The Curious Case of Curiosity
Curiosity not only makes us more mindful, it makes us feel good.
I am definitely by nature a curious person. After interviewing Jamie Matthews about her book, Sunroofs and Shoeboxes where she talked about curiosity, I realized that one of the impacts of the pandemic is that I became very focused on a narrow set of topics to be curious about, namely all health related, and temporarily lost the joyful side of inquisitiveness and exploration.
That’s pretty normal because biologically, when we’re stressed, our brains become laser-focused on the perceived threat to our safety or well-being, so we’re often not open to receiving new and different information that may contradict what we think is already occurring. That makes it much harder to take in a full picture of reality because we’re giving all of our attention to one specific perspective.
According to Merriam-Webster, there are several definitions of curiosity. A desire to know is definitely one of my traits. But it’s also inquisitive interest in others’ concerns, or nosiness. I confess I have that, too, but I don’t act on it regarding the dictionary’s example of neighbors, which is challenging considering how curious some of my neighbors are, as in another definition of the word – strange or having interesting qualities. My curiosity was usually focused on inquisitive thinking and learning, acted on through research and observation.
Now, not that I don’t use the internet every single day and I greatly appreciate the convenience of Google, curiosity is not really about facts, but about experiences, so observation is a key practice in fully experiencing curiosity. Nature, museums, zoos, travel and trying new things all nurture curiosity. Pre-pandemic, I did all of those things on a regular basis, plus was an avid people and animal watcher. But with public spaces closed and being cut off from most of humanity for so long, my curiosity withered over time without me even realizing it.
I’ve started to notice that my curiosity is returning, which I take as another good sign that the pandemic, although not gone, is definitely abating. I’m feeling an itch for a road trip and maybe a day at the beach, for the first time in over two years. I woke up this morning curious about where the saying, curiosity killed the cat, came from. I did have to Google that and as in so many cases, the original saying was not curiosity killed the cat, but that care killed the cat. Back in the 1500’s the word care meant worry or sorrow for others, so while cats can definitely get themselves into trouble due to their curiosity, the original saying is still very pertinent today considering the impact stress has on our well-being.
Curiosity is also a component of mindfulness. Curiosity can lead to mindful exploration or investigation that allows us to fully know an experience as it is, rather than how we perceive it. Mindfulness teacher Kimberly Brown explains that “Curiosity is a willingness to experience without looking away, ignoring, or denying.” When we’re curious, she says, we are “using our attention to have an experience as it is directly.” In other words, you don’t have to try to artificially change how you feel. You only have to acknowledge your current experience, and then allow that there is something more to the full story.
In mindfulness, curiosity is practiced to help us more deeply explore what is going on inside us, whether in our minds or bodies. As we become curious about a physical pain, for example, we explore it versus judge it. The more awareness and curiosity we bring to the area in pain, the pain changes. It doesn’t necessarily go away, but it typically lessens or we realize that it’s not one big pain, but multiple small pains clustered together, which prompts more curiosity and exploration. Likewise with our minds. As we become curious about our own thoughts or behavior related to anger, for example, we get interested in the whole of the occurrence instead of ruminating about injustices, which changes our response to the situation.
Clinical psychiatrist Dan Siegel says that when we get really distressed, we flip our lids and go offline. Curiosity helps us put the lid back on, allowing us to consider what kind of response we wish to have as opposed to engaging in one we might regret. Patricia Rockman wrote in an article on mindful.org that “curiosity may in fact, stop us from killing the cat.”
Dr. Judson Brewer recently wrote that curiosity, or our drive for information, can induce a pleasant state or an aversive state. Psychologically, I-Curiosity stands for interest, which is the pleasurable aspect of a hunger for knowledge, while D-Curiosity stands for deprivation or the idea that if we have a gap in information, we get into a restless, need-to-know state that is quite unpleasant.
I definitely experienced D-curiosity during the first two years of the pandemic, needing to know more about Covid 19 and like everyone on the planet, experiencing a huge gap in information and the accompanying discomfort of that. But this type of curiosity is much more common in circumstances like hearing your phone beep with a text at a moment that you can’t check to see what it is. It suddenly becomes quite uncomfortable in the middle of your meeting to focus, because you don’t know who is texting you and your body reacts by your temperature rising, as though your phone starts burning a hole in your pocket. That fire of uncertainty, according to Rockman, is put out when you check your phone to see who texted you or read what the message says. The relief of the negative state is in itself rewarding. She says that’s why TV shows have cliff-hangers—to drive deprivation curiosity. We have to know what happens, so we binge-watch. My curiosity about curiosity killing cats is another example of D-curiosity. It would have bugged me if I hadn’t looked it up to find the answer.
Interest-curiosity is aroused when we become interested in learning more about something, but usually in broader categories, not like who texted you or where a phrase came from. For instance, did you know that human noses and ears never stop growing throughout our entire lives? That’s because they’re composed of soft tissue enveloped in cartilage where cells continue to grow as long as we’re breathing. You may already have noticed that grandma seems to have big ears or grandpa’s nose is a little large, but can you imagine what we’ll look like as life spans continue to expand? How big will our noses and ears be if we live to be 125 or 150 years old? That’s I-curiosity, where there’s no deficit to fill, but simply curiosity and the reward of learning something new. D-curiosity is about reaching a destination while I-curiosity is about the journey. I-curiosity is the aspect that dwells in the practice of mindfulness.
I-curiosity makes us feel good. Research shows that at peak curiosity, dopamine pathways in the brain fire with increased intensity and there is a strong connection between reward centers in the brain and the hippocampus where part of our memory functions reside. Additionally, curiosity is coded in the orbitofrontal cortex which is where the brain assigns value to different things and primates in one study were willing to give up rewards such as getting a drink of water when they were thirsty for information.
These studies suggest that the expression “thirst for knowledge” really is more than a metaphor. While our old brain focuses on finding food and water to survive, our newer brain seeks information to plan and predict the future which helps us flourish. So how can you cultivate more curiosity in your life?
Psychologist B.F. Skinner said, “When you run into something interesting, drop everything else and study it. The feeling of being interested can act as a kind of neurological signal, directing us to fruitful areas of inquiry.”
Another way to increase curiosity is to read widely. I read a lot for both work and pleasure, and I do try to mix it up. My bookshelves are filled with everything from science to murder mysteries to art history and everything in between. I don’t always finish a book because once I’ve given it a chapter or two, if it doesn’t pique my interest then I don’t get that hit of dopamine my brain is seeking and therefore it’s not generating curiosity, but I still learn something. I learn what I don’t want to know more about. The benefit however is usually that I do become curious. I found my way to both art and history museums by reading about the topics first. I chose my travel destinations based on reading either books or magazines. Curiosity gets sparked and observation follows.
Ask questions, even if you think they’re dumb questions. When you meet someone that has a unique job or is from another country, you have a lovely opportunity to explore the unknown. If the answers generate curiosity, you can further explore on your own.
When you meditate and notice anything out of the ordinary in your body, like tension or pain, spend time being curious about it. Explore it, observe it, consider how that small area is connected with the rest of your body. Wonder about how complex the whole body is. Ask what this one uncomfortable area is trying to tell you. When in emotional discomfort, ask yourself questions about it. What is the emotion trying to tell you? Where did the thoughts you’re having about it come from? The key is to be non-judgmental.
Curiosity can help you stay present in a non-judgmental way to whatever your experience is. It’s actually stronger than any type of force or willpower you might habitually use, and can also bring a playful, even joyful attitude to any situation. So pay attention today to what you see, hear or experience and follow your curiosity. Then do it again tomorrow. And the next day. Before you know it, you’re building your mindfulness skills and you’ll be enjoying the wonder and awe in our world.