Curiosity: Our Superpower for Just About Everything

What is curiosity, and how can we tap into its power to break bad habits?

Posted Sep 24, 2019

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” —Albert Einstein

In 2007, New York City did something radical, which was so effective that it has become commonplace across the country: It installed train arrival "countdown clocks" to most subway and train stations. Was it worth the over $17.6 million investment? You bet.

The city knew something about how we learn and leveraged this knowledge to ease our minds and our commutes. Now, a new science of curiosity reveals how we can take this a step farther. Simply understanding how our brains get curious can help us harness that power to supercharge learning, break bad habits, and even live happier, more engaged lives.

But curiosity hasn’t always been seen as a superpower. Some have pinned curiosity as what got Adam and Eve kicked out of the Garden of Eden. In the 1600s, Thomas Hobbes, the famous philosopher, described curiosity as the “lust of the mind,” and Blaise Pascal added that curiosity is “only vanity.”

Yet, curiosity is an innate, natural, and universal capacity that we all have, and knowing how it works from a neurobiological perspective is the first step to reawakening our childlike fascination and tapping into its potential.

Curiosity comes in two flavors: pleasant and unpleasant

In 2005, psychologist Jordan Litman named two main “flavors” of curiosity, which he called I-curiosity and D-curiosity. I-curiosity stands for “interest,” the pleasurable aspects of the hunger for knowledge, while D-curiosity stands for “deprivation,” the idea that if we have a gap in information, we go into a restless, unpleasant, need-to-know state.

In other words, curiosity—our drive for information—can either induce a pleasant state or reduce an aversive state.

Let’s take an example. Remember the last time you were watching TV, forgot the name of an actor on the screen, and felt a sense of relief after googling them? That’s your D-curiosity. You also experience this when you’re itching to check a text during a meeting. That fire of uncertainty that is causing your phone to burn a hole in your pocket is suddenly put out when you see who texted you.

This reduction in uncertainty—the stress of not knowing—is the reason why New York City installed digital signs in the subway system. Ironically, people would rather know that the next train is 15 minutes away than not know it’s only two minutes away. Yes, our brains are crazy like that.

I-curiosity, on the other hand, is piqued when we become interested in learning more broadly about a specific topic. This is different than filling a deficit (as in D-curiosity), because there wasn’t a deficit there in the first place. When we’re out exploring nature or learning something new, there isn’t a particular point we’re trying to reach. We’re simply enjoying the journey of learning more. Fascination is I-curiosity on steroids.

So, why do we have curiosity in the first place? It turns out curiosity builds on the evolutionarily conserved, reward-based learning mechanisms in our brains.

Reward-based learning relies on positive and negative reinforcement. You want to do more of the things that feel good and less of things that feel bad. Back in caveman days, this was really important for helping us to find food (feeling good) and avoid danger (feeling bad).

This might also be the case with curiosity.

The idea that curiosity aligns with reward-based learning has been supported by a growing body of research. A study by Matthias Gruber and colleagues at the University of California Davis had students review a list of trivia questions and rate their curiosity level in learning the answer.

At peak curiosity, dopamine pathways in the brain fired with increased intensity, and there was a stronger connection between reward centers and the hippocampus, a brain area associated with memory. Peak curiously primed students to remember more information—not just the answers to their trivia questions.

Another study by Tommy Blanchard and colleagues looked at the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), or the regions associated with reward value, which assigns value to different things (think broccoli vs. chocolate). In fact, in studies of primates, Blanchard’s team found that primates were willing to give up rewards such as getting a drink of water when they were thirsty for information.

Together, these studies suggest that the saying “thirst for knowledge” really is more than metaphorical. Curiosity follows the same basic behavioral pathways as reward-based learning and even has a literal reward value in the brain.

Different flavors, different rewards, different results

Each curiosity “flavor” has a different “taste.” They fall into different categories in terms of how they feel in our bodies—deprivation feels closed, and interest feels open. What about their reward structure drives these behaviors? With deprivation curiosity, getting the answer is rewarding, but with interest, the process of being curious feels good.

This is critical for two reasons. First, with interest, we don’t need something outside of ourselves to get a reward—it is intrinsically rewarding—and second, because of this, it doesn’t run out.

Social media is a great example of where we can tap into both types of curiosity. We might be mindlessly scrolling, or using it in a proactive way to learn new things. If we don’t pay attention, we might not even notice that we are switching off between the two: scrolling until we find something interesting to read.

So, how can we use this knowledge to optimize curiosity-driven learning? As scientists like myself love to do, this can be graphed out in the form of an inverted U-shaped curve. Imagine curiosity on the vertical axis and knowledge on the horizontal axis. With very little knowledge, curiosity is very low. As we start gaining knowledge, curiosity goes up and eventually plateaus. As we gain even more knowledge, curiosity decreases, because information gaps have been filled.

Put another way, curiosity seems to follow a Goldilocks rule with regard to information. Too little uncertainty about something fails to provoke curiosity; too much uncertainty provokes anxiety. Finding the sweet spot of curiosity requires staying atop the inverted U-shaped curve and having just enough information to sustain curiosity.

Using curiosity for habit change and learning

Most of us approach ourselves and the world with D-curiosity, like a problem to be solved. But we’re all actually in the perfect place to build and sustain curiosity about our own minds. Some knowledge, like learning about habit formation by identifying rewards, can help us get interested and point us in the right direction to fill in the gaps.

The scientific studies from my lab and many others have laid out the foundational elements of how habits form, which is enough knowledge to put you in the sweet spot to get curious about your own experience (see this 10-minute TED talk for a synopsis). This will allow you to develop the wisdom to know exactly how your own mind works so that you can work with it. You can probably already see how this primes you to stay at the top of that inverted U-shaped curve—getting more and more curious about your habits, as well as becoming curious about what you can learn when you get caught up in a habit loop.

As Einstein put it, “Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day. Never lose a holy curiosity.”

See if you can start setting the habit of being curious about everything as a way of living a rich and fulfilled life, exploring life one moment at a time.