When I was 3 years old, having a long stick in one hand and a bucket in another, I decided to leave the house and explore the neighborhood to find the best fishing pond. I found one way before my parents noticed I was gone, and nervously took me back. I was a curious child. There was nothing I wouldn’t try or a new idea that I wouldn’t enjoy – contrary to my parents.
I write about curiosity as it has recently been one of my areas of interest. When does curiosity arise and how does it support learning? What exactly does it mean to be curious and what does the state of curiosity look like?
What is curiosity?
In short, curiosity is a strong desire to learn, know, or experience something. In order to be curious, we need to stumble upon something that is:
– new (something phenomenal)
– complex (unexpected patterns)
– uncertain (with unpredictable outcomes)
– conflicting (contradictory to old knowledge we have).
These values don’t necessarily need to appear altogether to make a thing curious, even though they can.
Let’s take the recent coronavirus as an example. You watch your favorite news channel, the anchor starts talking about a few Chinese airports being closed down due to the virus outbreak. It is the first time you hear about the virus, in fact, most people have never heard about it, as it just appeared. You don’t know what consequences it brings, but it’s probably not exactly the same as Ebola or other viruses, as you hear there is no cure for it yet.
And here’s the funny thing; although terrified, you immediately become curious. As soon as the anchor jumps to another topic, you switch off your TV (who on earth would be interested in yet another Trump-related news anyway), and start searching for more information on the virus. Where and when did they notice the first case? How many people have been impacted by it? How long are they going to keep the airport closed? Do you need to rebook, or even cancel, your tickets to Wuhan?
The information about coronavirus itself is something new to you. It may be contradictory to any other viruses you might have heard about. It’s more complex and uncertain, as the causes aren’t clear yet. All this makes you spend the next couple of hours educating yourself on the topic, absorbing new knowledge as a sponge. You NEED to find answers to all the questions that arise in your head.
The need to obtain knowledge triggered by unexpected things that happen around you is called perceptual curiosity. It’s different than a pure desire for knowledge, e.g. for scientific research – such curiosity is called epistemic.
Are we born curious or do we learn how to be curious?
As you already know, I was very curious as a little child. However, science shows that we might already be born as curious individuals.
During an experiment on a 1.5-year-old child, Lora Schultz from MAE showed the kid a toy with an interesting sound-making button. Every time the researcher pressed the button, the child wanted the toy even more. However, the researcher introduced another, almost identical toy, with the same button, the child got curious about the button – how to make it sound? Is it broken? Is there a way to play the sound? Will other toys make sounds? The child became curious, and aware that they might be doing something wrong. In the end, the researcher was able to make the toy sound, so why is the child not able to do it?
We can all picture that one curious child that has always been asking “WHY? WHY? WHY?”. Curiosity during the first years of our lives is the main trigger to learn new skills and get the necessary knowledge to adapt to the environment.
Everything is new. Everything seems so exciting.
Brain in the state of curiosity
Functional MRI Machine scans show us two regions that light up in the state of curiosity: the anterior insular cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. The same regions are associated with hunger and conflict.
What happens when we satisfy our curiosity? Interestingly, another three regions in the brain light up: the left caudate, the putamen, and the nucleus accumbens. These regions are associated with pleasure.
It appears that the feeling of having your curiosity satisfied can be compared to the feeling of having a full stomach after a tasty burger. At least it’s the same feeling for our brains.
Knowledge vs curiosity
We already know that for something to trigger our curiosity, it needs to be new, complex, uncertain, and/or contradictory. But let’s look at it now from an educational point of view.
If you don’t know anything about a certain subject and it doesn’t concern you, you are unlikely to be curious, “What am I learning Esperanto for?”. In a world where we are flooded with information on every corner, ain’t nobody got time for that.
On the other hand, when you have the impression that you know a lot, you may think you already have the necessary knowledge, and therefore nothing triggers you to look for new answers.
Curiosity arises when there is a gap between what you already know and what you think you could potentially know. This is why, a piece of information that seemed to be boring to you at first, may become your obsession a few moments later. The more questions on a certain topic appear in your head, the hungrier for answers you become.
When can curiosity make learning more efficient?
Unfortunately, the adaptive learning system present in most schools makes it more difficult for us to be obsessed with presented topics. Teachers are often stressed about being able to follow the core curriculum imposed by people who seldom have a clue of what skills are needed in the future markets. There is no space for creativity and freedom to ask questions. Instead, teachers rush from one topic to the next, to cover the bare minimum. Leaving their students with basic knowledge and answers presented before asking questions.
That’s an easy solution that brings only short-term results.
A curious brain remembers things easier and for longer. So how to be curious when it comes to learning? You can use my tips below both at school and during self-learning.
- Make a list of all the things you want to learn about. Ask yourself how they work and why they are important for you.
- Allow yourself to be a child. Ask yourself as many questions as you want and find answers to them. Use the Internet and other resources when necessary. Even just the act of looking things up will make you remember them easier.
- Don’t overload yourself with information – Yes, the devil is in the details, but have you ever started out reading about meditation, and ended up in a Wikipedia article about a grizzly bear that was conscripted into the Polish army? Too many details can distract you from achieving your learning goals.
- Make connections between the things you are learning. Notice the similarities and differences between them. If possible, connect them to your own memories and experiences from your daily life. This way, you will remember them easier and recall them when needed.
- Explain things to yourself as if you were explaining them to somebody who has no clue about the topic. Use simple sentences and verify your knowledge if necessary.
- Make sure you understand everything correctly. There is no room left for uncertainty. If you aren’t sure of something, check it out. Use the Internet to verify your assumptions and correct them if necessary. Looking for clarifications and learning from mistakes are also a part of the learning process.
- Write things down. Write down whatever you remember from what you just learned. It will allow you to verify which things still need repetition and which ones already stuck with you.
How to stimulate curiosity?
Even though you can count on it to appear in a spontaneous manner, curiosity can be practiced. Allow yourself to be curious and open to experience unexpected things. Below you can find several ways to stimulate your curiosity in daily life.
- Notice when you feel the most puzzled or surprised
What are the moments that trigger your curiosity? What boosts your hunger for knowledge? Remind yourself of a couple of situations where you immediately needed to find answers to questions that popped into your head. Have those topics been keeping you interested for a long time or are they totally new? What were you doing when you started being curious? Were you in the house, talking to friends, or taking yet another trip? Observing your environment in the state of curiosity will make it easier for you to notice what makes you curious (and, who knows, it will maybe even lead you to developing new passions).
- Learn how to ask quality questions
Curiosity makes you learn new things faster and motivates you to look for answers. However, to find answers that will perfectly satisfy your need for knowledge, you need to ask yourself proper questions. If you are investigating a new topic, try first looking at a general picture without focusing much on details. Only then, when you already have basic knowledge, you can dive into smaller aspects. This way, you will keep yourself interested for a longer time without overloading yourself with information.
- Play with new knowledge
Explore different ways of looking for your answers. Try out different sources or ways of asking questions. Approach people. Write your information down. Create something with the use of this newly gathered knowledge. Let it lead you to experience something new. Curiosity stimulated in this way will certainly make you research more information, keeping you interested and motivated.
- Be skeptical
Having instant access to the Internet and many different resources at your fingertips makes it easy to collect necessary answers and feed curiosity within seconds. However, in order to stay curious in the long term and be sure that the data you gather is accurate, complete, and up to date, you need to be skeptical. Verify everything you aren’t sure about. Check out different resources. Be open and flexible enough to change your mind when needed. You never know what interesting discoveries it will lead you to.
- Refer to your personal experiences
We are more curious about events, facts, dates, and other data, if we are able to connect them to our own personal experiences. How does the new thing you just learned about the influence your life? Is it going to change you in any way? What personal experience does it remind you about? Try to build connections between new knowledge and your life to notice how you can benefit from it. I bet it will keep you engaged.
- Spread curiosity around
A simple way to stay curious: make other people around you curious as well. Show them how passionate about a certain topic you are. Be the person they immediately refer to when their friends bring it up. You will quickly notice that they will subconsciously keep you accountable for being curious.
- Value curiosity
Notice the impact curiosity has on your learning process. Check how it makes your learning faster and more effective. Does it allow you to memorize things faster? Did it lead you to take up new hobbies or activities? Remember that since curiosity increases activity in the hippocampus (the brain region involved in the brain circuit related to reward and pleasure), it can easily make the whole learning process more enticing and attractive.
For many of us, stimulating curiosity is one of the easiest ways to fast and efficient learning. It’s worth noting though, that to many of us it doesn’t come automatically. Even though we’re possibly already born being curious, somewhere along the way we lose it more and more. Most of the schools still don’t support curiosity. The adaptive learning systems used by them present students with built-in answers,making the task of researching new knowledge by themselves redundant.
Many teachers still aren’t aware that curiosity can easily prepare the brains of their students for learning and that asking the right questions is essential to trigger attention. Now, since you are already aware of it, we can use it in the process of self-targeted education. Just let the curiosity spark.
1. You can stimulate curiosity for self (joitskehulsebosch.blogspot.com)
2. The power of curiosity (psychologytoday.com)
3. Mario Livio: What makes us curious (nytimes.com)
4. Psychology of curiosity: A review and interpretation (cmu.edu)
5. How curiosity changes the brain to enhance learning (sciencedaily.com)