Curiosity: Worry's Neural Twin (& 5 Ways to Nurture it)

How do you spend most of your time? Working? Playing? Worrying? Making yourself happier? Most of us want to be happy, and yet the average adult spends less than 20% of each day doing the kinds of enjoyable and meaningful activities that increase our happiness. How often are your days spent worrying about life rather than enjoying life?

While we are hard-wired to worry, most of us show much less attention to worry's neural twin: curiosity. Both worry and curiosity are innate traits that have enabled us to survive extinction for thousands of years. Worry tends to consume much more of our neural energy, but curiosity is what has enabled us to explore, discover, and evolve. Combined, worry and curiosity tag team to help us make the best decisions for survival in an uncertain world while also enabling us to find fulfillment and meaning in new experiences.

Young children have an insatiable desire to explore and discover the world around them. They are incessant questioners, and they don’t worry what others will think about them not knowing the answers.  But as children grow older, self-consciousness creeps in, along with the desire to appear confident and demonstrate expertise. As adults, the desire to project confidence, competence, and intelligence often stifles what is left of that childlike sense of curiosity.



The Neuroscience of Curiosity

Studies show that curiosity is the foundation for learning. It may seem like common sense that when we are more curious about something, we are more engaged in it. But it’s more than just how much effort we apply. When we are curious about something, we learn at a deeper lever, learn it far more easily, and remember it far longer. That has everything to do with the regions of the brain that are activated as well as the chemicals released by that activity.

Researchers have found that when monitoring brain activity using an MRI machine, the area of the brain that regulates pleasure and reward lights up when the subject experiences a sense of curiosity. Furthermore, the area of the brain involved in the creation of memories, the hippocampus, also showed increased activity.

Simply put, the area of the brain that energizes people to go out and seek rewards is the same when we are curious.  When this circuit is activated the brain releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine which naturally increases our capacity to learn. Also known as the reward and pleasure chemical, dopamine helps us decide how vigorously to work toward a goal, while also enabling us to learn from mistakes. Some neuroscientists describe dopamine as a “teaching signal,” like a coach who tells a player “good job” or “bad job” to encourage a desired outcome.

Screen Shot 2019-12-13 at 9.06.26 AMCuriosity Strengthens Relationships

Those who are curious about others are more likely to interact with people outside of their comfort zone. They are better able to consider diverse cultures, experiences, and world views. In addition, 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 stimuli during interactions with others.

One study asked subjects to engage in a process called “reciprocal self-disclosure” whereby strangers pose and answer personal questions. They found that people were rated as warmer and more attractive if they showed real curiosity in the exchange (while other variables like the person’s social anxiety and their levels of positive and negative emotions did not affect the partner’s feelings of attraction and closeness). This implies that demonstrating curiosity towards someone is a great way to connect with others.

Curiosity Improves Performance in the Workplace

Curiosity is often avoided in the workplace as many fear that it demonstrates an open admission to incompetence or a lack of knowledge. While leaders may claim to value inquiring minds, the vast majority of employees claim their organization neither welcomes nor nurtures curiosity. In one survey of more than 3,000 employees from a wide range of industries, 24% reported a sense of curiosity in their jobs on a regular basis and about 70% reported obstacles in asking more questions at work.   

Swiss psychologist, philosopher and pioneer in cognitive development research, Dr. Jean Piaget, defined curiosity as "the urge to explain the unexpected." 

However, curiosity can not only drive an organization’s performance, it can also improve engagement, team dynamics, problem-solving, and innovation. This is because the very essence of curiosity is to "explore the unexpected," we are less likely to be influenced by the confirmation bias and stereotyping that typically keep us trapped in existing thought patterns.

In one study, 200 employees working in various companies and industries received text messages at the beginning of the workday. Half of the employees received a text message that read, “What is one topic or activity you are curious about today? What is one thing you usually take for granted that you want to ask about? Please make sure you ask a few ‘Why questions’ as you engage in your work throughout the day. Please set aside a few minutes to identify how you’ll approach your work today with these questions in mind.”

The other half (the control group) received a message designed to trigger reflection but not raise their curiosity: “What is one topic or activity you’ll engage in today? What is one thing you usually work on or do that you’ll also complete today? Please make sure you think about this as you engage in your work throughout the day. Please set aside a few minutes to identify how you’ll approach your work today with these questions in mind.”

After four weeks, the participants in the first group scored higher than the others on questions assessing their innovative behaviors at work, such as whether they had made constructive suggestions for implementing solutions to pressing organizational problems.

5 Simple Ways to Cultivate Curiosity
  1. Let your mind wander and wonder.
    Most of us have busy days and full schedules. Make time every single day to let your mind wander about something that interests you. Even if you just take 15 minutes to ponder questions like “what would life be like without (fill in the blank of a special person, place, or thing)” or “what are you interested in that most people aren’t,” it will fuel your sense of wonder and spark your imagination.
  2. Look for opportunities to be bored.
    We live in an age of 24/7 digital stimulation. Visit a coffee shop or a park and disconnect from your devices. Just observe what you see, smell, and hear. Eavesdrop on conversations around you or read the body language of the people you see. (There is a difference between creepy and curious.) 
  3. Learn something new every single day.
    Even if it is just a word you’ve never heard of or a restaurant you’ve never tried, committing to learning one new thing each day make you look for novel experiences. Change up your routine and pay attention to what you see. Even very small changes in your routine will engage your brain to notice things you’ve never noticed before and provoke curiosity.  Take a different route to work. Shop at a different grocery store. Ask a coworker who you really don’t know well to join you for lunch. Exposure to different experiences is a fantastic springboard for inquiry.
  4. Look for something novel.
    Challenge yourself to see the world with "fresh eyes" at least once a day.  One the way to work, walking around the block, or even engaging in conversation with a friend or family member, look for something you've never noticed before. 
  5. Listen with intention.
    Pay attention to your conversation skills. Strive to listen to understand and put the tendency to formulate a response on hold. Ask more questions, ask for clarification, ask for elaboration and find enjoyment in learning something new. 


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