Happy SMART Day Everyone!
The other day I got curious about curiosity. Surprisingly, it’s curious that there is actually only a little amount of information available. In fact, even scientists consider curiosity a bit of a mystery—with some believing curiosity is a character trait, and others believing it relates to emotions. They also aren’t sure whether it is completely inherent (meaning generated within us), or if it is stimulated and grown from outside us. Whatever curiosity is, I believe that a healthy and active sense of curiosity is an essential element for a SMART and happy life.
What does a healthy curiosity look like? Think of most children. Most kids have a strong and vibrant curiosity from the minute they are born. As soon as they get mobile, they want to check everything out going on around them. The minute they can talk, they start asking “Why?” This may be because a child’s brain is in a “critical period” from a very early age until early adolescence. This critical period is when young brains are wide open and receptive to all sorts of input—making their brains extremely plastic and open to learning. In fact, scientists believe that learning during the “critical period” is effortless for children. And obviously, once our brains grow out of this “critical period,” learning requires more effort.
Another interesting fact about young brains during the “critical period” is that if they do not receive enough emotional support, or are deprived of other basic needs of a healthy child, their critical period is stunted. For example, babies raised in orphanages without touch often stop developing intellectually, are unable to control their emotions and have a poorer memory when they become older. In many ways, a child who has been deprived during his or her early years may serve as an example of someone with a lack of curiosity—especially in relation to interest in others, the world around them, and learning itself.
It’s also easy to consider that the opposite of curiosity is fear. A healthy and happy child is fearless. They will explore anything without regard to consequences as long as they have a strong sense that those who care for them are there to “make everything alright.” Again, children raised without such care and nurturing, often grow up either extremely fearful—or the opposite—they live life on the edge developing almost an addiction to extreme thrills and/or other experiences like drug use that push intense emotion. It also makes sense that if children are raised by a parent that is overly obsessed with safety, those children’s natural curiosity can be stunted and possibly create kids who are afraid to do anything.
Related to the idea of curiosity attached to emotion are studies that show that when a person’s curiosity is piqued, an area of their brain lights up (as shown in an MRI) in the same area as other “pleasures.” Then, not only does this brain activity move into areas similar to learning—the feel-good drug dopamine is also produced by our bodies giving us a little “hit” of pleasure. Unfortunately, as we age there are a number of things that can reduce our bodies ability to make dopamine—and obviously that would affect the jolt of pleasure we would receive when pursuing what makes us curious. Plus, if we feel fear instead of curiosity, our bodies will produce a stress response rather than the good feeling dopamine. I know which I’d prefer!
But why be curious anyway? And even if you were curious (like me) about how curiosity works—who cares? Does it impact your life today? I think yes! And here is my short Yes-No quiz to help you determine whether yours is relatively “healthy”
1) Do you like to do new things? (As opposed to the same old thing?)
2) Do you like to learn new things? (Or did you stop once you got out of school?)
3) Do you regularly read books about subjects you find interesting? (Or do you get your news from sound-bites on TV?)
4) Do you find lots of ways to “play” frequently? (Or is it work, work work every day?)
5) Do you regularly ask lots of questions? (Or do you think you know it all already?)
6) Do you like meeting new people and finding out about them? (Or do you just talk about yourself?)
7) Do you have lots of different friends that are into different activities? (Or do all your friends work where you work or do what you do?)
8 ) Do you like going to new places like restaurants, cities, and countries? (Or are you a homebody who only goes to places you’ve been before?)
9) Are you willing to try new things that your friends recommend? (Or do you know what you like and just do that?)
10) Do you take classes or workshops on a regular basis?
Okay, so I stacked the deck on the quiz rather dramatically and made it obvious that a yes answer leads to a healthy curiosity. Unfortunately, as most people age—or let’s face it, when some just get out of school, they start leaning towards the no answer in most of these questions. Sadly, as I’ve been learning in all the brain science I’ve been exploring lately that if we don’t keep our minds open and curious and learning—it will instead become more rigid. That trait makes learning anything new more difficult—and closes us down even more. In fact, some of the few studies on curiosity have shown that people who suffer from Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Hungtingtons have a strong lack of curiosity as a symptom of their disease. None of us want to end up there, but far too many of us start acting that way if we don’t stimulate our curiosity on a regular basis.
There is obviously much more to learn about curiosity, and now that I’m curious about it, you’ll likely hear more from me in the future. Certainly, whenever curiosity is limited by fear there are plenty of reasons why some people are not living a happy and fulfilled life. But haven’t we all heard from some leaders—from spiritual gurus to therapists—that we should “act as little children” at least sometimes to inherit the benefits of our life. Developing our curiosity is definitely one way each of us can enrich the experiences of our existence every single day.
“I could not, at any age, be content to take my place by the fireside and simply look on. Life was meant to be lived. Curiosity must be kept alive. One must never, for whatever reason, turn his back on life.” ~Eleanor Roosevelt
“I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” ~Albert Einstein