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Curiosity: the super-power we might have overlooked.

Curiosity: the super-power we might have overlooked.

What is the value in being curious?

8 minute read

25th Mar 2020

I was very lucky as a child. I never suffered from boredom. Quite the opposite in fact, I was irritatingly persistent in my hunt for experiences, answers and knowledge. Why must I follow the rule? Why is it this way and not that way? Why doesn’t it happen differently? Why did someone do that? Why did someone say that? – endlessly frustrating for my parents I imagine.

Anecdotally, I observe that some people are deemed to be ‘curious’ when they explore the physical; take things apart looking at the mechanics, travel off on adventures, explore the outdoors avidly. But this seems to overlook the type of curiosity I find in myself; the mental curiosity to ask why, to understand the intentions behind the act or event rather than just experience them. The type of curiosity that leaves you perfectly happy to stare out of a window and ponder.

Why must I follow the rule? Why is it this way and not that way? Why doesn’t it happen differently? Why did someone do that?

So, my curiosity led me to investigate a little deeper into curiosity…

Curiosity is both a behaviour and an emotion. People have it in varying degrees – but it is in all of us.  Despite being a phenomenon that is widely known, its root causes are relatively unknown beyond theory. There is not even an agreed upon definition of curiosity, but Astrophysicist and author Mario Livio summarises the intention behind different types well;

 “There is something that has been dubbed perceptual curiosity. That’s the curiosity we feel when something surprises us or when something doesn’t quite agree with what we know or think we know. That is felt as an unpleasant state, as an adversity state. It’s a bit like an itch that we need to scratch. That’s why we try to find out the information in order to relieve that type of curiosity. On the other hand, there is something that has been dubbed epistemic curiosity, which is a pleasurable state associated with an anticipation of reward. That’s our level of knowledge. That’s what drives all scientific research. It drives many artworks. It drives education and things like that.”

Opening our minds

As neurological studies pick up pace, insight into the mechanisms that make up what is known as the “reward pathway” (the system in our brains that creates rewards via dopamine, thus reinforcing learning) show how this system is impacted by characteristics associated with curiosity, including memory, motivation and learning.

Judson Brewer, Director of Research and Innovation at the Mindfulness Centre and associate professor in psychiatry at the School of Medicine at Brown University looks closely at this. In his recent interview with Sam Harris (philosopher, neuroscientist, and podcast host), Brewer talks about expansive versus contractive ways of thinking; ‘The closed down quality of experience. That is something my lab has serendipitously fallen into studying.’

 He believes we can simplify language about mental states to simply ‘Contraction and Expansion’. Feeling closed and feeling open. Our brain has already set up this reward hierarchy. He has found universally, perhaps unsurprisingly, people would rather have mental states in these open categories (connectionawe, curiosity) rather than closed ones (anxiety, frustration).

As we move to an open space, we lose our tension and embrace a space where things can ‘flow’. We lose a sense of self and start to connect with a sense of the world.

 If you think about it from an evolutionary perspective fear feels contracting and the idea is to make ourselves as small an object as possible. Protect our vital organs from whatever it is that is about to eat us. Now, that is very different to the feeling of curiosity, joy, or connection, which feels much more expansive.

If we look at joy, curiosity, connection, kindness – they fall in the category of open mind sets.  Similarly, the real time neuro-feedback into states of flow (when individuals enter a state of symbiosis with action and environment, being totally engrossed but not hyper-conscious of their endeavour) supports this. Importantly, as we move to an open space, we lose our tension and embrace a space where things can ‘flow’. We lose a sense of self and start to connect with a sense of the world.

Generalists, not specialists

 It is noticeable if you are of a curious disposition, that so many things are interesting, no one thing can be satisfying just by itself. This breadth of thinking presents endless opportunities. Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein beautifully summarised the human quality of staying broad : “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, co-operate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, programme a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialisation is for insects.”

Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman links this notion of breadth to wisdom: “Wisdom is breadth. Wisdom is not having a narrow view; that’s the essence of wisdom.”

Whether curiosity leads to wisdom or not (assuming we do not ask the cat’s remaining relatives), there is a general consensus that by being curious we have a strong and genuine intention in our endeavours or cause. Chris Voss, former lead international kidnapping negotiator for the FBI and author of the excellent book, Never Split the Difference, tells us that curiosity keeps intentions straight: “Genuine curiosity is a hack for emotional control.” He explains that being genuinely curious leads to better questions and lesser emotional overreactions to the information being received, because if the goal is satisfying curiosity, really the answers do not matter. Or rather they matter significantly less than knowing about them. Really what we should seek therefore is simply more answers and more information, rather than stopping and reacting to what we find out.

“Wisdom is breadth. Wisdom is not having a narrow view; that’s the essence of wisdom.”

Becoming curious

Looking at curiosity in this light, it is unsurprising that Depression is a mood disorder that is characterised by a lack of interest in one’s environment and feelings of sadness or hopelessness. A lack of curiosity in the world that surrounds us.

Curiosity leads to patience and an open mind. Matthew Ricard, philosopher and Buddhist monk, levels criticism at social media for not promoting curiosity and open learning; “Young people have gone from conversation to connection. When you have 3,000 ‟friends” on Facebook, you can obviously not have a conversation. You just go online to talk about yourself, with a ‟regular” audience. Electronic conversations are terse, fast, and sometimes brutal. Human conversations, face to face, are of a different nature: they evolve more slowly, are more nuanced, and teach patience. In conversation, we are called upon to see things from another point of view, which is a necessary condition for empathy and altruism.”

“The most effective leaders look for ways to nurture their employees’ curiosity to fuel learning and discovery.”

In our work too, having a thirst for knowledge and experiment benefits the group and company at large. When we are curious, we face tough situations more creatively. Francesca Gino,  a behavioural scientist and  Professor at Harvard Business School reports that conflict is reduced when people are more curious: “My research found that curiosity encourages members of a group to put themselves in one another’s shoes and take an interest in one another’s ideas rather than focus only on their own perspective. That causes them to work together more effectively and smoothly: Conflicts are less heated, and groups achieve better results.” To some extent is feels like common sense, but curiosity is not always nurtured – especially when it treads a fine line to rule-breaking or process disruption. An ironic shame when she points out that “maintaining a sense of wonder is crucial to creativity and innovation. The most effective leaders look for ways to nurture their employees’ curiosity to fuel learning and discovery.”

The journey, not the destination

Sam Harris in this interview with Judson Brewer makes an astute point as to the lack of clear objective or reason for curiosity, using meditation as the explanation for this: “The joy of investigation is rewarding enough to keep our mind from wandering…there is really no such thing as boredom. Once you learn to meditate, you recognise boredom is just a failure to pay attention. Just with a modicum of curiosity, in this case as to what boredom actually is – how do you even know you’re bored? You know, it bites it’s own tail and you recognise, if you just pay attention to anything, any arbitrary object, the breath or anything else with sufficient focus, then boredom completely evaporates.”

Paying attention seems then to offer no conclusive purpose or destination, but simply keeps us moving and uncovering meaning in perpetuity to all that is around us.

Curiosity allows us to find challenging situations, bad experiences, unforeseen events all as an opportunity to find something out, to learn something simply for the sake of it, to witness something, partake or observe. When everything is interesting, nothing is limiting.