Are You Curious…or Are You Simply Distracted?None By Homaira Kabir
My kids are adolescents now, which means they no longer like to communicate with family. When I get nostalgic for the years when they did communicate more freely, I remind myself of those relentless "whys" when they were little, and the constant pressure to nurture their natural curiosity. Although it wasn't easy to answer all their questions when dirty dishes stacked up in the sink, dinner needed to be cooked, and at least one of us was having an emotional meltdown.
For a long time, I carried the guilt of not having done a better job of tending to their curiosity—especially when I happened to witness a parent sit down and do so tirelessly. And when I saw my children approach certain experiences at school or in their lives with a fixed mindset, I wished I'd nurtured the approach-oriented motivational state that is the essence of curiosity.
However, I now know that curiosity, like any character trait, can be nurtured at any age. Even better, I've also learned that curiosity comes in many flavors, and the one that’s most malleable as we grow older is the one associated with greater growth and happiness.
In his book Why?: What Makes Us Curious, astrophysicist and author Mario Livio calls this particular form of curiosity "epistemic curiosity." MRI studies have shown that it's a pleasurable state associated with the anticipation of reward. Epistemic curiosity is what you experience when you're about to meet someone you love, or when you're standing in line at your favorite gelato parlor. This type of curiosity doesn't decrease with age—in fact, with increasing wisdom, we're often more inclined to direct it toward advancing our knowledge (for example, engaging in artwork or scientific research), and becoming more open to new discovery and other people’s perspectives.
The form of curiosity that does diminish with age is called “perceptual curiosity.” Unlike epistemic curiosity, perceptual curiosity activates parts of the brain that work in conflict, as when something surprises us or doesn't quite align with the way we've made sense of the world. Livio says that this unpleasant state feels like an itch that we need to scratch, likely because we're meaning-making creatures and dissonance makes us uncomfortable. The itch metaphor helps me better appreciate the endless stream of questions from my children's younger days, when they were merely trying to piece their experiences together into a coherent story of the way the world works. The diminishing of perceptual curiosity is often replaced by the "diversive curiosity" of adolescence, when teens would rather check their phones a hundred times over than engage in actual conversation. While quite upsetting for parents, this is often nothing more than their way of keeping boredom at bay, and in the process gathering new information—albeit mostly about what their friends had for lunch or a moment-to-moment account of their sleeping cat.
Diversive curiosity is distracting because it’s not often directed toward a focused pursuit. And given that technical devices are increasingly becoming a bodily extension—and that addiction to them is also correlated with narcissistic tendencies and low self-worth—we all need to do a better job of shifting from it toward the epistemic curiosity that builds our sense of self and lies at the heart of all human knowledge.
Here are 5 ways of enhancing our epistemic curiosity:
Develop "Beginner's Mind"
Learn to see things with new eyes. Take a walk in your garden, and look at a flower as if you were seeing it for the first time. Notice when you're being a bit too certain about things, and try and step away from your opinions. This can also help with the fears that are often the result of our beliefs about ourselves, others, or life in general. What if you believed differently? What would you do differently?
Live Life in a Lab Coat
Be willing to experiment with your life. Identify interests you once had or still have, and simply explore them rather than trying to prove yourself through them. Be willing to be surprised, to discover new things about yourself, to fail and to grow through the lessons learned. This is what helps you develop what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset”—where you enjoy the process of becoming your best self, rather than being fixated on an ideal version of yourself.
Be Comfortable in the Clouds
Curiosity is not possible unless you learn to be comfortable in not knowing—which can be difficult, given our need for certainty. One way of doing so is to imagine that you're in a cloud, and the confusion and darkness around you is merely a phase, since sunshine and blue skies lie beyond. Another is mindfulness, where you watch your thoughts and emotions, like clouds that come with intensity and then float away when you don’t hang on to them.
Appreciate the Yin and Yang
We're wired to judge everything within us and around us as good or bad. We approach the good, and we run away from the bad. This means that we may well be avoiding a lot of things simply because our own (sometimes faulty) appraisal system deems them unpleasant, difficult, or simply a waste of time. To nurture the approach orientation of epistemic curiosity, flip your inherent appraisal system by appreciating the good that can come out of a difficult situation, or adding little moments of joy to an otherwise unpleasant task.
Give Yourself a Break
Always being interested in new things can be tiring on the brain. Trying novel things, exploring complex ideas, or meeting new people can be exhausting, and even more so for individuals who are introverts. The trick is to balance the interest of epistemic curiosity with the enjoyment of the familiar. So while you're out trying new foods, making sense of complex pieces of art, or spending your vacation traveling to a new place, also include foods you enjoy, music that soothes you, and places you've enjoyed visiting in the past.
The nature of life, like scientific research, is such that the answer to one question frequently paves the way to a new question. And remaining curious is one way to remember that at the end of the day, it’s not about finding all the answers, but about leaving the world a little better than you found it.
Homaira Kabir is a recognized positive psychology coach and a researcher on women’s self-esteem. Check out your authentic self-worth on her website with her short and evidence-based quiz.
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