Curiosity can be frustratingly elusive.
We watch others as they seemingly gather endless pools of knowledge, dispense obscure facts in social settings and then dive back in to absorb yet more information. Their brains seem to yearn for that which they do not know.
Meanwhile, we sit. We stare. We scroll. We want to want to know, but we can barely make it through a news article or a blog post or a book chapter without saving it for later, exiting the page, snapping it shut.
We feel as if we are stuck in perpetual stasis as everyone else surges forwards. Their mental energy is surely boundless. Our own, meanwhile, sputters on the damp floors of our own apathy and threatens to go out completely.
The Science of Curious Minds
The first problem with attempting to restore one’s curiosity is the fact that there is little research into the area, and therefore we aren’t really sure how it works. That being said, there is one recent study that has looked into the mechanics of curiosity, and this is a good place to begin.
In essence, the study finds, curiosity is linked with the reward centre of the brain and the production of dopamine. In fact, when a person is curious about the answer to a question, dopamine molecules are transmitted even before the answer is revealed – showing that curiosity in itself should be pleasurable. On top of this, curiosity seems to correlate with increased activity in the hippocampus, where memories are made. The level of interaction between the reward centre of the brain and the hippocampus during the time when a person is posed with a question that they don’t know the answer to, generally predicts how well they will remember that answer once it is revealed. Increased curiosity equals increased information retention.
It perhaps isn’t surprising that we learn better when we are curious about the subject, although it is certainly encouraging to think that self-motivated curiosity will not go unrewarded: if we’re interested, we should remember what we discover. What is perhaps more interesting to consider, however, is the fact that our brain will reward us for curiosity and thus, that our brains do want to be curious, and do want to learn. It shouldn’t be a struggle, and with this being the case, we should investigate other reasons why we might find igniting our curiosity difficult.
Causes of Reduced Curiosity
Truly, no one seems entirely sure of the reasons why curiosity might decline, either temporarily or permanently. The research cited above does note that those who have low dopamine due to health conditions will find it more difficult to be curious and to retain memories, but what about the rest of us?
Inevitably, technology is blamed by some. After all, search engines mean that the answers to everything is at our fingertips, and as a consequence, perhaps we are less inclined to go searching for knowledge and to be truly inquisitive – we can always just Google it later. It deadens meandering exploration and the stumbling upon of ideas that we specifically weren’t searching for, as one can do in a library or a bookshop.
Meanwhile, Einstein reportedly blamed modern teaching methods for a drop in curiosity in children, while Socrates theorised that it was hubris (excessive pride or overconfidence) that fuelled a person’s lack of interest in acquiring new knowledge.
Of the three, given that none can truly provide evidence for their theories, Socrates’ theory feels the most watertight. After all, to a truly curious mind, Google is a goldmine. And, while a standardised curriculum could certainly be argued to be a destroyer of individuality (something which is concerning although not strictly relevant here), can the relaying of accepted fact and method really be touted as the downfall of curiosity? A boring class might turn a student off academia, but academia is not the same as curiosity, and the student is bound to find something to engage them outside of lessons, something which piques their interest and inspires them.
Thus, we are left only with the idea that a lack of curiosity is down to the feeling that we do not need any further information, that we are endowed with enough knowledge to carry us through our lives as-is. This may be something that we are aware of, or it may be internalised, but it rings true.
Think of the times when you have most urgently sought knowledge. Perhaps you Googled your symptoms, perhaps you searched for reviews of something to gauge its worth or check your opinions against wider critique. Perhaps you were researching something specific that you were unfamiliar with in order to pick someone a good present. In all these cases, you were curious because you felt that you needed the information and that you could not continue without it. The mistake in this reasoning is that you come to believe that you do not need information that is not instantly and directly useful to you.
As an adult particularly, it is easy to think that you have accumulated most of the knowledge necessary for life – after all, if you sustain yourself, what else is there that is truly important?
This is where the arrogance lies: the idea that no knowledge apart from that which you already have could benefit you.
Learning to be Inquisitive Again
If we accept Socrates’ idea, then, the key to being curious is humility. Certain behaviours – listening, asking questions, engaging with alien points of view – can remind us that our worldview is not the be all and end all, and that there are vast gaps in our knowledge and in our reasoning.
Importantly, curiosity and humility shouldn’t come at the cost of self-confidence. Self-confidence is not the same as arrogance; you can be humble and self-confident: confident in the knowledge and abilities that you have, but self-aware enough to realise that these abilities and accumulated knowledge do not mean that you have nothing left to learn of importance.
It’s all somewhat abstract and theoretical anyway. We may now know how the brain functions when curious, and the benefits to learning that curiosity brings. However, we are left with the task of re-evaluating ourselves, of being critical enough to realise our own overconfidence and working to redress this. It seems impossible to simply force ourselves to be curious simply because we wish it, but equally, how does one force humility?
There may be no easy answers, but if we wish to crave knowledge again, we must learn it. Perhaps we can start our journey back to curiosity by further researching how to.