DRMacIver's Notebook

Relearning curiosity

Relearning curiosity

Apparently when I start a daily writing practice in which I am honest about my feelings partly as a way to work myself out of a depressed period, everything I write is very sad. So, here we are again.

A while back I wrote I’m not actually that curious. I explained that although I am a voracious reader and know a lot of stuff, it wasn’t actually generally powered by a desire to learn things for their own sake - I learn in aid of things I want to do, not primarily because I want to learn. Almost everything I learn has a goal in mind. I don’t seek out knowledge because I’m curious, I seek it out because knowledge is useful.

Dear past me: You realise that’s bad, right? Well, in case you don’t realise that (I’m not sure you did), FYI that’s bad.

It’s also not how I used to be. I definitely used to be curious, and just read about things because they were fun and interesting. I had a very nerdy notion of fun and interesting which means that this ended up with me taking a book about classical mechanicsI still know a surprising amount about Lagrangian formulations of Newtonian physics, although it’s all got a bit rusty as my summer vacation reading when I was 16, but it was absolutely something I picked because I wanted to learn about it and not because I needed to.

My degree was in pure mathematics, which I certainly didn’t get into because I had applications in mind for the connection between the axioms of set theory and questions in analysis.this was what my final year essay was on. It wasn’t very good

Apparently as a kid I would fairly regularly give adults mostly-correct lectures on various subjects I’d been learning about. Palm trees and black holes seem to be the topic that people tell stories about me doing this, but I’m sure there are others.

At some point this got lost. I don’t really know when, or why.

It feels like part of the problem is agency. As a kid it’s easy to be curious about things, because nothing you do actually matters, and also you’re mostly bored out of your mind. So why not learn new things purely because they’re interesting and you want to stuff your brain with knowledge?

Also, you’re a child, and thus you’re still full of energy. The fatigue of ageing and the burnout of life haven’t set in.Not that those are inevitable. My parents seem like they still have way more energy than I do.

Now it feels like I’ve got such limited brain capacity and energy, and such a greater degree of agency that of course I spend it on useful things, because I feel guilty about not doing so.

Except I think even as I write it that that’s a cope. If that were the case I’d probably be doing far more useful things than I do.

Really the core problem is that it’s hard to care about things, and usefulness is a crutch. It’s much easier to solve a problem, which is obviously good. It’s even better if it’s somebody else’s problem.

I keep wanting to frame this in terms of justification, but I don’t think that’s quite right. The problem isn’t that I feel like I have to be able to justify my actions to someone, but that they need to feel somehow purposeful. It’s not that someone will attack me for doing it, it’s that if I spend energy on something purposeless a huge wave of “What’s the point?” rises up and I get distracted and go do something else.

Often it starts before that and I can’t even generate the “purposeless” actvitity in the first place. I try to generate a plan for what to do and my brain glitches.

This is depression, of course. It’s well-managed, reasonably high functioning depression, but it’s still depression.

I think of depression as a constriction of the felt world of possibilities. A narrowing of the actions that you feel able to take. A lot of my incessant “curiousity” in search of the useful feels like I’m trying to squeeze a vast level of interest in the world through the narrow passages that depression has left me. What comes out is still pretty good, because I’m clever and competent, but it’s fairly anemic compared to what I’d be doing if less depressed.

A lot of this focus on usefulness feels not so much like I’m motivated to be useful (I am, but it’s more of a “make the pain go away” motivation than something I necessarily care deeply about), but that it’s something to do while I’m here. I’ve got all these capabilities, there are things I can do that help make things better, might as well. It’s slightly less fundamentally unsatisfying than wasting my day scrolling Twitter and watching YouTube.

I think I do fundamentally care about helping people, but it’s all swallowed up by the general meh. Certainly I would like to be positively motivated towards helping people instead of it being something that hurts if I don’t do it, but these days I’m struggling to be positively motivated about much of anything very serious.

I wrote on Twitter about how incredibly mind-numbingly bored I am of the pandemic, and that I really need more in person contact with people than I’m getting. That feels like part of this but I don’t know how much of it.

The absence of curiousity feels in some way like a primary thing in its own right that I should take seriously just as much as the absence of people. Learning things should be a joyful activity, and the fact that it’s not is a huge sign.

One of my working theories of how to work with depression is to be constantly exploring the edge of the depression comfort zone - do things that you feel slightly too depressed to do. If depression comes from a restriction of what feels safe, exploring the boundaries of where you feel safe helps you relearn those as safe and then you can expand gradually outwards.

Sometimes this even works.

Well, that’s too cynical. It often works, it’s just a bit of a two steps forward one step back process. The depression comes back, but it’s easier to claw your way out of it the next time because you believe you can do that.

So the starting point for solving the curiousity problem is something like asking how I would behave if I were as curious as I’d like to be, and walking in that direction until I hit the edge of the comfort zone.

The obvious thing is that I would learn things just for interest. For some reason the example that comes to mind here is physics youtube. I’ve been enjoying Steve Mould’s YouTube channel recently for example. I really respect the urge to just go “How does that work?” and put in the effort to find the answer. I definitely used to have some of that, and I’d like to have it again.

The other thing that comes to mind is that I’d talk to people more about things I find interesting. I really don’t do this very much - these days all my writing is about stuff that’s useful (in some very generalised sense of the term), which is a shame in and of itself - but really I have in person conversations in mind. Generally I just let other people take the lead, and feel very inhibited in proposing conversation topics and just going on about them, and that feels necessary if rather daunting.

Who knows if any of this will actually work, but it feels worth a try.