Curiosity Attractors: The Diffuse Obsessions that Shape our Lives

We all have those recurring fascinations we just can’t seem to shake. You know the ones — those diffuse obsessions and latent creative projects that linger in the back of your mind, calling to you even when you try your best to ignore them.

Though you may not realize it, these ‘curiosity attractors’ often reveal deeper truths about who you are and what is most meaningful to you, offering insights into your past experiences and current creative drive, and even glimpses into potential career paths you may want to explore.

Curiosity Attractors – Illustration

A multifaceted form of curiosity

Curiosity is a complex psychological phenomenon with multiple facets. There are many types of curiosity (and researchers are still arguing about how many types and how to define them) but three types are most relevant to curiosity attractors: epistemic curiosity, empathic curiosity, and diversive curiosity.

• Epistemic curiosity refers to your desire to learn about the world and resolve gaps in your understanding. It motivates you to read non-fiction books, conduct research, or enroll in classes to master new skills. It drives your lifelong quest to expand your knowledge and circle of competence. When you feel confused by a concept, epistemic curiosity kicks in and compels you to dig deeper to fill in the gaps and reconcile any contradictions.

• Empathic curiosity relates to your interest in connecting with others, understanding their perspectives and experiences. It’s what makes you ask questions to understand how friends think and feel, get to know strangers, or consume media to gain insight into other ways of life. We have an innate drive to feel part of something bigger than ourselves, and empathic curiosity stems from our deeply human need to form interpersonal connections and bond with others.

• Diversive curiosity is that fleeting urge you sometimes feel to explore something new just for the sake of novelty, with no clear goal in mind. Diversive curiosity is behind our tendency to compulsively check our feeds for updates, fall into Wikipedia rabbit holes, try new TV shows, or say “ok, one last chapter and then I’ll go to bed!” when reading an addictive novel. This form of curiosity provides a momentary thrill through novelty that doesn’t require a deeper purpose.

Curiosity attractors are like mental tugs-of-war that tap into all three types of curiosity. We feel pulled to certain concepts because of a desire to understand the world (epistemic curiosity) and bond with others who share our interests (empathic curiosity). There’s also excitement just from the novelty of the topic (diversive curiosity).

While the diversive component may be short-lived, epistemic and empathic curiosity have staying power. You return to these ideas again and again because they speak to a deep need for knowledge and connection. Curiosity attractors reveal what you care most about and cannot resist exploring.

But what is it that compels us to revisit specific ideas, topics, and creative projects time and again, and not others that seem equally interesting on paper?

The birth of curiosity attractors

Some concepts stick in our minds, evolving into curiosity attractors that keep on pulling on our attention while others fade away. There seems to be three key factors that give birth to curiosity attractors.

The first is positive early experiences. When parents and teachers encourage your enthusiasm for a subject in childhood, it sticks with you. You associate those topics with feelings like joy, pride and competence. Research suggests that these emotional imprints stay with you. For instance, kids praised for scientific curiosity often grow into adults who gravitate toward the sciences.

Curiosity attractors also often intersect with parts of your identity. We go back to questions that fit with our personal values and worldviews. If environmental activism matters to someone, they will revisit related issues like climate change. A philosopher passionate about ethics may often go back to grappling with moral questions.

Finally, the sheer enjoyment of a good intellectual challenge keeps certain subject matter perpetually engaging, and we are drawn to ideas with just the right level of complexity. Psychologists call this need for cognition, which is usually triggered by ideas complex enough to highlight gaps in our knowledge but not so complex as to feel incomprehensible. Curiosity attractors tend to hit this sweet spot.

Ultimately, your curiosity attractors offer insight into who you are. They capture your past experiences, your current values, and signal your untapped potential. They provide a blueprint of your inner world waiting to be brought to life.

How to explore your curiosity attractors

Your curiosity attractors are like a compass pointing to your creative true north. Tuning into these mental magnets and paying attention to where they pull your imagination can reveal hidden pathways to creativity and self-discovery.

What’s the one idea that lives rent-free in the back of your mind? Is there a creative project you keep mentioning you’ll work on one day? A question you keep on coming back to?

Start by paying attention to what naturally draws your attention during everyday life. A great way to do that is to practice self-anthropology and capture field notes for 24 hours. Are you always attracted to certain topics when reading articles, talking to friends, or listening to podcasts? Everytime you notice one of these, jot it down. Over time, patterns will emerge that will help you identify your curiosity attractors.

Next, translate these insights into action. Start small and see where your curiosity leads you. This could be a simple side project, hosting some conversations about this topic, or even just writing more about it on social media.

See if exploring this curiosity attractor sparks bigger aspirations for the future — perhaps even suggesting a potential career change, whether it’s expanding the scope of your current role or pivoting to a different path entirely.

Sometimes, curiosity attractors center around life’s great mysteries — the origins of human consciousness, the size of the cosmos, the meaning of it all. Although these may be unsolvable, the very act of wondering connects you to fellow curious minds across the ages grappling with the same big questions. Those curiosity attractors help you step into a collective human experience much larger than yourself. And that’s worth exploring.

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