If you have ever spent any time with a preschooler, you know that their curious minds are always active. “Why is that bird sitting on that branch? What do birds think about? Can birds understand us? Where are the other birds? Why? Where? How come?”
While charming, these endless questions can also get exasperating. At the end of a long day, “Because I said so!” is sometimes all we can muster in response. However, stepping away from the tedium of explaining a bird’s complex relationship with the forest, it’s helpful to remember that curiosity doesn’t just help us turn toward the trees – it helps us turn toward each other.
Inside curious minds
Many people think of curiosity as a strictly intellectual pursuit. To be clear, curiosity is an effective way to make information stick. One study in a University of California-Davis neuroscience lab demonstrated that people were far more likely to remember the answers to the quiz questions that they were curious about as compared to questions that held less intrigue. Curiosity also helped them remember unrelated information. When they were shown images of faces in between the questions and their answers, they were more likely to remember the expression on the face that followed an intriguing question. Faces that followed uninteresting questions faded from memory. These kinds of experiments reinforce what educators have known all along. Curiosity is the glue of learning.
But curiosity isn’t just about getting answers right on a quiz or committing information to memory. Curiosity is key to our individual and collective wellbeing. Indeed, the latest research demonstrates that curiosity:
→ Expands our empathy. When we ask open-ended questions and engage with people who are different from us with curiosity, we are better able to understand other people’s perspectives and viewpoints. Curiosity can help “unstick” biases and assumptions that undermine connection. According to researcher and author Scott Shigeoka, this is partly because “curiosity begs us to ask questions that invite nuance and surprise.”
→ Strengthens our relationships. Being interested in other people brings us closer to them. A series of studies demonstrates that we tend to be more willing to open up to and connect with curious people, even strangers. As one researcher notes, “Being interested is more important in cultivating a relationship and maintaining a relationship than being interesting.”
–> Increases collaboration. One study demonstrated that curious people are not only more capable of creating consensus but are more likely to experience lasting “neural alignment” with a group. In other words, curiosity helps us change our minds and synch up with each other. In contrast, people who are inflexible, dominate conversation, and lack curiosity are more likely to prevent collective agreement.
→ Improves our wellbeing. Curiosity is associated with higher levels of positive emotions and lower levels of anxiety. Happy people may tend to be more curious. But we know that our brains reward us for seeking out new things and exploring the world, so there is good reason to think that curiosity itself releases the brain chemical dopamine that makes us feel better.
All of this means that the absence of curiosity doesn’t just result in less information and knowledge. It shuts us off from the stories, experiences, and perspectives of others. Approaching the world without curiosity is likely to cement our own biases, erode mental health, and make it more difficult to connect. Indeed, studies show that less curiosity contributes to loneliness and isolation.
Curiosity, like other skills that power our emotional intelligence, is a practice.
The kind of curiosity that connects us
Before we knew much about the inner workings of the brain, George Loewenstein described curiosity as an “information gap.” According to Loewenstein, this gap creates a feeling of deprivation that we are driven to fill. For young children, gaps abound. Thus the incessant questioning of the birds, the branches, and the trees. Thus the “whys,” “wheres” and “how comes?”
The gaps don’t close when we leave early childhood. When I taught undergraduate students, we talked a lot about the concept of “learning edges.” Stepping bravely into the space between the known and the unknown is how we learn and grow. Curiosity gets us there.
That said, recent research has noted that “deprivation curiosity” has a downside. It is often motivated by the desire to reduce the discomfort associated with not knowing. We seek definitive answers to calm our restless minds. There’s nothing wrong with filling gaps in our knowledge. But if we aren’t careful, we risk clinging to the first answers we find simply because they make us feel better.
Another group of researchers recently expanded Loweinstein’s definition by outlining five dimensions of curiosity. Deprivation curiosity still shows up on the list. But they also include things like joyous exploration and social curiosity. At our best, we aren’t just drawn to our learning edges to learn knowable facts. We are drawn by the birds, the trees, the delight of uncertainty, the excitement of more questions, and, importantly, the complexity and beauty of other humans.
Curiosity, like other skills that power our emotional intelligence, is a practice. It isn’t a wholly hardwired or static trait. While the incessant questions of early childhood may fade, we would be wise to keep moving toward our learning edges with wonder and curiosity. We should encourage our children to do the same. Here are some ways to get started:
Let’s model curiosity about our kids, our inner and outer worlds, and each other. We can express wonder, ask questions big and small, and explore alongside our kids. Let’s practice saying, “I wonder…” instead of “Let me tell you.”
It is tempting to simply answer our kids’ questions. In and of itself, this isn’t a negative thing. But let’s keep an eye on patterns and encourage questioning when we can. When it makes sense, try “That’s a great question! What can you do next to explore that?”
Acknowledge biases and assumptions.
It takes courage to acknowledge how often our biases and assumptions shut down curiosity. Surfacing our assumptions with language like, “The story I am telling myself about what is happening is this.” Or, “Before I decide what I think I have to hear more perspective by doing this.” This models that our perspectives and perceptions are not “The Truth.” We are willing to change our minds.
Embrace our feelings.
We tend to think of curiosity as a cheerful and energized state. But moving towards our emotions, even the painful ones, is part of how we stay curious and connect with others. Approaching our grief, shame or anger with curiosity not only helps us handle these feelings but grounds us in our shared humanity. If I let myself feel my own grief, I am more open to and curious about the grief of others.
Search for stories.
Storytelling ignites the curious mind. As author Scott Shigeoka notes, “We need to become the kind of people who search for stories rather than positions, and values instead of views.” Ask others to share their stories, choose media that delivers compelling stories, tell family stories, and seek out stories from people with perspectives and experiences different from our own.