Illustration by Labour
Illustration by Labour

Neophilia, our genius for dealing with all things new, enabled early humans to adapt to droughts and floods, experiment with new technologies and venture into unknown territory in search of resources. By 10,000 years ago, however, many of our ancestors had become farmers in settlements. Living in large groups increased intellectual stimulation as well as safety, and our early agrarian forebears could devote more of their explorative energy to creative achievements, both cerebral and practical.

About 8,000 years ago, they invented written symbols to represent words, for example, and 3,000 years after that, sanitary drains and public baths. On the other hand, big populations also required more rules and regulations for keeping order, which gave rise to what we’ve come to think of as “the establishment.” Then, as now, the powers that be imposed limits on novelty seeking and cast unauthorized questions and quests as crude, subversive or even heretical.

The history of curiosity testifies to society’s strong influence in determining whether neophilia is a virtue or a vice. Even the philosophical Greeks and Romans were wary of inquiring too deeply into the way things are. Christianity only intensified this wariness.

Too Many Questions

“The desire to search for something hidden by God for good reason was a deliberate violation of the order of things,” says literary scholar Barbara Benedict. In an era of rigidly stratified classes, asking too many questions was regarded as insubordinate in the social as well as religious sphere. “To uncover what is hidden was associated with ambition,” Benedict says. “By wanting to know more and be more than other people, you were overstepping your status.”

Like individual rights, the concept of curiosity as a laudable urge is an innovation from the Age of Reason. By the early 18th century, John Locke generated a tidal wave of intellectual neophilia. His theory of empiricism stated that true knowledge is based not on faith or revelation but on experience, ideally supported by evidence or experimentation. This bold assertion was a giant step toward establishing science’s primacy in determining truth and our modern ideas about the self’s uniqueness and importance.

“Almost like a little god,” explains Benedict, “you had the ability to make your own identity by experiencing the world around you.”

The accelerating Industrial Revolution also encouraged neophilia by swelling the ranks of a prosperous, independent-minded middle class. Europe’s booming imperialistic economies expanded people’s worldviews by flooding the market with exotic foreign commodities as well as the first cheap books, which circulated the latest incendiary ideas and adventure stories. It’s no accident that Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” (1719), which chronicled the protagonist’s New World encounters with the new and different, became a best seller.

The West’s new open-mindedness transformed even wealthy grandees who took up shockingly novel pursuits, such as assembling the first scientific collections of rocks, fossils and other things previously thought worthless. The Enlightenment had an even more galvanizing effect on society’s lower and middle strata. Increased literacy helped to advance the idea that anyone of any station could choose what to buy, read or think -- even women. Suddenly, to be inquisitive no longer meant overstepping your place.

State of Mind

The English language began to reflect these major social and psychological changes. The word “curiosity” had previously referred to a rare, foreign or artfully made object. But now it was also applied to an inquiring state of mind, and “curious” to the person who cultivated it. “Interesting” underwent a similar evolution. The word had traditionally meant “important” and was also applied to objects, such as artwork. By 1800, however, it also referred to one’s subjective evaluation of a thing’s capacity to draw and hold one’s attention -- an increasingly important concern.

The very different state of boredom -- the unpleasant sense that nothing interests you -- is largely a modern condition. The word itself has no derivation; “boredom” stems from no other word but was specially created, and not until the late 18th century. Before then, a feeling of disinterest was considered to be a moral and intellectual failure. By declaring that “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,” Samuel Johnson (1709-84) asserted that it’s your own fault if you can’t find things to interest you. Upper-class women of Johnson’s day agreed. Despite the strictures imposed upon them, they took responsibility for the quality of their lives, arranged to spend a lot of time enjoying one another’s company, and weren’t bored.

Ultimately, the conviction that boredom was your own damned fault began to weaken. Tedium was increasingly blamed on social and physical environments that failed to engage. Charles Dickens first referred to boredom in an 1836 pamphlet, in which he attributed workingmen’s drunkenness on Sundays to the Sabbath’s lack of structure. By 1852, he used the term six times in “Bleak House.”

In the 21st century, few would agree with Oscar Wilde’s old-fashioned assertion that ennui is “the one sin for which there is no forgiveness.” Our increasingly fidgety behavior in queues and other public settings suggests that the whole culture’s threshold for tedium lowers by the day. Forced to withstand more than a few minutes in one of the shrinking number of places not wired for perpetual TV, we fiddle with our smart gadgets, hoping for a headline, text or ball-game score to check, and engage in the old-fashioned pastime of daydreaming only as a last resort.

(Winifred Gallagher is the author of “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life” and “House Thinking.” This is the second in a three-part series of excerpts from her book “New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change,” to be published Jan. 2, 2012, by Penguin Press. The opinions expressed are her own. Read Part 1 and Part 3.)

To contact the writer on this article: Winifred Gallagher at winigallagher@aol.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net.