The science of curiosity: why we keep asking “why”

It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.

Albert Einstein.

Children have an incredibly inquisitive mind. “Why?” they keep asking. They explore new things for no other reason except that they just want to know. Researchers tried to figure out how often kids ask questions. Turns out, a lot: on average, children ask 107 questions per hour!

But it seems that as adults we tend to fall into fixed and convenient cognitive patterns. “Schools do not always, or even often, foster curiosity,” says Susan Engel, author and senior lecturer in psychology, in her book The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood.

Her research shows that what she calls “episodes of curiosity”—such as asking direct questions, manipulating objects, or intent and directed gazing—occurred 2.36 times in a two hour stretch in kindergarten, and only 0.48 times in a fifth grade classroom.

So, what’s going on, and is it ever too late to rehabilitate your curiosity?

Creativity gets unlearned

When NASA was looking at hiring highly creative people, they hired Dr. George Land to devise a test that would accurately measure creative potential. Dr. Land collaborated with another researcher, Dr. Beth Jarman, to create a test which measured divergent thinking, or the ability to look at a particular problem and devise multiple solutions.

The test worked well and is still a cornerstone of research around curiosity. But Dr. George Land, being curious (see what I’m doing), wanted to go further and understand the underlying mechanics of curiosity.

Where does it come from? How does it evolve through our lives?

To answer these questions, he led a large-scale observation study of 1,600 children. He got the kids to take the test at age 5, 10, and 15. The first time they took the test, 98% scored the highest possible score on the creativity test. The second time they took it, five years later, only 30% of the very same children scored well on the test. Even more depressing, the third time they took it—by now in highschool—it was only 12% of kids that did well.

What about adults? Well, it’s not getting any better. Based on a sample of 280,000 people, less than 2% of all adults are defined as creative based on their answer to this standardised test.

Science suggests that this dramatic decrease in curiosity could be caused by our increase in knowledge as we grow up.

The science of curiosity: the more knowledge we have as we grow up, the less curiosity.

Once we feel like there’s no gap between what we know and what we want to know, we just stop being and acting curious. But why should we care?

3 surprising benefits of curiosity

Based on the results above, it seems like most adults go about their lives without any effort to foster their curiosity. You might think, maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all. But curiosity has magical properties which have been extensively studied by scientists.

  • Curiosity keeps you young: research shows that keeping a sense of wonder throughout life and as well as a novelty-seeking behaviour helps people to stay young. A study which followed aging individuals while tracking their curiosity levels found that those that showed high levels of curiosity were more likely to be alive five years later.
  • Curiosity helps you learn: there is strong evidence that curiosity helps you better remember new information. The more curious you are about a topic, the more likely you are to remember it.
  • Curiosity fosters better relationships: being genuinely interested in other people helps build more robust relationships, research shows. This means a greater feeling of intimacy and creating the foundation for meaningful relationships.

Convinced you should do more to cultivate your curiosity? The good thing is that low levels of curiosity doesn’t mean your curiosity is just gone. In most adults, it’s mostly suppressed. In fact, every time you go to bed to sleep and you start dreaming, you let your curiosity run wild.

How to cultivate your curiosity

There are a few simple activities that will help you foster your curiosity and by extension increase your creativity. Try a few and see which ones feel most effective for you personally.

  1. Ask questions: randomly ask yourself why? and how? when reading something or chatting with friends. You can even write down some of these questions to take the time to find the answers later.
  2. Read outside of your field: pick a type of book you would never naturally buy in a bookstore. Is it classic poetry? Non-fiction? A cookbook? Something about geology? Read it just for the sake of reading it.
  3. Be inquisitive with people: choose someone in your entourage that you haven’t seen in a while, and invite them for coffee. Make it your goal to learn as much as possible about their interests. Take that approach any time you meet a new person.
  4. Practice saying less: this is linked to the previous one. Try to talk less and to listen more.
  5. Immerse yourself in a topic: select a topic that you find interesting, and push the limits of your curiosity by going deep. This means reading lots of articles, books, and research papers, watching TED talks, listening to podcasts.
  6. Write: take it to the next level by writing about this topic. This is exactly what I’m doing here. By committing to write on this blog, I get to explore new topics and cultivate my curiosity.
  7. Carry a notebook: it will make it easier to remember topics you’re curious about and want to either research or write about later.
  8. Learn about yourself: curiosity doesn’t need to only be outward. Explore your feelings, ask yourself about your goals and behaviours, or even research your past and family history.
  9. Slow down: productivity can be the enemy of creativity. Take the time to let your mind wander and let questions pop into your head.
  10. Hang out with a child: playing and talking with a child is probably one of the best reminders of our potential for curiosity.

I started this article with a quote from Einstein. Here’s another one to finish it. We were all born curious. It’s our choice to be curious or not.

I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.

Albert Einstein.

Anne-Laure Le Cunff

I’m an ex-Googler, entrepreneur, and part-time neuroscience student at King’s College. If you found this article useful, subscribe to my weekly newsletter about productivity, creativity, learning, and designing engaging products.

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