Covid killed curiosity

20 January 2023 | 6 min read | PR
James Gwinnett
James Gwinnett

Picture the scene: you’re freshly graduated and working for an organisation that operates a remote working policy. You move from bedroom to kitchen to make your coffee, while your hungover roommate snores next door, only to return to your bedroom to fire up your laptop. Your interaction with the outside world consists of scrolling through TikTok videos of dancing cats and choosing your Deliveroo.

Now picture this one: you’re in the office (remember those days?). Two of your colleagues are chatting in the company breakout area as you stroll past. One breaks out into laughter; you head over to find out what’s so funny and share your own anecdote from your weekend trip to Snowdonia.

“In hindsight, we shouldn’t have taken on Crib Goch in 50mph winds and the visibility was practically zero, but it was still epic!”

You spoon coffee into a cafetiere and leaf through a copy of the day’s paper while you wait for the kettle to boil. You find out things that are going on the world. Piers Morgan makes you squirm, Meghan Markle makes you cringe, and the atrocities in Ukraine make you cry; whatever the story, you form an opinion.

You have fuel for the fire of discussion in between rounds at your next pub quiz (or, if you’re of a certain age, at your next dinner party) and you get a warm fuzzy feeling from actually having cared about something.

From a young age we’re programmed to care; to ask questions. An innate curiosity fuels a constant search for explanation and it’s how we find out about the workings of the world.

“Why is the sky blue? Why do I have to grow up? Where do babies come from?” Experts reckon we ask 40,000 questions before our fifth birthday.

Yet, as we grow old, our curiosity wanes. Given our brains process upwards of 70GB of information each day, is it a case that our brains fill up? Or do we simply give up caring? We understand more, but we also accept more. We’re less inclined to wonder ‘why?’

COVID has stifled that curiosity even further.

After two years of being cooped up, the expectation was that we’d be desperate to get out and see the world once more. But two years of not attending exhibitions, not taking up new hobbies, not travelling, and not expanding our minds with new experiences, has not left us pining for these things, rather we’ve resigned ourselves to accept the ‘new normal’.

Travel and hospitality, for example, have not returned to pre-pandemic levels. I’m currently reading Sapiens, the fascinating study of humankind’s evolution, in which author Yuval Noah Harari points out that our ancient ancestors didn’t go abroad on holiday to experience in foreign cultures.

It took 2.5 million years for humankind to progress sufficiently to want to see the world, and it took just two years for this curiosity to wane.

Why? Because – and this might be a controversial opinion but – COVID made our lives easy. Clearly has recently been working with Ollie Ollerton, star of Channel 4’s SAS: Who Dares Wins, and he often talks about taking the ‘path of least resistance’. For those 2.5 million years, it was a primal instinct to want to simply survive.

Evolution didn’t teach us to explore our boundaries or push ourselves out of our comfort zones because we’d have too easily been eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger.

Unfortunately, that mentality lives on. It’s the reason we’re capable of binge-watching an entire season of Breaking Bad or Grey’s Anatomy, whichever floats your boat. Staying put on the sofa is the easy option; the path of least resistance.

It’s the same reason that, when working from home was forced upon us, and we regained a couple of hours each day that would have ordinarily been spent commuting, we didn’t put those two hours to good use. Meditation, exercise, cleaning the house? Nope. We treated ourselves to more time in bed. We got lazier.

And much like the world opening up and us being unwilling to travel, now that we’ve realised that it’s possible to work remotely, we’re opting to do so. Clearly’s recruitment clients are noting that the 75% of their clients who are offering remote or hybrid working arrangements are filling positions in a matter of days.

The 25% that are insisting on employees being in the office every day are struggling to recruit – it’s taking months to find candidates. Working in isolation doesn’t promote creativity, but it’s easier.

And sound the old codger klaxon if you like, but don’t get me started on how technology is making our lives even easier – or making us even lazier.

As if to prove my point, I recently had a conversation with a mother of three teenage boys, who’d had to explain to them what a taxi rank was. The concept of a line of taxis outside a train station was alien to them because they assumed that, in a world where everything is only a tap away, the only means of booking one was via an app.

Then there’s ChatGPT, the ‘revolutionary AI chatbot’. There is no doubt that AI can be used to ‘build a brighter, more prosperous future for ourselves and for generations to come.’ But not if those generations are using it to do their homework.

Matt Rudd, Deputy Editor of the Sunday Times Magazine, recently tweeted that he’d had to lecture one of his children because ‘he’d done his English homework and then got ChatGPT to do it and it was much better.’ The tweet made me laugh and squirm at the same time.

In short, forgive me for thinking this is the beginning of the end of creativity. Asking questions is good for us (well, psychologically, at least); it expands our brains and improves our emotional intelligence. But we’re opting to isolate ourselves and limiting our opportunities to be curious. We’ve stopped caring.

So, I implore you, invoke your inner five-year-old and stop accepting things. Start asking ‘why?’ again.

The curiosity of humankind depends on it.

*Thankfully, at the time of writing, ChatGPT was ‘at capacity right now’ – so I couldn’t test whether its version of this article would be better than mine.