Curiosity Keeps Your Brain Growing

Curiosity may have killed the cat, according to the proverb, but it is an inherent and important characteristic in humans. Psychologists are taking renewed interest in what curiosity is, how it benefits and influences us through the lifespan, and how it physically changes the way our brain functions.

At its most basic level, curiosity is the precursor to learning. I watch my 9-month-old grandson explore the small bit of the world he is exposed to, and his innate sense of curiosity is immediately apparent. Each new thing he encounters warrants his attention. He looks at it, reaches for it, touches it, tastes it, manipulates it. Infants learn about the world around them by letting their curiosity guide them.

Following the preverbal stage, children enter a stage I affectionately call “why” mode. Their communication largely focuses on exclamations of new experiences, and questions about what they encounter. Why is the sky blue? Why do I have to wear shoes? Why is my hair a different color than my cousin’s? Each answer precipitates another question; curiosity impels the child to want to understand at deeper levels.

It is that same sense of curiosity, if we manage to hang onto it, that drives us to specialize in a field of interest; to seek to understand others and our circumstances from different perspectives; and in our desire to constantly improve and expand ourselves. Curiosity drives us - and benefits us - both cognitively and physically. Consider just a few of the advantages curiosity brings.

Increased Empathy

Curiosity is key to healthy relationships on all levels. When you engage in a discussion convinced your point of view is the only right one, you are cemented in that opinion, which has the effect of cementing the other in theirs. But when you approach conversations with an open mind and curiosity about how the other person is thinking, you become able to understand them more fully. This is one facet of empathy, the ability to imagine what another person might be feeling, and empathy has the effect of forging deeper connections with others. The benefits of increasing your empathy strengthens relationships on all levels, from those with casual acquaintances, good friends, your partner and other family members, and in your business transactions. It is among the key components of emotional intelligence.

Broadened Perspective

We’ve all known the type of person who thinks they are always right, regardless of any facts or possibilities presented to them. Such a person is difficult to interact with, and he limits his ability to enjoy and experience life because, in all probability, his perspective is not likely to always be the best one. There’s nothing wrong with having conviction in your point of view, of course, but remaining curious about other possibilities is the key to being able to broaden your perspective, and just maybe, find  new ways of approaching a given situation that’s even better than what you envisioned.

Expanded Possibilities

Without a sense of curiosity, challenges seem like immovable obstacles, emotions block our problem-solving skills, and we end up stuck exactly where we don’t want to be. When I’m coaching a client who feels stuck in regard to a particular issue, I ask how they imagine they might proceed if the negative emotions were absent and they could explore the situation with a sense of playful curiosity. When you replace fearfulness of negative outcomes with pure curiosity, the possibilities expand. This is at the heart of creative brainstorming; no judgment, no evaluation, just the generation of ideas that seem to come out of nowhere. Curiosity is the necessary ingredient in expanding possibilities. Once you have a number of options to consider, solutions are easier to formulate and outcomes are far more positive.

Enhanced Learning

By piquing curiosity, researchers were able to demonstrate that being curious leads not only to greater learning, but improved memory as well. Participants in the study showed greater retention not only of information that interested them, but unrelated trivia as well. The implications of this can be used to improve learning, even when dealing with necessary but uninteresting material. One example comes easily to mind. In college, I took every psychology elective that was offered; the field has always been my passion. On the other hand, several required math classes had me quaking in my boots. I quickly realized that getting through my math homework was far easier when I used psychology as a reward. I’d preview the psych homework, then use that excitement to get me through the math assignments; getting back to psychology was the payoff for finishing dozens of quadratic equations. Working those problems even seemed a bit fun, like figuring out a puzzle, when I approached them with a sense of curiosity. And because curiosity also enhances memory, I was able to retain more information when studying for tests, too.

Better Brain Health

Curiosity is thought to be associated with the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls learning and memory. When you are curious about something and endeavor to learn about it and think differently, you’re creating new neuropathways. Every new thought is an actual physical event in the brain. Reinforcing new ways of thinking and feeling make these neuropathways permanent. The more you learn, the larger your brain becomes. These changes continue throughout the entire lifespan, meaning your potential to learn and to enhance your brain power exist your entire life. It is, quite literally, never too late to learn.