What does curiosity mean to you?
Curiosity is ‘what if’. I’m always asking the question, ‘what if’. I am always considering alternatives, thinking about the possibilities. There is never just one way of doing something and it is always good to explore these. That makes you continually curious. I don’t take things at face value; I think beyond what you see on the surface.
Would you describe yourself as curious?
I think I was born curious. If you are interested in life, take time to listen to what people have to say and want to add to the conversation then the only way is to be curious. I always want to find out something new and ask why and how does that work?
It goes back to my childhood. From an early age, I wasn’t encouraged to ask questions. In fact, even my grandmother, who was wonderful but strict and stern, used to say children should be seen and not heard. At school it was a very passive education. Learn these facts, sit quietly, and regurgitate them when required. That is not a complaint, but I question it. I made sure that I did things differently when I had children. I encouraged them to speak, and I always answered their questions and encouraged them to ask why.
At that moment in the museum, I was almost asked to look at things differently. It changed my life.
There was one moment where I remember my curiosity really coming alive. I was living in Brussels at the time and took my youngest who was about 2 at the time into the Africa Museum. We were early to pick up my daughter from school. It was raining so I decided we should go in. There was so much wonder there. But it was the masks which drew me in. I almost forgot that my son was there. I was enthralled. I then read that Picasso was fascinated by African masks and this then took me into that world. I started to get really interested in art and I found a whole new world of other people who were questioning the world. At that moment in the museum, I was almost asked to look at things differently. It changed my life.
What drives your curiosity?
It is driven by my love of art. Art, in all its forms — fine art, literature, sculpture, design and architecture— offers me an insight into a different world. It is a unique communication between me and the artist. I cannot quite express what I have learnt from a particular work or artist, but it has increased my understanding of the world.
I particularly love literature. I really enjoy the late 19th and 20th century writers, people like Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Herman Hesse. They blow my mind. They never give you the answers, or end in a particular place. I don’t like books that end with a clear conclusion. Life isn’t like that. It used to drive my husband nuts, if we went to see a play with an ambiguous ending, I would spend all night saying but what about this ending, could this have happened? He would get exasperated with me and say, “just leave it” (Ros laughs).
Curiosity also drives my desire for the truth and facts. Fake news and misinformation make it so difficult to know what factual or complete fakery. It feels sometimes that we live in George Orwell’s 1984 where there is no truth because you aren’t allowed to repeat things that have happened.
We live in a world of influencers who are almost thinking for us rather than allowing us to ask the questions. People are spending too much time following people on Instagram rather than doing things themselves and creating their own lives.
I am currently curious about AI. It does worry me. We could lose control over what we do.
We could lose control over what we do. Everything we have done in the past has been created by humans. We might build something that could destroy us. And we’ve done that before. I am thinking about nuclear bombs. But we have been able pull back because of emotional intelligence. AI does not have emotions. AI could make a decision to simply garner a result, without the emotional side. There are great dangers in artificial intelligence. We need to keep hold of it and I’m not sure how we do that.
When you were younger what were the things you were most curious about? Do you think you have the answers to those questions now?
There is something I particularly remember. Sitting on a swing on a windy day watching the clouds go by. I remember wondering whether the clouds blew the trees or that it was the trees that really blew the wind. Do I have answers to that now? It is still a little bit of a mystery, but I did become interested in the scientific theories of chaos and complexity. About how what happens locally can affect global weather systems. So maybe I wasn’t ridiculously simple as a child (Ros laughs).
I don't think you would ever say that younger people or older people are more curious. I don’t think it is an age thing.
Do you think younger people are more curious? Why?
That is a difficult one as it is very individual. I don’t think you would ever say that younger people or older people are more curious. I don’t think it is an age thing. But perhaps we need to be encouraged to develop an interest in curiosity early on. Maybe if I hadn’t been curious as a child, I would not have been curious when I saw those works of art in the Museum of African Art for example. You have to be open to possibilities. It is exciting when you are. It can be risky as you are almost taking that step over a cliff edge into the unknown. This makes it more exciting as you achieve something. You might not get an answer to your ‘what if’ but you have challenged it.
We should find ways to spend time with different generations. I was 56 when I began my humanities degree. It absolutely changed me as a person. This was in large part being with young people. They would come up with great ideas and they are more likely to share those ideas without necessarily thinking them through (she laughs) but that always sparked other ideas.
If we are inquisitive, we have a much better chance of living a long, healthy, and importantly a good quality of life.
Do you think being curious could help you live longer? Why?
The more I think about it my answer is yes. It fires your imagination and keeps your brain active. We know from research that if we keep physically fit, eat a healthy diet, if we are inquisitive, we have a much better chance of living a long, healthy, and importantly a good quality of life. Often, however, we end up behaving the way society thinks we should behave as older people. If we forget something, as a defense, we say I am forgetful or I am old, so we can be our own worst enemies sometimes. We need society to think differently about themselves as old.
What would you like to be different when your grandchildren are over 65?
I would like them to know where their food comes from, to know what the environment can give them and what they can give back to the environment. For them to become self-reliant. To recognise opportunities and to take them. To always be asking ‘what if’. To channel a little of the artist Ai Weiwei, celebrating the future and acknowledging the wisdom of the past.
We need to focus on the quality of our lives now, including older age, and make an effort to ensure our later lives are involved and curious.
Until recently living to 140 could only be viewed as science fiction. Soon it could be Science fact. If you were to live to 140, would you be curious about how your life might look? What question would you like to ask of your future self?
It does make me think that if I was born 140 years ago it would be 1883, the time of Queen Victoria. I don’t think my brain could have abreast of the enormous changes over the last 140 years and the next 140 years won’t be any slower. Retiring at 65 and living to 140 is just unsustainable. don’t think any pension fund would allow us. If you look at the natural world everything has a finite age and ours is about 100. We need to focus on the quality of our lives now, including older age, and make an effort to ensure our later lives are involved and curious.
Has this conversation made you think differently?
Yes it has. It took me back to when I became curious about art, about what I got out of art 40 years ago and how I am still inspired by it now. I am forever curious.