Monday, June 28, 2010

Boredom Is Learned

Part Two in my series on Curiosity.

There are no bored three year olds. They don't exist. Three year olds want to know everything: they explore the worlds through their eyes, hands, and mouths. Not always in that order. And that doesn't begin to describe a child in the presence of a strong odor, like fresh cookies or dog poo, or a loud sound, like fireworks or bird chatter. The five senses are hubs of great activity. The world is a whirling carousel of interesting things to a child. Things shimmer with possibility and purpose. Three year olds NEED to know everything.

So why don't thirteen year olds? Or thirty or forty or fifty year olds, for that matter?

I don't know. I suspect it has to do with the hidden cost of experience. As we grow and learn, we get energized by what is fresh and novel. Things happen that we don't expect. It's a ride! We experience something, we are thrilled/horrified/seduced/shocked by it, then expect to experience it again. Or expect it to change. Either way, by the very nature of learning, we use past experience to shape our present experiences. We know the world through the comparison between what happened yesterday and today. We feel wise when we recognize what's about to happen. We celebrate our ability to see the patterns in things; we reward those with the most correct answers. Our lives become safer and more stable as we become more steeped in the “causes and effects” of the world.

But something happens: as we grow, these expectations begin to erode our ability to experience something on its own terms. We experience fewer things that surprise us. We are constantly predicting what's going to happen-- and, often, we are right.

Life is scary! Predicting what's going to happen makes it bearable. Sometimes, it's the only difference between safety and danger.

The cost is that we often don't see everything that's there. We begin see ONLY the patterns that we've seen before; we focus on what's predictable and often miss the things that we don't expect.

As Sherlock Holmes tells us, we see what we expect to see.

And so, we learn to stop learning.

And that's how I define boredom: the result of displacing the wildness of curiosity with the stability of predictability.

We return to the three year old. Driven by curiosity, a child has no room for boredom. He wants to learn everything. As he grows, the preponderance of experience wears down his interest in the world, like the ocean lapping at an enormous stone on the beach. The sharp edges of curiosity, through predictability and experience, become the smooth contours of boredom.

How do we stop this erosion?

Do we even want to?

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