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Why are some people deeper than others?

In my experience, it has little to do with intelligence or curiosity. There are smart, curious people who are introspective and philosophical, and there are smart, curious people who aren’t.

I have a woefully incomplete hypothesis about this, which is based on my (probably biased) observations:

There are (at least) three kinds of curiosity:

  1. Curiosity about people
  2. Curiosity about mechanics
  3. Curiosity about abstract ideas

(4. Curiosity about surviving. But I’m going to assume we’re talking about people who have their basic needs met.)

Most folks have at least some of each type. When I examine this in myself, it really feel as if each type is being handled by a different set of brain processes.

When I’m at a party, laughing and joking with friends, I can’t think clearly about the Problem of Evil or Fixing a Sink. Of course, I could collaborate with friends on a practical or philosophical problem, but there’s a much more common sort of socializing that doesn’t involve either of those curiosity types.

And yet it does involve curiosity. I may be deeply curious about why Martha left her husband or why Andrew looks sad, and I may employ considerable brain power to various social deductions and maneuvers.

There’s a different “mode” I go into when I’m deeply focused on writing computer code or cooking a complicated meal. It’s neither social nor philosophical. It’s algorithmic or deductive. It’s a very tight focus on a very specific task.

When I’m focused on abstract ideas—on introspection or philosophy—I often need to shut out both the social world and any nuts-and-bolts tasks that are on my to-do list. (I often use philosophizing as an escape from the things I “should” be doing.) Even if I’m discussing the origin of the Universe with a friend, we’re more focussed on the subject matter than our friendship. (Unless we’re just joking about the subject. Sometimes people use light discussions about deep subjects as a way to socialize.)

Lots of research suggests that our species has a very limited capacity to focus. That is, we can only focus on one thing at a time. We can bring the same amount of brain power to whatever we’re focused on, but we can’t focus on Martha’s divorce and existentialism simultaneously.

As I mentioned, above, most people have all three types of curiosity, but many people lean more towards one or two types than others. Why? I don’t know, but most complex human traits seem to be formed by a mixture of nature and nurture, and my guess is that’s true when it comes to curiosity. It’s pretty easy to see how these three types could be useful to tribal creatures. It makes sense that we evolved to have them.

Anecdotally, I can say that I’m a bit crippled when it comes to socializing, because I’m very shy and introverted, which is not to say that extroverts can’t engage in abstract thinking. Many do. But maybe the large amount of time I spend alone contributes to my tendency to “ask the big question.”

That doesn’t explain why I spend more time navel gazing than doing carpentry or gardening. Maybe I’m less focused on mechanics than some loners, because I was raised by two college professors who were more concerned with ideas than mechanical skills.

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