Curiosity keeps you engaged with the world and open to learning new things, firing up the same region of the brain where feelings of well-being and the reward center reside. For a long time it was thought that connections in the brain became fixed with age. However, we now know the brain is capable of continuing to grow and change with learning (this ability is called neuralplasticity), and that’s where curiosity is key.
Even if you don’t consider yourself a naturally curious person, there are ways to actively cultivate curiosity for a happy and healthy mind. Four diverse experts, from neurologists to psychologists, share their insights and practical tips.
Wonderment Removes Barriers
“It is much better to wonder why you do what you do, than to worry why you do what you do,” says Joseph Shrand, M.D., psychiatry instructor at Harvard Medical School. “Wondering removes barriers while worrying creates them.” He adds, “Worrying increases the stress hormone cortisol, which interferes with all sorts of things,” such as raising blood pressure and increasing the risk of Type 2 diabetes and heart attacks.
Wondering how to wonder? Think of what children do: Ask why. In fact, ask why at least five times and you’re bound to open your mind, even if you start with something seemingly mundane.
For example, if you were to trip on the sidewalk, ask why five times and you may realize it’s because: 1) you were looking up at a plane in the sky; 2) which made you miss the crack in the sidewalk; 3) that was caused by the overgrown roots of a nearby tree; 4) and you wonder who’s in charge of such things; 5) which makes you look into what arborists and city planners do with your tax dollars.
Curiosity Stimulates Learning
Learning about a variety of new things inspires curiosity, but curiosity also stimulates learning. A recent study from UC Davis suggests learning happens better when people are interested, which isn’t a surprise — but there’s a twist. When people were in a state of high curiosity they were significantly more likely to remember what they were learning.
Arousing and satisfying curiosity stimulated reward centers in the brain and led to connections between the reward center and hippocampus (a brain region important for forming new memories). Brain activity was measured by functional MRI.
Surprisingly, people were also more likely to remember incidental unrelated information presented during the same time, suggesting that getting the brain into a curious state of mind optimizes learning in general. Try to listen to and follow urges to learn more about a topic, because that may just be the brain’s reward center itching for a knowledge fix.
Curiosity Makes You Smarter
According to neuroscientist Lee von Kraus, Ph.D., being exposed to new stimuli enhances your brain's ability to reorganize itself and form new neural connections. This ability is called neuroplasticity, which allows neurons to compensate for injury and better respond to new situations or changes in the environment. Essentially, the more neural connections you have, the smarter you are.
Kraus is a co-founder of Halo Neuroscience, a company that creates brain-stimulation technology. In his research, Kraus has discovered that if he puts a rat into a cage with many colorful toys that are new to the rat, the neuroplasticity of the rat's brain will increase compared to a rat sitting in a boring environment.
So how does this translate to a human brain? The more you expose yourselves to new stimuli, such as exploring new locations or taking on a new hobby, the more your brain rewires itself to form new neural pathways.
By being curious as an adult, you’re essentially putting yourself into the cage with all the colorful toys. Even if you're sitting in the same environment or "cage" with other people, the noncurious among the group won’t notice the "toys" all around them, but the curious people will.
Dr. Kraus says you don't have to take a trip around the world to increase your neuroplasticity. You can create new neural pathways by making simple changes in your daily routine, such as choosing an alternate route to work and taking notice of the differences.
It Keeps Your Mind Open
The adult brain seeks order and may reach for labels to compartmentalize information or "put things in a box." Greg Kushnick, Pys.D., New York psychologist and blogger at techealthiest.com, a how-to guide for health and happiness, recommends we fight against this tendency.
“When something novel is presented, try to train your mind to avoid labeling. Instead, search for what you can learn from new information," says Kushnick. "Authorize yourself to be a student of something you don’t yet understand. It says nothing about you that you lack information on a new topic.”
A simple way to put this into practice is to watch a documentary with an open mind, not allowing yourself to categorize the new information until it has finished.
Your Relationships Improve
Appreciating a different viewpoint does not mean agreeing with it, but it does mean being open to it. “One way to practice curiosity is to value differences of opinion. Listen for the best in someone even when you disagree,” says Kushnick. “Curiosity promotes mental flexibility, likeability and longevity.”
Kushnick shares that when he worked as a psychologist in a nursing home with people in their nineties, those who showed curiosity and a thirst for learning about people had minds that showed more resistance to the aging process. “They were not defensive when it came to differences of opinion. Rather, they showed respect and curiosity," says Kushnick. "They loved the closeness and bonding that went with exchanging ideas and gently debating topics.”
Your Leadership Skills Improve
Sometimes learning to practice curiosity begins with being aware of the barriers you put in your own way. Some of the nation’s best-trained business leaders are taught curiosity as a central leadership skill for just this purpose; they are taught to practice nonjudgmental awareness of their experiences. Stanford business-school students begin curiosity training starting their first week, according to Leah Weiss Ekstrom, Ph.D., M.S.W., lecturer in organizational behavior, Stanford Graduate School of Business, and author of “Heart at Work,” forthcoming from HarperCollins Publishers.
“Curiosity is what leads to strong professional relationships (wanting to know others), a solid work ethic (wanting to dig deeper) and self-awareness (wanting to know more about what gets in the way of our curiosity),” says Ekstrom.
Dr. Ekstrom advises people to notice when they are judging, which is a sign that they assume they know and that they aren’t curious. Know that there is always more to know. When you notice yourself judging another person, stop yourself and try to understand them and their backstory and circumstances. And then ask questions.
What Do YOU Think?
How much of a challenge is practicing curiosity for you? Does it come naturally, or do you need to work at it? Do you feel it’s worth the effort? If so, how will you cultivate curiosity today?