Curiosity is not a weakness; on the contrary, it’s one of humanity most fundamental strengths. Thanks to curiosity, inventors learn, explorers investigate and artists find beauty. Curiosity is inside of me; it’s in you and in everyone. It’s about time to stop considering it an unhealthy habit. It’s a gift.
According to creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson, there are three principles that drive human flourishing, and one of them is curiosity. The other two are diversity and creativity. “The three conditions are inherent in all humans,” says Robinson in his TED talk “How to escape education’s death valley? (I totally recommend watching his speech; it is funny and makes you think).”
Curiosity is the key element for every exploration, and that is why we are starting our legacy project defining it correctly. “Do you know what curiosity is?” I asked Doris, a fine frugal explorer in her teens.
“Of course I know what curiosity is about; it’s just hard to explain. Let me think for a moment,” She replied.
She frowned a bit and said: “I guess curiosity is something like a nasty force inside all of us humans, which makes us want to know something with desperation.”
“That is not a bad definition,” I said, “but you are missing a couple of points which are crucial for us explorers. For starts I like your definition of curiosity as an inner force, but let me ask you, why do you think it’s a nasty force?”
“Isn’t it? At least for the cat it is.” Doris said referring to the popular saying, “I would say it’s nasty because it likes getting us into trouble.”
“Yes,” I said, “it gets us into trouble sometimes, but it is essential. Curiosity is the engine of achievement – said Robinson-; it makes us want to learn new things and find solutions to problems; two critical qualities for achievement.”
“Curiosity is the engine of achievement.” (Ken Robinson)
“It makes us want to know what other people are doing with their private life also, doesn’t it?” Doris said.
“I wouldn’t call that ‘curiosity’, although I must admit that the two behaviors share the same neural mechanism,” I said.
“Oh, no, here we go with the brain stuff again,” Doris said.
“Well,” I said, “We have to start by understanding that curiosity is not a questionable habit we acquire due to a lousy education.
“Curiosity is an innate impulse that strongly demands our reaction. It is as strong as the sexual impulse and the defense mechanism, each one of them acting in an independent neurological system.
“Curiosity belongs to the reward system (mesolimbic dopamine activation) and is related to three fundamental aspects of human behavior: attention, motivation and reward. This is, roughly, how it works:”
How Curiosity works
“Since we are interested in learning how to become true explorers, it would be wise to know more about how curiosity works, don’t you think, Doris?”
“Sure, go ahead, as long as you don’t use complicated names like mesolimbic dopamine activation,” Doris said.
“The process begins with your mind paying attention to something. What kind of things demands your attention, Doris?”
“Uh, I like all sorts of things: music, science, chocolate…”
“The things that you like will certainly drive your attention but, most likely, your mind will focus in things that are new to you“
“How do you know that?” Doris asked skeptically.
“Scientists can measure the attention of people by tracking their eye movements.” I said. “A regular guy will look at new things at least two to three times more often than familiar ones.”
“Ok, go ahead.”
“Once a stimulus grabs our attention, our brain activates some areas within itself which together are called The Reward Pathway (I am not going to tell you the individual names of these areas because I know you don’t like Latin and Greek wordplay).”
The activation of the Reward Pathway releases many chemicals (neurotransmitters) in our brain but the most relevant is the Dopamine (Serotonin and opioid-derived chemicals are also released).
The most interesting part is that, although there is some dopamine activation when the reward of a familiar stimulus is already known, there is a higher dopamine release when the reward is unknown and the stimulus is novel.
“I think you have mentioned this before, haven’t you?” Doris asked.
“You are right, Doris,” I said. “I used this argument a couple of weeks ago when I wrote about the best way to turn off our mind’s autopilot, which is by learning something new.”
There are many hypotheses that explain why this happens (the two most famous are the curiosity-drive model and optimal-arousal model), but the main idea is this: our brain must provide with sufficient reward to overpower the strong fear to the unknown we normally feel. Otherwise, we would have never faced The Unknown and we would be still living in caverns.