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The Addictive Quality of Curiosity

Curiosity as an antidote to boredom and addiction

We are hardwired with the desire to learn and explore the world. The human psyche is marked by a lifelong tendency to seek and acquire information. Curiosity increases with one’s expertise in a particular domain. It derives from “information gap”—the difference between what you know and what you want to know. Indeed, the value of information can be measured by the extent to which a piece of information reduces our uncertainty about the world. That is, information could be measured by the degree to which something was surprising.

Psychologist George Lowenstein views curiosity as arising when attention becomes focused on a gap in one’s knowledge. Such information gaps produce the feeling of deprivation. He considers this adversity state as curiosity. The curious individual is motivated to obtain the missing information to reduce or eliminated the feeling of deprivation. This implies the addictive quality of curiosity. Quest for knowledge can never be satisfied. You just cannot get enough. In essence, humans have a “knowledge addiction.” Curiosity is a key motivator to learning. A thorough understanding and exploration of any subject matter requires curiosity and persistent motivation.

There is a link between curiosity, or novelty seeking, and the reward system. The need for novelty is innate to human beings. A novel event can be almost anything—seeing a painting for the first time, learning a new word, or having a pleasant, or unpleasant, experience. The key factor is surprise. New activities are exciting at first but then become boring; watching TV is fun but then gets tiring. Although one may thoroughly enjoy a particular conversation, the same conversation a second time around would be dull.

Novelty seeking implies dissatisfaction with the status quo and a willingness to challenge established ideas and practices. Great achievements are facilitated with dissatisfaction with status quo. Goldberg writes that the great globe-trotting Christopher Columbus would have never embarked on his great voyage had he not been temperamentally dysphoric and had Prozac been available in those days. The need for novelty has made us who we are—intelligent, curious, and constantly seeking for the next thing.

Seeking out more novel experience keeps dopamine pumping. The basic idea is that neurons release dopamine in proportion to the difference between the anticipated and realized rewards of a particular event. The purpose of dopamine surge is to make the brain pay attention to new and potentially important stimuli. The dopamine neurons are activated by new stimuli. However, if the presentation is repeated, they quiet down and discharge less and less frequently. When the stimulus ceases to be novel we become accustomed to it (or known as habituation).

The true reward is the journey itself. When our goal is achieved, we feel satisfaction, fulfillment, and pleasure—and those feelings then help us to learn and remember. The world is dull again until we find another subject to be excited about. This is the curse of everything being new. For the new is inherently unapproachable.

The brain regions in charge of processing a novel task are not the same as those in charge of processing the same task once it becomes familiar. Goldberg has shown the roles of the two hemispheres with respect to the novelty and routinization. Right hemisphere associated with emotion is dominant at early learning stages, while the task is novel. Left hemisphere (analytical brain) is dominant at task routinization. Left-handedness tends to preferentially engage the right hemisphere, and vice versa. This reasoning supports the old claims that left-handed tends to be creative, restless, and novelty-seeking individuals. They may also be incapable of implementing their own ideas, because task routinization is the domain of left brain.

Persistence may sound like the opposite of novelty seeking, but the two traits can coexist and balance each other. People with persistence tend to be achievers because they’ll keep working at something even when there’s no immediate reward. Psychologist Susan Cloninger writes that novelty-seeking is one of the traits that keeps people healthy and happy and fosters personality growth as we age. The combination of this adventurousness and curiosity with persistence provides the kind of creativity that benefits society as a whole.

The opposite of curiosity is boredom. The most common way to define boredom in Western culture is having nothing to do. To be bored is to be disengaged from the world. Boredom is an unpleasant emotional state in which the individual feels a pervasive lack of interest in and difficulty concentrating on the current activity. People who are often bored are at greater risk of developing anxiety, depression, and drug or alcohol addiction. Idle hands, the Amish will remind us, are the Devil’s workshop. Developing ways to cope with boredom is a key in addiction treatment. For example, some research shows that if former drug addicts learn to deal effectively with boredom, they are less likely to relapse.

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