Curiosity Saved the Cat: Mind, Body, and Soul

I was recently observing my cousin's five cats interact, and I was also recently at another house where there were a few cats. One cat would come out and want to be petted. Another would hide. One cat would jump at a toy and play with it. Another would run away and hide. There are always differences in the cat personalities, but at base there are really only two main perspectives that a cat can take on life.


Curiosity is the thing that encourages exploration. Exploration and fear are both ancient circuits in the brain. To a large extent motivation is linear, you can move towards something or away from it. You can approach or you can avoid.

When something is new it's natural to be afraid. Not being afraid is what is learned. For instance, if you take a cat to a new environment and drop it off then the first thing that it will do is stand still, tense, ready, and look around. It's trying to get its bearings, it's trying to orient itself in its new environment. The first thing uncertainty does is inhibit action. You just stop.

Then, after the cat has oriented itself a little bit it will slowly start to explore, sniffing this, touching that. If nothing bad happens it will slowly start to relax. And, it will keep slowly exploring, learning more about the environment, and becoming more comfortable. It's becoming more oriented in a larger and larger known environment. It's going through the process of turning the unknown into the known. It's exploring.

Now, the idea that curiosity killed the cat isn't absolutely wrong. If the cat gets curious and decides to crawl into a machine of some sort that then starts up, that will be bad. Then, curiosity and exploration did kill the cat. We recognize this same danger with people. Explorers are people that seek that risk, that enjoy pushing the edge of the known into the unknown.

But, the phrase "Curiosity killed the cat." emphasizes the idea of being cautious. Not cautious in some specific thing, but cautious in all exploration. Maybe you shouldn't be curious about anything if it's going to kill you. This is a detrimental take on life.

Jordan Peterson is my favorite living psychologist. He has a great quote about caution, "all the caution in the world will not feed you." In a more general sense, all the caution in the world has never solved a single problem. It can help protect you, but it can't solve your problems. That takes exploration.

A lack of curiosity means that you won't adjust to an ever-changing world, and thus you'll become more and more messed up over time, or maladjusted. So, curiosity will sometimes kill you fast, and a lack of curiosity will kill you slow. Here's another phrase that we could use, "Lack of curiosity led the cat to maladjustment and slow death."

The uncertain causes inhibition and fear at first, but in a healthy animal it then causes curiosity and exploration. You should not get stuck in a fear state. We need good ideas to balance out mediocre advice like "Curiosity killed the cat."

I think that "Curiosity saved the cat." is pretty good, but I also want to take a couple tries at explaining a bit more. Here's two to think about:

- - - - - - -

Curiosity caused the cat to explore the territory, slowly transforming the unknown into the known, and reducing general anxiety.

Curiosity allowed the cat to conquer the fear within and the chaos without, thus transforming the self and the world.

- - - - - - -

I like those.

So, the next time that you hear someone saying "Curiosity killed the cat." you have a few things to challenge their overly cautious assumptions with. You can say that "Lack of curiosity led to maladjustment and slow death." Or, you can say that "Curiosity saved the cat." and then give one of the longer ones if someone wants more of an explanation. Either way, my point is that "Caution kills." just as surely as curiosity.

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You can find more of what I'm doing at http://www.JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com

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