The earliest printed reference to the origin of this saying is attributed to the English playwright, Ben Johnson, in his 1598 play, Every Man in His Humour. However, the word he used was care killed the cat, not curiosity, and during this period in history, care was defined as worry or sorrow. Therefore, stress killed the cat, not curiosity. And stress does, in fact, kill brain cells, particularly in the hippocampus, our learning and memory warehouse.
Curiosity on the other hand, increases activity in the hippocampus and enhances long term recall. Some scientists have proposed a molecular link between curiosity and intelligence because dopamine receptors contribute to generation of curiosity in mice and to consolidation of changes in our brain in association with learning. Curiosity also activates our imagination and stimulates the brain to find solutions to problems.
Curiosity has been of enormous value to me personally in my role as carer for my father. I was thrown into the situation of looking after a man whose attitudes and actions completely baffled me. Had it not been for my sanity-saving mantra of “Be curious, not critical”, I would have fallen into the trap of continual negative judgement.
To stop myself from labelling something he did or didn’t do as a sign of ingratitude, inconsideration, unfairness or laziness, I’d ponder the questions:
What might he be feeling?
What meaning might he have given this experience?
Why might he have no motivation to participate?
What could be going on for him right now?
What is he trying to communicate?
What makes him think that way?
Asking these questions diffused the upset or anger I had started to feel. The other lesson I learnt was that one of the biggest enemies to curiosity is the speed of modern life. If we’re in a hurry, there’s no time to pause, reflect and question. Lily Tomlin advised, “For fast-acting relief, try slowing down.” And John De Paola wisely noted, “Slow down and everything you are chasing will come around and catch you.”
This has definitely been the case with respect to looking after Dad. Time and time again, rushing proved to be false economy. Rushing causes me to miss important clues about what’s going on for him. I don’t notice opportunities that would resolve a tense situation. And I fail to appreciate simple pleasures – the beauty of a dusk sky, the flowers that have started to bloom in our garden and the fact that he washed the dishes without prompting!
Madeleine L’Engle commented that “One of the diseases to afflict this century is a loss of wonder.” When we lose our sense of wonder, we lose ourselves. We lose our quality of life and diminish our experience of joy. Dad’s gift to me is that he retains a sense of wonder. He is never in a hurry. He points things out that I’m “too busy” to notice – fascinating cloud formations, the chirping of an unfamiliar bird, and the way the light creates kaleidoscopic patterns as it shines through the blowing curtains.
As Henry David Thoreau observed, “It is not enough to be busy. We must ask: what are we busy about?”