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The Watcher

Are you mindfully or mindlessly watching?

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artsitic eyes symbolisng the watcher

There’s been a lot of watching this last week. Watching news stations. Watching polls. Watching twitter feeds. Watching watching watching. Picking apart little data nuggets like a seagull with a cast aside bag of crisps. How many votes now? What percentage? Clark County or Clayton? Seeking minuscule answers like a small hit of a high and then going back for another and another and another.

What makes us seek answers like this? What curiosity hooks us to the point of sleep deprivation? And how can this kind of curiosity make us feel almost out of control in our information consumption? First, it’s helpful to understand the dynamics of curiosity. Not all curiosity drives us bonkers. Actually, there are three kinds of curiosity: diversive, epistemic and empathic. They each have their own qualities and can be beneficial in different ways  

The kind of “frantically hitting refresh” information seeking many of us have been engaging in this last week is the dark side of curiosity and it’s what happens when diversive curiosity collides with technology and a crisis-news cycle. It’s the kind of curiosity that makes us want to skip from topic to topic, station to station, news source to news source, dipping our beak into information but not digging deeply. When engaged in a healthy way, diversive curiosity can be a route towards casual exploration of ideas. It can make us more open and creative and lay the groundwork for meaningful exploration. But diversive curiosity can also lead to some unhealthy behaviors. It can be like a drug, where we’re seeking and finding tidbits of info, dopamine gets released, and we feel a little rush of satisfaction. But it is short-lived, and like a drug, we feel a void when there’s no more drip feed of info, and we’re off looking for another fix. Over time, this can become habitual, and weakens our more positive curiosity impulses. And media feed off this quality. Spooning us small tantalising morsels – just enough – but never allowing us to explore deeper. Always skimming the surface with the bare minimum of the shiny new info to keep us watching watching watching. 

Epistemic curiosity is different. “Epistemic” comes from the Latin word for knowledge. So rather than being curious for small bites of info like diversive curiosity, epistemic curiosity goes deeper. It is to study something for the sake of knowledge, not for the sake of instant gratification. This feels particularly relevant these days while we find ourselves getting the shakes while waiting for that next news app notification jingle.

So how can we be a more thoughtful sort of watcher? True watching is a skill. The power of observation and improved situational awareness has been associated with everything from higher empathy to greater creativity, so it is something worth cultivating. The true watcher waits. She pauses. She daydreams. She noodles. She marinates. Always thinking and wondering, And, she is a questioner. Querying her own knowledge until she finds a thing worthy of exploring – and then she’s off to explore deeply, not in a cursory way. 

A few tips for becoming a more mindful watcher?

Go printed

Try reading a paper instead of hopping in the news app. Research shows you retain more information from printed materials, but it’s not just comprehension that benefits. If you try to read the paper cover to cover, you will invariably land on some topic you would never have clicked on otherwise. This strengthens the curiosity muscle and could send you on an exploration you hadn’t expected. If a paper isn’t an option for you for any reason, try slow news. Website Tortoise is trying to bring news to people in a way that enhances positive curiosity.

Walking meditation

We most often associate meditation with closed eyes and the lotus position. Focused attention meditation takes a different form. One type of focused attention meditation is walking meditation. In walking meditation, you try to observe – but not ruminate on – every detail you experience during your walk. Try to tap into all your senses. This practice of observing – but not reacting – builds your powers of observation while exercising your curiosity self-control.  

Google holiday

Try to not google anything for a day. Yes, a whole day. See what it feels like to not have an immediate answer. Write down the question you were going to google, and then check it the next day. Was that information worth your time? Or was it an instant gratification fix? Try and train yourself to not fulfil the search impulse every time. 

I realise for many this was an exceptional time that warranted attention. I was right there with you binge eating Ben and Jerry’s and learning more about Pennsylvania county demographics than I ever needed to know. But a detox from the watching watching watching, where the info-seeking controls us, can be good now and then.

My favorite book for exploring curiosity is Curious: Your Desire to Know and Why Your Life Depends on It. You can hear me talk more about this concept and others at Pendulum Summit later this month. Enjoy!

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