Feb 22, 2012

Neophilia: Curiosity by Another Name?

I've been meaning to comment on a New York Times piece, What’s New? Exuberance for Novelty Has Benefits, since I first saw it, since it touches on a matter that has been explored, invoked, exhibited and exemplified, condemned and praised -- whether in narrational passages, speeches, philosophical dialogues, proverbial exchanges, compilations of reflections upon life and wisdom:  Curiosity, the desire not only to know, to connect, to uncover, but also in a certain sense to contrast, to find, experience, or produce the novel.  Researchers are reevaluating and nuancing their assessment of a trait upon which they'd previously taken a more categorically negative stance, "novelty-seeking, a personality trait long associated with trouble."

Originally, employing methods focusing on genetics and the brain:
they linked this trait with problems like attention deficit disorder, compulsive spending and gambling, alcoholism, drug abuse and criminal behavior.

Now, though, after extensively tracking novelty-seekers, researchers are seeing the upside. In the right combination with other traits, it’s a crucial predictor of well-being.
 It's an interesting discovery -- or rather rediscovery.  It's not as if moral philosophers and theologians, novelists and historians haven't been reflecting on, observing, discussing, introspecting about -- and in many cases, accumulating a growing treasury of wisdom on these matters in conversations about the human condition spanning the centuries. Its not as if moral theorists have fallen silent on the topic lately.  Paul Griffiths recently published a book-length study bearing directly on these issues, Intellectual Appetite, which perhaps didn't make its way across any social scientists' desks, let alone insert voices conveying long-lived traditions of moral theory into the conversation, because of its subtitle, A Theological Grammar.

What does the current configuration of thought from genetics, evolutionary psychology, brain chemistry studies, and psychiatry have to tell us about the referent of the neologism, "neophilia"?  Well, first, there seems to be a gene, more common among populations which migrated further from the human origin point in Africa, predisposing those who possess it to desire, enjoy, and seek novelty to a greater degree than others.
These genetic variations affect the brain’s regulation of dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with the processing of rewards and new stimuli (and drugs like cocaine). The variations have been linked to faster reaction times, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and a higher penchant for novelty-seeking and risk-taking.
One must, of course, exercise a great deal of caution in extrapolating too much from genetics and brain functions, particularly when we are speaking in terms of correlations, 'link[s]".
Researchers have found that people’s tendency for novelty-seeking also depends on their upbringing, on the local culture and on their stage of life. By some estimates, the urge for novelty drops by half between the ages of 20 and 60.
It's totally unsurprising to anyone except hardcore believers in genetics as destiny, of nature or nature, that multiple factors interacting in complex ways would be involved -- this is human behavior we're talking about, after all.  What's telling in both the scientific research and the journalistic digestion of it is not that they aim to do justice to at least nurture's importance as well as that of nature -- its what's entirely left out: the much more difficult to quantify and model factors of choice, deliberation, character, person-and-character-forming decisions and desires -- factors well-recognized and explored by at least some traditions of moral theory, particularly (though not exclusively) Virtue Ethics.

This contemporary reconsideration and rehabilitation of curiosity does frame the issues through concepts and language corresponding to at least some dimensions of moral value and life.  The basic question being asked and answered is whether this sort of trait, this kind of characteristic motivation towards action is good or bad, whether it conduces or contributes to well-being, or whether it imposes obstacles, produces problems, disadvantages the person in its grips.

What's particularly good about this novel study of age-old territory is that there is at least a recognition that simple answers, reducing these matters to one factor, giving a simple Yes or No, are not adequate.  Likewise, the conception of doing well, "flourishing," is indexed to at least several more or less plausible components:
Dr. Cloninger. . .  tracked people using a personality test he developed two decades ago, the Temperament and Character Inventory. By administering the test periodically and chronicling changes in people’s lives over more than a decade, he and colleagues looked for the crucial combination of traits in people who flourished over the years — the ones who reported the best health, most friends, fewest emotional problems and greatest satisfaction with life.
What was the secret to their happy temperament and character? A trio of traits. They scored high in novelty-seeking as well in persistence and “self-transcendence.”
Though one might point out a few faulty assumptions -- for instance that number, rather than quality of friendships, matters, or that emotional problems as defined by psychology and psychiatry correlate unproblematically to happiness or flourishing, or its lack thereof --this mode of study actually seems quite congenial to a Virtue Ethics perspective, does it not?  Being well in terms of bodily health, friendships, emotional states, a sense of satisfaction with one's condition, achievements, etc. -- while those are not the whole of eudaimonia, they're certainly parts of it, or perhaps preconditions for its unfolding and ongoing flow.

The other two traits associated and assembled with neophilia into a seeming recipe for happiness -- or at least a better shot at it -- are revealing.  Lacking persistence is likely to deprive one
Persistence, the stick-to-it virtue promoted by strong-willed Victorians, may sound like the opposite of novelty-seeking, but the two traits can coexist and balance each other.  “People with persistence tend to be achievers because they’ll keep working at something even when there’s no immediate reward,” Dr. Cloninger says. “They’ll think, ‘I didn’t win this time, but next time I will.’. .
Whether persistence ought to be viewed as an actual "virtue" may be questionable, but it certainly a precondition for virtue being translated into consistent action, and most likely for development of virtues one does originally possess (and, along the same lines, for rooting out vices one eventually realizes one has).  In fact, whether one is novelty-directed or novelty-averse, it's a trait needed in order to be able to see things through and to attain more than momentary success in one's practical life.  Neophilia can inform persistence though, lending it greater flexibility and scope
"[W]hat if conditions have changed? Then you’re better off trying something new. To succeed, you want to be able to regulate your impulses while also having the imagination to see what the future would be like if you tried something new.”
The other characteristic, "self-transcendence," perhaps a bit ambiguously conceptualized
gives people a larger perspective. “It’s the capacity to get lost in the moment doing what you love to do, to feel a connection to nature and humanity and the universe,” Dr. Cloninger says. “It’s sometimes found in disorganized people who are immature and do a lot of wishful thinking and daydreaming, but when it’s combined with persistence and novelty-seeking, it leads to personal growth and enables you to balance your needs with those of the people around you.”
I'm not sure that being able to become lost, to be captivated by something other than oneself really ought to be accorded the term and sense of "transcendence," and this slippage points towards the limits of this kind of research and the horizons of theorizing typically accompanying and structuring the research -- where a Virtue Ethics perspective can appropriate the valuable contributions made by the social scientist and explore it a bit further.

One might take any of these three traits -- neophilia, persistence, self-transcendence -- and ask whether they are necessarily good, to which the answer is of course: No, in some cases they can be quite bad.  They can lead to bad outcomes or consequences.  They can form part of an otherwise vicious character.  They can be forged, for instance, into the instruments of cruelty, harnessed to totalitarian ideologies and desires, lent and bent to a much wider range of objects than an optimism of "what you love" or "connection" might envision.

What would lend a needed additional perspective, guidance, orientation?  Among other things, consistently seeking the mean, patterning according to the virtues, meeting as best one can their dictated, if not yet being entirely informed by them -- looking to the modes of "right" Aristotle invokes -- right occasions, right reasons, right duration, right extent or intensity, right objects, right people, and so on -- striving to use and to conform one's actions, desires, emotions, habits, and intentions to these measures.  Towards this, exercising some degree of reflection, some amount of deliberation, some effort of self- and character-forming choice. . .

In short, something beyond these three traits is needed for what is positive, what leads towards flourishing, in these three traits and their conflux, to be fully and reliably realized.  In their turn, however, they also play a role in moral development and life which is all too easy to overlook.


A predilection towards seeking the new does not necessarily take the shape perhaps most paradigmatically associated with it in our imagination -- where a person constantly moves on from one object to another, insatiated, distracted, replacing the focus of attention by another, then another, then another.

The new can just as well be the same, lingered over lovingly until it yields and reveals its secrets, its hidden sides, yet more doors to open, still further facets to explore, evoking new questions. 
Why does one person get so much more out of what seems to be the same experience as another?  Why is the seemingly same reading of the same text, even confined to the same passage for one person so rich and for another so poor, so dull, so boring? Why does the sort of moral action, the choice, the constraint, even the persisting at first foreign to one who is just on the way to the virtues -- why does that for some eventually coalesce into something meaningful, something imbued with significance?

It seems to me that these three traits -- love for a kind of newness, the act and practice rather than just capacity or intention of sticking to one's projects, giving oneself and one's attention over to object's inherent and desirable intelligibility, all three of these progressively more and more rightly directed, shaped, oriented -- need to be present in any real moral development, deliberation, reflection. 
I can't picture how Aristotle could have puzzled over the plurality and priority of goods, how Augustine might have been consumed not only by a desire for a gradually better and better recognized divine object but even to know himself, how Anselm might have probed to the very roots of virtues and vices, or how Thomas might have been led by a love for truth to investigate every nooks and cranny not only of Aristotle's available works but of the inexhaustible forest of symbols of Scripture, and even to think let alone attempt their harmonization.

Or rather, I can picture these - but I can't picture them without also imagining all of these moral theorists being motivated by these three traits -- no, that's too causal a term, one which evokes separate parts driving or lending impulse to each other -- rather, having these three traits course through the fabric of their characters like veins or nerves running through the body.

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