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How we kill our innate curiosity (and how to stop doing that)

How we kill our innate curiosity (and how to stop doing that)

“I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.” Eleanor Roosevelt

We are a naturally curious species; we are born with an innate drive to explore new ideas, open ourselves to new frontiers and wonder about possibilities.

But that drive to explore disappears for some reason when we mature.  Through the years, many have attempted to explain why this change occurs.

Socrates targeted hubris as the cause, suggesting that it’s the main reason behind our dissipating curiosity, strengthening the notion that one should always be on the pursuit of knowledge i.e., “I know that I know nothing.”

Albert Einstein was a severe critic of modern methods of education saying that:

“It is nothing short of a miracle that modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry. For this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom.”

There’s a growing movement nowadays that supports Albert Einstein claims and in this wonderful video Sir Ken Robinson, a world-renowned education and creativity expert explains why our current educational system is fighting an uphill battle for our children’s attention.

No matter the reason, the fact remains – we are getting less and less curious and as a result dumber.

Our IQ score, (at least the crystalized part of it) is plummeting since almost all the knowledge in the world is currently outsourced, crowdsourced, and cloudsourced.

Questions that once could have filled our lives with wonder and purpose which would have sent us into the library to do some exploration are now easily answered online. In the past, lack of knowledge and the drive to attain it pushed us to cultivate our curiosity.  Often, the search for the answer led to many useful discoveries along the way.

Taking a step back and actively cultivating curiosity again will grant us several lost abilities; some pretty obvious, other quite surprising…

People who explore, learn better

Pretty obvious when you think about it, right?  When you’re interested in something, feel motivated about it and invest extra time in exploring it, you’ll get better at it.

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There’s even research that suggests that it’s a required criteria for success among students.

According to Sophie von Stumm of the University of Edinburgh in the UK curiosity is as important for learning as intelligence, putting curious students at the top of their class.

“Curiosity is basically a hunger for exploration, if you’re intellectually curious, you’ll go home, you’ll read the books. If you’re perceptually curious, you might go traveling to foreign countries and try different foods.” Both of these, she thought, could help you do better in school.”

Curiosity enhances creativity

Some people believe that creativity is a single moment in time, a sort of eureka moment.  In fact, creativity is more of a deliberate repetitive practice that we need to pursue actively to be really good at.

In order to become more creative, we need to invest in our creativity and the best way to invest in something is to be genuinely interested in it.

Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, former chairman of the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago says in his book “Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention” that

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“To free up creative energy we need to let go and divert some attention from the pursuit of the predictable goals that we are naturally inclined to pursue and use it instead to explore the world around us on its own terms.”

He also adds that this investment in our own creativity starts with an investment in our curiosity.

“The first step toward a more creative life is the cultivation of curiosity and interest.”

Cultivation of curiosity can actually fuel our passion and passion fuel our creativity.

Curiosity can create better relationships

Todd D. Kashdan and Paul Rose, psychologists from the University at Buffalo suggested that the degree to which people are curious actively influences their level of intimacy.

“Highly curious individuals tend to experience more positive interpersonal outcomes than the less curious in different social contexts as a function of the way they process rewarding or “appetitive” stimuli during the relationship process.”

In other words, being more interested in your partner constantly stimulates and fuels your passion.

There are several habits and behaviors you can adopt to become more curious.

1. Listen

Listening is the one life skill you can’t learn in school or anywhere else for that matter. Listeners absorb more information than non-listeners.  While non-listeners are interested in expressing themselves, listeners are more interested in the information the other party offers. You’ll be surprised what you can learn just by listening.

2. Resist the pull of cognitive biases

Your mind is constantly trying to play tricks on you.  It does that so you won’t get fatigued and keep your energy for decisions that really mater. It has good intentions but you know what they say about good intentions…

If you assume or dismiss things without checking them first, if you have prejudices then you’re probably under the influence of some sort of cognitive bias. If you start paying attention to the things that you normally dismiss, you might find that you’ve been missing out on an entire world of possibilities.

3. Ask more questions

Never take things at face value, always dig deeper, turnover a few stones and explore. Questions open possibilities, possibilities give you new directions to pursue, and as you pursue new directions curiosity takes over.

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Until we meet again!

Featured photo credit: Kazutaka Sawa via flic.kr

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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