I’m a curious person.
I google things incessantly. I check out library books like it’s going out of style (and it probably is). And I ask a lot of questions.
Yesterday, my husband and I went to the dentist and instead of sitting in the waiting room with a bunch of old People magazines, I went and watched him have his teeth cleaned. Out of curiosity. And while I sat there, I asked the dental hygienist a lot of questions.
“When did you move here?”
“Do you think he grinds his teeth?”
“How bad is coffee for our teeth, really?”
“If he has fillings, is he more prone to cavities?”
“What role does genetics play in enamel?”
By the time I started asking her whether she thought there was a relationship between trends in working hours, bad sleep, and teeth clenching, I realized that I was probably interrupting her work grind (no pun intended).
I’ve always been this way. My dad could tell you that as soon as I could talk, I started asking questions. In fact, I can remember clearly sitting in the backseat of our Toyota 4Runner on a country road at night and asking him why it looked like the moon was following us while we drove.
My poor parents. Back then, they didn’t even have Google to turn to.
Curious About Curiosity
I recently became curious about curiosity. What is it? What does it do? Why do we have it?
In short, here are some answers I’ve found:
- Curiosity is a mechanism in our brains that drives us to answer questions so that we can understand the world better.
- It developed in humans because it helps us see threats and solve problems.
I happen to be most curious about the human brain, so when I learned about studies where neuroscientists aroused curiosity in people and then used fMRI machines (scans that monitor blood flow) to look at their brains, I was like, whaaaaaaaat!?
What did they learn from these brain scans? I won’t bore you with the details, so here’s the gist of it:
Sometimes curiosity can be super unpleasant.
You probably know this already. If you’ve ever gotten a text from someone that said something like, “Hey, we need to talk,” didn’t it just kill you? If your boss has ever said, “See me in my office,” didn’t you want to know why so badly it hurt!?
There are several different types of curiosity but this type — when we want to know some kind of particular, surprising information — is called specific-perceptual curiosity. And according to those studies, it’s really, really uncomfortable.
Okay, you might be thinking that you didn’t need a neuroscientist to tell you that you don’t like being left hanging, but here’s what’s important to know about this kind of curiosity:
Relieving it can literally feel as good as:
Eating after starving
Drinking when you’re parched
Having really good sex
Taking a sip of a really good wine
Yes. It’s true. Finding out that information you’re so curious about can feel as good as — or better than — all those things. Relieving curiosity turns on the reward circuits in our brains, releasing those gooooood chemicals that make us feel *satisfied.*
Satisfaction is great and all, but relieving curiosity has another important consequence:
It improves our memory.
According to those studies, satisfying curiosity enhanced incidental memory, or the ability to remember things without really trying.
Why should we care about this? Because, assuming these studies are accurate, we can say that satisfying our curiosity makes us better at learning!
My advice is this: If you’re feeling lackluster or bored or down in the dumps, find something that you’re curious about and learn about it. Satisfy your curiosity! Your brain can’t necessarily distinguish between a rewarding meal or rewarding information. All it knows is that you’ve just done something that deserves a little dopamine.
So ask those questions! Annoy that dental hygienist! Google celebrity Best Dressed lists! Read about motorcycles!
When it comes to your brain, that feeling is as good as gold.
Or a vintage Merlot.
Or a Big Mac.
Or some really, really good sex.
Micah Larsen is a persuasion coach and owner of Apis Communication Science. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and find:
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Read more about curiosity in physicist Mario Livio’s Why?: What Makes Us Curious. Find it at your local bookstore or on Amazon here.
Livio, M. (2017). Why?: What Makes Us Curious. Simon & Schuster: New York, NY.