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‘90s FAMILY : Why Ask Why? : We’re all naturally hard-wired to be curious, especially kids. It helps us learn, which lets us survive. Where would we be if Einstein hadn’t been curious? On the other hand, curiosity did kill the cat.

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“Why are there rainbows?” My 4-year-old is at it again.

“Because when sun shines through rain, it makes dif ferent colors,” I say, hop ing a trace of high school physics can serve the moment.

“Why is there a sun?” he asks.

“The sun is a star. There are many suns in the universe.”

He puzzles. “Mom,” he says finally, “why is there a universe?”

*

We call it the Why of the Why. In a few seconds, a tiny kid can toddle his own path of inquiry back to the most basic questions of time, space and existence.

Where does the ground end?

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Why can’t you go to the middle of the middle?

Why is forever the last number?

In a flash of parental hope (or maybe delusion), you think, “Hey, Einstein wondered the same thing.”

Of course, you know your children aren’t really entertaining the Big Bang theory. Or are they? Treat your kids’ questions seriously, and the impulse to know why corn chips curl could lead to a cure for AIDS.

But brush them off because you’re too busy faxing or stirring macaroni and their spirit of inquiry could wither. Or run amok.

Why can’t you catch lightning?

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The kid may figure the only way to find out is to connect an Erector set to the electrical plug. Enter the age-old dichotomy: On the one hand, curiosity has sparked the greatest advancements of human knowledge.

On the other, it killed the cat.

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Why? The question pricks the heart of the curious nature of curiosity.

Behaviorists say curiosity is hard-wired from infancy to make learning and, thus, survival, possible. It’s the “constant tension between the satisfaction of a search ended and the seductive lure of the unknown . . . (that) keeps the explorer exploring,” says Dr. Linda C. Mayes of Yale Child Study Center.

Why does growing take time?

Why do some plants grow into trees?

Why do people live longer than flowers?

When it clicks, it’s like tasting chocolate for the first time. It’s delicious. You want more.

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“You see it in a 12-month-old who pulls to stand up, which is the motoric version of curiosity,” Mayes says. “You see it in the look on their faces: ‘Oh wow! That did it!’ The same is true for a 4-year-old who has discovered one tiny bit of an answer about the universe--or an 80-year-old scientist discovering a new star.”

But just on the far side of curiosity, the explorer can get lost in space. There are cautionary tales.

Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden because they asked too many questions. Galileo was branded a heretic for the same reason. Why?

“Asking questions is often seen as rebellious--a violation of the established order of things,” says Ruth Formanek, professor of education at Hofstra University in New York.

“There are rules. When can you ask? Of whom can you ask? It’s a power issue. Kids pick this up along the way--they become hesitant about asking questions. It lasts them their whole lives. I see it in the graduate students I teach. They don’t feel comfortable asking why.”

Why should that be, if, as Robert Penn Warren put it, “The end of man is to know”?

Parents of mini-Einsteins often blame the child’s schooling. (And it may be a rare teacher, indeed, who seriously entertains the apparent mystery of why ice cream doesn’t have bones.) But does that explain everything?

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“There’s a lot of talk about the ‘insatiable curiosity of the human species.’ But in truth, humans tend to be curious about an amazingly small set of domains,” says Don Symons, professor of anthropology at UC Santa Barbara.

“Look at all the information about the physical world that’s available to us now--an overwhelming amount. It’s as if the modern world is providing an experiment to find out what people are curious about. And what are they curious about? They’re curious about O.J. and Anita Hill. These are the things that grip them--not geology and plant physiology.”

Why? It probably started when nature endowed the higher creatures with curiosity in the first place. The animal behaviorist Konrad Lorenz says curiosity is “how an organism asks questions of (its) environment.”

What’s that strange thing by the tree?

Something I can eat? Mate with? Something that can hurt me?

Those that found out and acted accordingly survived. Says Formanek: “On a simplistic level, it’s like listening to the weather report. Why do we do it? So we know whether to wear a raincoat or carry an umbrella. So we can understand the environment and adapt to it.”

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You see it in chimps, among the most curious creatures, who investigate a new object. They poke it, roll it, maybe try to smash it with a stone, as others watch to see what their braver friends can find out.

“It’s their way of categorizing the information in their universe,” says Nancy Harvey, an animal behaviorist at San Diego Zoo.

Add the human ability of language, and you might come up with:

Why don’t rocks grow?

Where does the sky go when it rains?

Why does time go by?

“Young children have constructed a very elaborate universe of their own,” says David Elkind, Tufts University child psychologist and author.

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“Everything in the world is new and mysterious. They believe that everything has a purpose. They’re trying to fit the incongruities of the world around them into that picture. When they ask, ‘Why is the grass green?’ they don’t want to know about photosynthesis or chlorophyll. They may want to know that green grass is helpful to green caterpillars who need a place to hide.

“Of course, they also ask questions to have the pleasure of the interaction. They may want answers, but they also want you to know what they think. We’re far too ready to give them long-winded explanations. Too often, our answers just bore them.”

Why? That’s how curiosity works, experts say. Too little or no stimulation and you can literally bore an animal to death. Add something new and different to the environment and it evokes interest and curiosity.

But something extremely different evokes fear.

“An old shoe is boring. An interesting box will cause a child to go and investigate. But a big scary box--a box with strange sounds coming out of it--that would be frightening,” says Raymond Bixler, psychology professor emeritus at the University of Louisville. “Organisms evolve to avoid things that are too strange.”

The genetically encoded message: Keep searching to keep going, but avoid things that are too far out. You could get eaten by a predator.

Or lost in space. Stephen E. Glickman, a UC Berkeley psychologist who has studied curiosity in zoo animals, found that creatures richest in curiosity have three things in common: varied diets or complex hunting behaviors, good manipulative capabilities and big brains. Humans to a T.

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Add language and abstract reasoning to the mix, and you get questions about how to build an airplane, split an atom or beat Bobby Fischer. Of course, as some evolutionary thinkers point out, it’s possible that nature never intended our excess brain capacity to be used for sorting out plate tectonics.

“Curiosity about the physical laws of the world is an acquired taste,” says anthropologist Symons. “The massive amounts of information available to us now just didn’t exist in human evolutionary history. The things that have been important to humans in the evolutionary history of the world were things like sex, power, kinship and coalitions. There was no Einstein, no Mozart, in the Pleistocene.”

Which could explain why more people tend to be riveted to O.J., Roseanne and the tabloids than they are to, say, photovoltaic cells. But then come those rare people with the most curious quirk of all--the insatiable mind. For them, as Yale behaviorist Mayes points out, curiosity is “the inevitable fate that at least a few individuals must accept in order to advance knowledge.”

Why? Who knows? British physicist Stephen Hawking believes the answers to the biggest whys could lie in a unified field theory of the universe, as yet unearthed by the most inquisitive minds alive. When such a theory is found, Hawking writes, “then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason--for then we should know the mind of God.”

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It’s bedtime at our house and my son looks perplexed.

“Mom, why can’t you own a star?” The 4-year-old germ of scientific genius no doubt, or maybe a creative way to start a bedtime conversation.

“Why do you think?” I ask.

“Well, if you owned a star, you wouldn’t be able to keep it in your room.”

“I think you’re right.”

“Mom, why can’t you keep stars in your room?”

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