This article discusses the value in human curiosity for learning, living a more meaningful life and as an important tool for professional success. The author reviews several books on curiosity that outline why we are curious, explains different types of curiosity and suggests how we might not lose our curiosity as we age.
While working for a medical device company, I frequently had the opportunity to interview new job candidates. One question I asked was about the books the prospective new hire has read or is reading. Reading habits are one indication of how inquisitive an individual is and speaks to their dedication to continued learning. An inquisitive person is more apt to be hired.
According to the literature, people with strong curiosity traits are generally more creative and better problem solvers. A growing body of evidence suggests that inquisitive people are more qualified to fill complex jobs and learn new skills faster. Moreover, the more curious we are about a topic, the easier it is to learn about it. A recent article, “From Curious to Competent,” in the Harvard Business Review
, noted that curiosity, defined as a penchant for seeking new experiences, knowledge and feedback and an openness to change is, perhaps, the most important of all job qualifications.1
While the definition appears to be complete, scientists think differently about curiosity and have been investigating the effects of curiosity since the 19th
Over time, the working definition has included “a drive state for information.” However, the scientific definition for what constitutes curiosity is still under debate.
New research indicates inquisitive people provide a wide range of benefits to employers. For example, curious employees are likely to make fewer decision-making errors. They also are less apt to employ confirmation bias (looking for information that supports their belief rather than for evidence suggesting they are wrong) or to stereotype people (making broad judgments). Curious people view tough situations more creatively. Studies have found that curiosity is associated with fewer defensive reactions to stress and less aggressive reactions to provocation. Overall, natural curiosity is associated with better job performance. Inquisitive employees make more constructive suggestions for implementing solutions to creatively solve problems occurring in the workplace.3
Thus, it behooves companies to cultivate employee curiosity at all levels and to treasure inquisitive minds. When triggered by design, employees think more deeply and rationally.
Curiosity for Learning
As mentioned above, the more curious we are about a topic, the easier it is to learn information about that topic. This finding has far-reaching implications, revealing insight into how curiosity affects memory and enhances learning, both in the classroom and the workplace. When curiosity is stimulated, there is increased activity in the brain circuit related to reward, a circuit that relies on dopamine, a chemical messenger relaying messages among neurons. Interactions between the reward system and the hippocampus put the brain into a state in which the individual is more likely to learn and retain information.4
Curiosity in Life
Curiosity also may be part of having a more fulfilling life. According to a recent book, “Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life,” by Todd Kasdan, curiosity is the “central ingredient” for living a more fulfilling life.5
Kasdan claims curiosity is nothing more than what we feel when struck by something novel. It draws our attention to interesting things and plays a critical role in the pursuit of a meaningful life. Curiosity is about how we relate to our thoughts and feelings; it is not about whether we pay attention, but about how
we pay attention to what is happening in the present. Only in the present can we be liberated to do whatever we want to do; it is a “razor-thin” moment when we are truly free. When we are curious, we exploit these moments by “being there,” sensitive to what is happening, regardless of how it diverges from what it looked like before and what we expect it to be in the future. There is a strong correlation between curiosity and “mindfulness.”
Types of Curiosity
There are several “types” of curiosity. “Perceptual curiosity” is engendered by extreme outliers, by novel, ambiguous or puzzling stimuli and it motivates visual inspection. Perceptual curiosity generally diminishes with continued exposure. The opposite of perceptional curiosity is “epistemic curiosity,” which is the veritable desire for knowledge (the “appetite for knowledge” in the words of philosopher Immanuel Kant).6
Curiosity has been the main driver of all basic scientific research and of philosophical inquiry, and it was the likely force propelling early spiritual quests. The seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes dubbed curiosity the “lust of the mind,” adding that “by a perseverance of delight in the continual and indefatigable generation of knowledge” it exceeds “the short vehemence of any carnal pleasure” in that indulging in it only leaves you wanting more.7
“Specific curiosity” reflects the desire for a particular piece of information. It attempts one to solve a crossword puzzle or to remember the name of the movie you saw last week. Specific curiosity can drive investigators to examine distinct problems in order to understand them better and identify potential solutions. Finally, “diversive curiosity” refers both to the restless desire to explore and to seeking novel stimulation to avoid boredom. Today, this type of curiosity might manifest in the constant checking for new text messages or emails or in impatience while waiting for a new smartphone model. Sometimes, diversive curiosity can lead to specific curiosity in that the novelty-seeking behavior may fuel a specific interest.8
Most children are naturally curious, even to the point of endangering themselves. Curiosity is unique to human beings, begins almost at birth, but is frequently lost as we grow older. According to Ian Leslie in his book, “Curiosity,” the challenge to not losing one’s curiosity is to find new ways to make us continually hungry to learn, question and create.9
One way is to pique a person’s interest in some topic. Parents are presented with the opportunity many times each day. Once curiosity is stimulated, there is increased activity in the brain circuits related to reward, which enables the brain to enhance learning and retain information.
Teaching Employees to be Curious
If your company wishes to include “curiosity” as part of training, “Edutopia
,” an educational website, suggests a number of ways to stimulate an employee’s inquisitiveness, including:
- value and reward curiosity
- teach them how to ask quality questions
- teach skepticism by asking participants to ask “why” more often, and to ask for additional evidence before accepting someone’s claims as being true
- encourage employees to tinker
- create opportunities for more curious and less curious individuals to work together in project based learning10
For the simple reason that employers are looking for people who do more than simply follow procedures competently or respond to requests, the truly curious will be increasingly in demand. We can all learn from Albert Einstein, who said that he had no special talents other than being passionately curious.11
Fortunately, in a free society, no one can stop us from learning and there is no limit on the pursuit of knowledge.
About the Author
- Fernandez-Araoz C, et al. From Curious to Competent. Harvard Business Review. Sept-Oct. 2018.
- Kidd C and Hayden BY. “The Psychology and Neuroscience of Curiosity.” Neuron. 2015;88(3):449. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2015.09.010.
- Hardy JH, et al. “Outside the box: Epistemic Curiosity as a Predictor of Creative Problem Solving and Creative Performance.” Personality and Individual Differences. 2017;104:230. DOI: 10.106/j.paid2016.08.004.
- Matthias J, et al. “States of Curiosity Modulate Hippocampus-Dependent Learning via the Dopaminergic Circuit.” Neuron. 2014. DOI:20.1016/j.neuron.2014.08.060.
- Kasdan, T. Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. Harper Collins, New York, 2009.
- Op cit 2.
- Livio, M. Why? What Makes us Curious. Simon & Schuster, New York, 2017.
- Leslie, I. Curious. Basic Books, New York, 2014.
- Marilyn Price-Mitchell M. “Curiosity: The Force Within a Hungry Mind.” February 2015. Edutopia website. https://www.edutopia.org/blog/8-pathways-curiosity-hungry-mind-marilyn-price-michell. Accessed 9 July 2019.
- Op cit 5.
is a retired regulatory professional. He has contributed to Regulatory Focus
for more than two decades and is the author of the recently published book entitled "Eclectic Science and Regulatory Compliance: Stories for the Curious." The book contains 36 essays, most of which appeared in Regulatory Focus
. In 2012, RAPS published "From Alzheimer's to Zebrafish: Eclectic Science and Regulatory Stories." He is also the editor of the first (2015) and second (2018) editions of "The Medical Device Validation Handbook." He may be contacted at email@example.com.
: Sherman M. “Curiosity. One of Life’s Most Valuable Commodities.” Regulatory Focus
. July 2019. Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society.