Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Cultivating Curiosity—Part 2

We all possess some degree of curiosity. The key is to respond appropriately to those inquisitive feelings we get. Many people waddle through life half asleep—their minds dull and disinterested. When opportunities or novelties come along, they can be too preoccupied or dull witted to even notice them. So paying attention is crucial. As I wrote earlier, children—who have so much to learn—are naturally curious; evolution has built that into them. As we age, however, some of us lose that childlike sense of awe. We can become complacent and bored; we tell ourselves that there's nothing really new out there.
Unfortunately, modern society seeks thrills, more than learning. We seek quick, facile answers to life's quandaries; rather than taking the time to probe deeper. People are encouraged to grab hold of facts, rather than truly understanding things. As a wise person once said, “Facts are not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom.”
Are some of us more curious than others? Sure, but is it because our genetic makeup determines our level of curiosity, or can we cultivate it? I'm convinced that we can develop our curiosity, largely because it is an emotion, rather than an instinct. Instincts cause us to behave in unconscious and fixed patterns. Emotions, however, can be changed and developed. They are flexible and can be built upon.
I did some research, consulting various essays and books on psychology and philosophy, about ways to cultivate one's curiosity. I came up with a list of eight practices that can help to strengthen one's curious nature:
  1. Ask questions. Admit your ignorance and your need to learn. Acknowledging your ignorance is the best way to dispel it.
  2. Don't take things for granted. Remain skeptical about what you hear or read, and then check it out. Be open to surprise and the possibility of being wrong; it's a great way to learn.
  3. Don't label anything as boring or not worthy of your effort to understand. To do so just closes doors to insight and understanding.
  4. Don't judge things too quickly. Keep an open mind. Have the humility to admit that you are limited and that you have a need to pause and learn. This opens the door to change and growth.
  5. Read a wide range of things. Challenge yourself with new and different and unfamiliar material. Let it open your mind.
  6. Gradually increase the complexity of what you do. Don't settle for facile or easy answers.
  7. Seek excellence in what you do. Don't settle for shoddy or inferior behavior.
  8. Pay attention; concentrate on each task at hand. Be ready to notice and pick up on anything and everything that comes along. Be mindful.

That's a great list to cultivate one's curiosity. I believe that by acting upon some of these items, we can regain that natural sense of inquisitiveness that children have. We can feel more alive and excited. Yes, unlike the doomed curious cat, curiosity is healthy for us.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Cultivating Curiosity—Part 1

I believe that curiosity is one of the most valuable attributes that we can have. And I do not mean in the sense of the old saw, “Curiosity killed the cat.” That saying tends to give curiosity a bad name, which might cause some people to be a little leery about being inquisitive. I think, however, that this quotation has actually been used as a warning to keep one's nose out of other people's business, to avoid prying into others' private matters. No, I see curiosity as a healthy attribute. Here's why.
But first, what exactly is curiosity? The dictionary definition is: “a strong desire to know or learn something.” Interestingly, its root meaning is to be careful. Well, maybe if that cat had been a little more careful, its curiosity would not have brought about its demise. So I'll stick with this definition, which describes curiosity as one's desire to learn. Kids are naturally curious, because their main function in life is to learn. Many people who seek to expand their knowledge do so by responding to their curiosity... sort of like kids do.
Returning to children: they are naturally drawn to novelty. When something new comes into their lives and they are curious about it; they have an innate tendency to wonder about it. Many animals also exhibit curiosity when they encounter something new. If it doesn't appear to be dangerous, they will check it out.
In fact, evolution has favored curiosity. Animals who have a general instinct for curiosity do better—they are more fit and thus are more likely to survive—than those who are complacent. Yes, there are dangers in the world, and it pays to be cautious, but critters who are curious usually do fare better. Their curiosity drives them to explore new things and experiences.
For example, one of the most successful species of bird is the house sparrow. Its natural bent for curiosity has enabled it to expand into new territory and learn new habits. As a result, the house sparrow is a very adaptable creature; it has spread its territory to the point that it now inhabits most every corner of the globe.
And there is no more adaptable creature on the planet than Homo sapiens. Our curiosity—like the house sparrow—has led us to spread across the Earth, inhabiting just about every environment there is. Evolution built curiosity into us, by favoring those of our ancestors who were most curious; they were better at learning new skills. When the environment changed, those with better skills could better adapt. Those who were dull or disinterested were more likely to perish when hard times came, because they had become stuck in their ways.
So curiosity is an advantageous quality to have. Those who are curious have an urge to learn, to seek answers to puzzles. They want to know why, even when there may be no immediate practical advantage to knowing. When we respond to that mental itch to understand—due to “idle” curiosity—we often find that it leads us to creative insights we never even knew existed. Our lives become richer for it. People who feel they have a very satisfying or exciting career are often those who are naturally curious and whose job allows them to explore their interests.
More on curiosity next time...

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Trumpet Vine Ants

We have a few trumpet vines, that put out seeds pods in the fall. The outside surface of the pods must be sweet, because ants crawl all over them. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Dog Duty

There is a group of dog breeds that is usually referred to as “working dogs.” The work ethic in these breeds is so strong that their members are truly happiest when they have a job to do. If we humans don't keep a working dog busy, it'll find a way to create work—and that work will usually have a high degree of mischievousness about it.
Our homestead canine—named Gnome Chompsky after the venerable Noam Chomsky—is a mutt, but has a significant amount of border collie in him. Border collies are one of the most obsessed working dogs. They usually do not make good pets in an urban household, because their restlessness and urge to do something will often lead them to herd children in a rough manner, or bug their keepers until everyone is unhappy.
Luckily for us, we live in the woods, so Chompsky can roam as he wishes—seeking all sorts of forest denizens to herd, or just chase, if one of them refuses to cooperate. The main purpose for our having dogs over the years is to fend off deer and rabbits who wish to consume our garden veggies and various shrubs. Living out in the woods, we can let our dogs wander freely, so they spread their scent around the clearing (deer and rabbits have a good sense of smell and fear dogs) or merrily drive the deer deep into the woods. So that's Chompsky's primo assignment... his chief vocation.
But possessing his resourceful and compulsive border collie drive to seek work, Chompsky has created a number of other jobs to keep himself busy, and to watch him work is to know joy in a dog. Here are a few examples.
After meals, he happily provides the first washing of dishes, as his tongue assiduously cleans pots and plates. When visitors drive into our clearing he loudly announces their entrance (overloading our eardrums with his booming barking) and then runs to greet them—often causing them to reel back from his overwhelmingly gleeful reception.
Quite related to his duty of fending off deer, Chompsky does his best at terrorizing moles and voles, as he sniffs for their location and immediately proceeds to excavate major depressions in the yard—causing me to trail him around, repairing the damage.
He is exceptionally talented at learning and memorizing our daily routine, and then reminding us what we should be doing, when we forgetfully stray from the schedule. For example, when it's three minutes past time for a routine task, he plants his butt in the middle of whatever is going on and quizzically cocks his head to one side, as if to say, “I know I'm not in charge here, but haven't you forgotten something? You know, it's my job to keep you on the program.”
On walks through the woods Chompsky acknowledges that he's not in charge of which path I might choose on a given day, so he waits at each junction, looking back at me, patiently but business-like anticipating my decision. When I make a choice, he bounds off down that path, adeptly clearing the way, so I don't have to fret over any elephants or lions who might interfere with my strolling reverie. He also keeps unicorns at bay.
It's not just outdoors but in the confines of the house that our beloved canine never shrinks from his duty. I described earlier his plate-cleaning skills. When all meals are over and all visitors have left, Chompsky's work ethic never flags. In the evening he dutifully lies on our bed, warming my spot, for which I'm grateful, on these cold winter nights.
And then, in the morning,when I rise well before my mate and putter about the house, preparing breakfast, Chompsky knows the time for one of his most crucial duties is upon us. He sits before me, his whole hind end wiggling in eager anticipation, waiting for the magic words, “OK, go get Louisa!” With utter joy, he leaps upon the bed, forcing her to join us in the morning celebrations. My job at that time is to alert her to his impending assault—by a slightly elevated tone of voice—so she can hide under a protective cover of blankets, lest he tear her skin.
We have no sheep on our homestead to satisfy our part-border collie herder, but I believe, with his initiative, that we have come up with enough other meaningful jobs to make his life happy.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Parents' Pernicious Lies

Everybody knows that lying is bad. Throughout history one sage voice after another has counseled about the virtues of telling the truth, or warned us of the slippery slope we risk sliding down, “when first we practice to deceive.” Sir Walter Scott warned us with these words, back at the beginning of the 19th century.
So if we universally agree on the evils of prevarication, why is it that parents habitually lie to their young children? Well, maybe not habitually, but society-sanctioned and widely-practiced lying occurs at least twice a year in Christian (and some other) countries: at Christmas and at Easter. Small children are blatantly deceived about the existence of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. They are told tall tales about a benevolent nighttime visitor who will bring them gifts. Does gifting children exonerate an adult who lies to them? Surely not.
And now comes scientific evidence from the respected British medical journal The Lancet, where a recently published article claims that indeed, Christmas-time falsities about Santa can be harmful to family relations. Two psychologists (I think they should remain anonymous) wrote an article that maintains that lies about St. Nick can lead to “abject disappointment” when kids find out the truth. Children might lose trust in mom and dad, the shrinks wrote. What's worse, this tall tale about Santa goes on for years—depending on the fibbing skills of the adults and the gullibility of the children. (My belief was shattered at a tender age by an older friend, but I wisely kept up the family deception for a couple of years more.) If mom and dad could keep up the phony story for so long, a kid can't help but wonder what else they are lying about. Fabrications about Santa dangerously erodes family trust!
The psychologists who wrote the article were even more adamant about the use of Santa to bribe kids into good behavior: be good or get no presents. This threat against bad behavior is a devious parental tool of control. 
It's clear that these ongoing lies are undermining civilization. Just think about how damaging this can be to the future of children's morals—especially when they discover this nefarious ruse at a very tender age and then join the family deceit (as I did), as they choose to play along with the lie for several more years. The whole family lies! It's a national (maybe even worldwide) conspiracy!
Should we initiate a campaign to bring honesty back into the family circle by doing away with the Santa fairy tale? Wouldn't that take us back to the good old days, when integrity ruled the world? But then again, we seem to need some degree of fabrication in our lives... might as well be at Christmas—the season already abounds with many other kinds of bizarre behavior.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Oak Gall

The oak gall is created when a female wasp lays an egg on a oak leaf, and the gall later forms. It is 1-2 inches (2-5 cm) in diameter. I have cut out the top of the gall, revealing the intricate inside, Click to enlarge.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Bat Speak

The nature of animal communication has been of interest to humans for ages. We do know that they communicate with each other. We watch them and observe the sounds and gestures they use and wonder how they speak to each other. How much information are they able to exchange, and how complex might it be? We assume that human communication is far more intricate, since we have a much greater cognitive ability and we have developed countless words that we string together in endless ways. But are we really that much more loquacious?
The biggest barrier to understanding animal communication is the fact that we cannot get inside their minds to figure out what's going on. The so-called “theory of mind” that allows one human to guess fairly well what's going on inside the head of another human is helpful, because every human brain works pretty much the same. But how does the mind of an animal operate? What goes on inside the head of beavers or elephants, when they send messages to each other?
In Stephan Budiansky's 1998 book If a Lion Could Talk, he says that we humans simply can't get inside the mind of an animal because (1) they communicate with each other in a wordless manner and (2) our anthropomorphic attitude gets in the way: we can't help but attribute human characteristics to what they're doing. When we do this, we miss who they really are. It causes us to view animals as some sort of defective version of what a human is. We completely miss their special kind of intelligence. So if a lion could talk, we'd totally not understand what it said.
Rene Descartes didn't help cross-species communication, because he believed that animals were more like machines than conscious beings. He thought that they have no feelings or emotions. Descartes paved the way for 20th century cognitive scientists, who thought that, although animals might be more conscious than a machine, they still insisted in seeing animal consciousness as a lame version of ours.
These limitations we've had regarding animal communication are finally beginning to be cast off. In 1974 the philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a seminal paper titled “What Is it Like to Be a Bat?” he took issue with the then-current view of animal consciousness and claimed that bat communication is quite sophisticated; that in fact bats' echolocation is similar to human vision and contains lots of information. But since consciousness is a very subjective phenomenon, we humans will never be able to experience the world the way a bat does. Nagel maintained that each critter knows only what it's like to be themselves. We will never be able to know what it's like to be a bat—even if we could decipher their language. Even if a bat could talk, we'd not understand what it said.
A recent fascinating forward step in the process of learning how animals communicate was taken by researchers at the Bat Lab for NeuroEcology at Tel Aviv University, who showed that bats not only do a very good job of communicating, but that they jabber among themselves quite a bit. The scientists recorded the vocalizations of Egyptian fruit bats and then analyzed the sounds. What initially sounded like a meaningless cacophony was really an abundance of “bat speak.” They were even able to identify individual bat voices and learn, to a limited extent, what the messages were. They found that bats bicker a lot—they quibble over food, space, where to sleep, and with whom to have sex... just like humans! Bat communication is indeed much more sophisticated that we thought.
So the evidence mounts. Animals do communicate, and if we can drop our anthropomorphic bias, we are beginning to learn how well they do it. Many indigenous peoples have long known that animals are articulate—that they possess sophisticated nonverbal skills. Animals employ subtle ways of sending messages that don't require all the verbiage we humans seem to need. While we fire off long strings of words at each other—often without listening—animals use different but effective ways of getting their messages across. Maybe if we shut up and honed our listening and observational skills, we could learn a thing or two about communication from them.