding our movement? Those are just some of the questions. And I’d love to come, I definitely wanna come back to the diversity theme and in education and the different voices, the different types of curiosity. Wanna take a little detour there, but actually stay with you. I was gonna ask, so I wanna switch into learning environments; how do we design environments and experiences where certain kinds of curiosity may be fostered or supported? I was gonna start with Dani, and I will come back to you, but at lunch you made a comment that intrigued me so much that I do wanna kind of keep going here. So I want you to talk a little bit about your own learning experience and your learning path, and what happened when you encountered school. Yes, great, all right. So I was homeschooled for all 12 grades, and well before that I suppose. It was the sort of homeschooling that was very student-driven. It was very what do you wanna learn? How fast do you wanna learn it? How long do you wanna study it? Where do you wanna get the information from? It wasn’t just here’s a curriculum, make your way through it. It was very interactive and very self-directed, and I found it just, I mean that’s when I just fell in love with learning. I obsessed about questions. I obsessed about what more I could figure out and what I could produce in response to it. So my love of learning really only died for a minute (laughing) when I finally enrolled in college and sat in on a lecture. (everyone laughing)
That was it. So I have this, and I often share this with my students, and I say, look, I’m trying to shift this experience, so that you don’t have, you know. We have a discussion-based classroom. We try to have the questions coming and directed from the students directing what we do, because I think college classrooms can be deadening sometimes. Not yours.
Of course. Not yours either. So let’s go to your classroom. Okay.
So, you talk quite a bit about learning and transmission of knowledge, and this kind of representation and following. Here at the Media Lab often we talk about the framework of creative learning, which has four components: projects, peers, passion, and play; the four P’s of creative learning. It’s easier to remember that way. But in some ways it’s also you could describe it as the things that can be learned, the things we care about can be learned, but they’re maybe not. You can’t teach them or it’s very difficult to teach them. You can model them. You can give examples. And I think curiosity plays a huge role in that process. If you’re trying to develop these habits, these skills, these practices, maybe these values that we think as part of the Media Lab community, then curiosity’s a really important driver of that, like helping people find their curiosity, or discover things they’re interested in, support that, maybe push back sometimes. But so I wonder if you could compare this a little bit, or talk a little bit about your own experience with the education system and education environments. I know you’ve had numerous stages both as a student, as an academic. You’re connected to many different academic groups and places. So I wonder if you could reflect on this a little bit. Yeah, sure. So certainly I think, let’s see, how do you create spaces that are useful? Or what are some of the experiences that demonstrated the sorts of spaces that people think are useful? I think, so when I was an undergraduate after the sort of facing the lecture, I then got involved in a lot of different research projects, and I was involved in astrophysics and some in Japanese literature and some in physical chemistry. I majored in physics, and I minored in math, and when I got to the end of the undergraduate curriculum I realized that there were so many things I still didn’t know, and that every undergraduate class was just scratching the surface of these vast fields of knowledge, that if I left then I would have no opportunity to see, and that was, just the idea of that was devastating. So I went to graduate school for that reason, not because I had any plans for what to do after that. Then in an interview for graduate school at a very prestigious place, I was sitting down to have an interview with another very prestigious professor, and they were looking at my CV and they said, “So, are you ready to focus now?” I sort of knew honestly that I was not ready to focus. It has nothing to do, I didn’t think that this had anything, graduate school, had anything to do with focusing. I thought it was so that I could continue asking questions, I could continue seeing new things. That idea that focusing is important was something that also then came up again as a faculty member, so that the goal of the first few years of the faculty position is to identify what the ideas are that you want to be known for. When somebody calls your name, what do they say is you, right? And you want for everybody to have the same answer. First of all, no diversity, and you want that to be very well-defined. Everybody knows Dani Bassett does X. You know, honestly I think that is again it’s sort of this conflict between the executive function system, which is going to help you to focus and to know when to stop, and to know when to channel, but it can be a real killer of innovation I think. So I think that those pieces are all important to encourage in the students and to create spaces that are supportive of that. The other thing I think, just as we’re talking about learning environments that are important for different students, I think that just like we were mentioning that there are sorts of curiosity that are open, they are vocal, they are interpersonal, they’re social, there are other types of curiosity that are far from that, that are quiet, that are solitary, that are hiding in the library. And I think that there need to be spaces and places for both of those sorts of people, or for anyone in between, or for at all stages of their lives. I think that’s something that sometimes we can forget. When we encourage curiosity, I think often we’re thinking of the kind that has broad kinesthetics, not zero kinesthetics, which is also curious, or can be, right? I would say the Media Lab is a place that tries to encourage kind of open curiosity and wandering. But as we discovered at lunch, if you look at the building, right, like all the walls are glass, it’s very open, people are sharing spaces. Even if you’re in an office, the walls of the office are glass, so there’s constantly something going on. Maybe we’re not the best place to support this more solitary focused curiosity. We’re more the wild and loud and messy place. I wonder if maybe that’s something for us to think about as we design this space, and we’re constantly changing this space. Like maybe we need more little pods or places for this more reflective, quiet. It’s beyond noise canceling headphones, I think. I wanna ask one more questions, but then afterwards I’ll hand it over to the audience. So if you have questions, start thinking about your questions, or maybe we’ll see what’s on Facebook and Twitter. The last question I wanna ask is I know Perry in your work you think about how you could use different ways of designing for curiosity to create new pathways for underrepresented students and learning. You talked a little bit about this in your presentation, but I wonder if you could elaborate maybe a little more because that’s something that we both as a community we’re grappling with that. Like we would not at 50% women yet. We’re certainly not at the levels of minorities that we would like to be, both at student and faculty level. So thinking about curiosity in the context of these new pathways is something we’re interested in, so I wonder if you have some thoughts on that. Yeah, so I worked for the McNair Scholars Program at DePaul University from around 2011 to 2015. This is something that I really learned from that experience. The first thing I think, and this isn’t based on technology, I think this is something else. The importance of models, of hooking underrepresented students up to people at that university or elsewhere who look like them, or have an experience growing up like them, or come from a similar social identity, or share a social identity. There’s something about seeing somebody like you doing the thing you hope to do that makes it more possible. And I think it frees your curiosity. It launches it more. The other thing I think we have to do, so we have to diversity our faculty more quickly, and we need to diversify our canons, or what we’re teaching. Over and over again the students would come back and say this thing that I’m interested in, or this person I’ve been reading doesn’t show up on the syllabus, or this whole field, or this thing that’s connected to my community doesn’t show up anywhere in this department; no one’s working on this. And there’s something about what we’re teaching such that students can see themselves in what we’re teaching and can see the questions already, or pathways for their questions a bit. This is something that we need to work on. Yeah, I think like we’re certainly stronger on kind of technology, engineering, and science. Although we do really care about design and arts, but maybe kind of at least the perception’s more Media Lab is a place where you do kind of engineering, science, technology, and innovation. I think especially in those contexts people often brush aside the questions of diversity, because they say well, you know, obviously there’s one way, like this has nothing to do with diversity or the canon or the discourse; this is about how you build the best piece of software or something. So I feel like we fall victim to this maybe more easily than other places. Yeah, well science and technology these are not apolitical spaces.
Absolutely. The questions we ask are, again, embedded, and they reflect things and values that we can change. Anyway, I feel very selfish in kind of monopolizing your time, and I could keep going, but if there are questions in the audience? So we have one there, and we have a microphone that comes around. Hi, I just want to thank you. Those were beautiful presentations and discussions and topics that you’ve brought up. I’d like to add just a little bit of my own experience of the learning process. A model that I’ve used is sort of a corkscrew, so it is the three-dimensional, and each, you could of course break a corkscrew down into a million different pieces, but I break it down into about four, and I call them fight, flight, freeze, and flow. Each one of these is a crucial part of the learning process, but as you say the institutionalized approach tends to focus on only one of them as being accepted, and that’s the competitive fight approach, which is obviously very important, the sort of competitive head-to-head, oppositional information, ideas butting heads, and sort of seeing which ones work best. But then all of the others. The flight is the more failure-oriented curiosity about what didn’t work, why didn’t this work, and that’s the experimental stages. Then the freeze is the more meditative stage of just being aware of what reality is right now. Then the flow is the more creative, sort of the stuff around here, which is just kinda crazy, just throwing all kinds of stuff out and seeing what happens. Each of those is so crucial, but, yes, I believe the institutional approach of the fight, the competitive part is too focused on, and I would love– Is there a question in there? Yes, I would love to hear about ideas of how you think that we can actually get that? How you think that we can actually work with the institutions to get this, and how maybe you’ve done that yourself? Yeah, this actually came up a bit at lunch, and we talked about how kind of the space of curiosity, especially as an academic, is never pure. That it’s always compromised by our institutional affiliations, by the demands of tenure and publication, by where the money trail is, right, depending on which field you’re in. So I never tried, I never, A, I never try to reach that pure space of curiosity because I think it’s just gonna break our hearts if we try to achieve this level of purity. Rather I wanna tackle what is it like to live in a compromised position in which we are perpetuating systems of inequality through institutions and constraint on people’s curiosity. We’re perpetuating those systems at the same time that we’re trying to undercut them or undermine them. I think grappling with that, something that Alexis Shotwell calls the ethics of impurity, that’s where our energy needs to be directed. Yeah, and I think just commenting a bit on, you know, that when we are curious it’s not necessarily to identify the new theory that’s gonna beat out the other theories. It is to create a new theory that’s going to offer a complimentary perspective that may eventually be more accurate, but that wasn’t the reason why you developed it necessarily. It’s interesting that what you’re saying reminds me a little bit about Poincare wrote this book called The Value of Science. He’s a very well known mathematician from a long time ago, but it was a beautiful, it’s just a beautiful book describing the current social state of science at the time, and sort of a really interesting juxtaposition of mathematicians and physicists, and how he sort of talks about how they don’t talk to each other and they don’t see each other’s perspective, and they certainly don’t use each other’s ideas ’cause that would be terrible. And he writes this book saying what we really need is to combine these very different ways of thinking about problems, and actually at their intersection we’re going to be able to make very different and extensive advances that we wouldn’t before, and could everybody just stop being so silly. It’s really, I mean, obviously he writes it much more beautifully than that, but it’s definitely worth reading if you’re sort of thinking about that sort of controversy of are we doing this to fight each other or are we doing it to create something new at the intersection of different fields? I don’t know who said it at lunch, but I think someone used the term “the freedom to stay curious,” that that’s one of the hopes I think people have when they decide to pursue their life or career in academia, freedom to stay curious. That kind of resonated with me a lot. With all the compromises and limitations and like pushing up against things, but ultimately I think for many people who work in this environment that there is something there about they want that freedom to remain curious, to ask questions, to seek out new answer, and kind of see where that path may lead them. Any other questions? There’s another question, and then there’s a question in the back, and I would really encourage you please try to ask questions. Hi, thank you for this really fascinating talk, or talks. I’m gonna ask something I became curious about during your respective talks and it’s either insightful or completely trivial and bizarre, but I’ll let you guys be the judge of that. I found the notion of taking on network of knowledge and making it linear very powerful. Of course, you were both doing that as you talked, but you’re also using slides behind you, so it wasn’t quote linear. I mean I’m not even sure if you’re aware of this, but you used slides differently. Dr. Bassett, you put up complex slides that you effectively let the viewer navigate the knowledge network themselves, while you Dr. Zurn did incremental reveals of bullet points, sort of walking people through the knowledge you were trying to transmit. Were you aware of that? Does it reflect something you both think about in terms of transmitting knowledge? Does it mean anything or is it just idiosyncratic reactions to presentation software? (laughing) That’s a really amazing set of questions. I think, I mean absolutely you’re right that that was not one-dimensional. That’s something we’ve thought about a lot. It turns out that empirically it’s a little bit easier to build experiments where we do actually just do the straight mapping to 1D, because I think speaking plus slides is it’s not really quite 2D either, it’s definitely not 3D, it’s something in between, so it’s very difficult to quantify. It depends on the slide itself. It depends on whether you walk through it the way Perry did or whether you leave it up there to give the sort of visual perspective first. So my statement was slightly more, well partly pragmatic, but secondly I think for historically the lecture did not include slides, and certainly a book historically did not include two-dimensional representations. I’m very interested in what sorts of knowledge do require or are better served by two-dimensional representations. Mathematics textbooks for example, or physics textbooks, or much of science, we want to actually draw out the idea and put it inside the book. The same is true for scientific papers. We write with visual aids in our scientific papers. So we’re pushing the boundary of 1D. We’re more into one plus two, one slash two. Whereas in philosophy, very rarely (laughing)– Seriously, no pictures for anyone. Is that because it’s not optimal to transmit that information? Or is it because it’s a historical artifact? And I think that difference in discipline also at least one explanation for the different ways in which we use slides when we give talks, because it’s very reflective of even the way we would do our papers in our discipline as well. I was also thinking when you, precisely when you were on that slide when you talked about going down to one-dimensional space and having one word after another after another, I thought it’s not really fair at least to you because I think, I think of music. I think that on the one hand the words that you’re saying are the melody, or that there is one note after the other after the other, but I think that you’ve got some harmony going, and you’ve got some just like tones that you leave out there that one hears throughout the presentation. So I think there’s levels of what you hear across the slides, what you hear kind of building in the slides, what you hear through the melody itself. In other words, it was beautiful. Well, thank you.
(laughing) On that note. There’s a question in the back there. Well, hey, hello there. Hello everyone. I am definitely, I mean, it’s mind-blowing to come here and see the talk going on on curiosity because I’m just on a business visa for a couple of weeks in Boston. I just listened to your talk for the last 30 minutes, and definitely it’s a curiosity which has asked me, I mean made me, travel 20,000 kilometers from India to Boston. So my question is like when you talk about curiosity, and I’m a UX designer, so generally we try to quench that curiosity when we try to design an interface, or an object, or any kind of product for the end user. But when it comes to curiosity and the happiness factor involved with the quenching of curiosity or satisfaction level, do your research also goes into that factor where how we can build better products and design better things considering the curiosity of human mind, and making things, I mean, achieve the end goals for the end user? Do you also consider that part when you do a research on the curiosity of the human mind? So can we, just to clarify, can we use our understanding of curiosity to design better technologies? That was the question?
Exactly. Yes, I think, certainly I think knowing your audience and the type of curiosity they may have is going to be extremely important. If you tried to sell me a trivia game, I will not buy it because it’s not the kind of curiosity I have, but certainly somebody else would have that type of curiosity. So I think as we understand different sorts of curiosity that helps us to better understand what the audience is for the specific technology you have in mind. Obviously a game is not the kind of technology you’re exactly thinking of, or board game, but yes. I think, I mean in essence what we’re trying to understand is how the mind works. It’s very much in the flavor of cognitive science or a philosophy of mind, so, yes, if we better understand the mind we will better understand what the mind finds fascinating. I sometimes think of curiosity in the design aspect as curiosity is like a mechanism through which you can explore systems in a way. Like you can test things and see what the reaction is, and like as kids grow older they explore different kinds of systems, but there’s like curiosity in some ways a part of that, or could be a part of that exploration. We can certainly design technology of learning environments to allow more of that to happen or less of that to happen, like be more constrained. So I think in our work on the learning study at the lab, we certainly these four P’s, project, peers, passion, play, we’re certainly trying to design experiences in technologies that allow you to explore and work on things that you are passionate about. So I think there is certainly a connection. We have one question from Twitter that I want to make sure I throw in here. It’s from Ian Wojtowicz and he asks, “What can museums do to become places “for more dynamic forms of curiosity?” I’ll add public libraries to that since I care about public libraries. (laughing) I care about public libraries. I hope Ian allows me to do that. What immediately jumps to mind is connected to this, but perhaps not straight on the mark. Mat Fraser is a performer, British performer, artist, and lecturer on disability and museums. He specifically says that the way museums have structured the history of disability, or disabled people, has typically kind of accentuated the part of the body that is considered disabled, or has left the names off of the person, or the personal history even, the kind of social and personal history of a person, and just reduced them to their disability or their disfunction in some way. He says one of the things that one must do, so he says there’s this practice of finding disability curious in museums that actually shuts down a robust, rich, social curiosity about who is this person, and what is the social background of this person? So he says this is one of the things that has to change about the representation of disability in museums. Again, Mat Fraser worth looking up. Great, thank you. I wanna do a quick shout-out, ’cause Perry and Dani are actually working on a book titled Curious Minds with MIT Press. It’s gonna come out next year, 2019, and I’m sure that Friedrich Nietzsche would say that this is a book that dances. So I’m very much looking forward to that, and I wanna thank you for coming to the home of the curious, the Media Lab, and really expanding the way that we think about curiosity here. Please join me in thanking them. (applauding) And thanks to all of you and everyone online, this was really fun, thank you.
It was really fun. Thank you for having us.