Curiosity killed the cat. A famous quote with no knowledge about its origin. Honestly, it was probably made by some annoyed grandpa who was being pestered with questions. Curiosity makes us do utterly unproductive things, like learning topics we’ll never have a use for, or exploring places we’ll never come back to. We love to know the answers to things, even if there’s no obvious benefit. Why is our brain hardwired to explore and learn things that are just flat out useless? We associate human evolution with survival-of-the-fittest traits, so why do we waste so much time?
What’s going on in our brains that makes us so inquisitive? The roots of our curiosity can be linked to a trait called neoteny. This is an evolutionary term that means the retention of juvenile characteristics. This means as a species, we are more childlike than other mammals. Being relatively hairless is one physical example. A large brain compared to body size is another. Most importantly, lifelong curiosity and playfulness are behavioral characteristics of neoteny. This trait lets us pick up new ways of doing things and allows us to adapt to new situations.
When you are a curious person or think curiously, you may have a different thought process. Let me first clarify what a curious person is. Being a curious person means you have kept your curious inner child and haven’t lost interest in learning. When listening to people, we make
assumptions and judgments. Curiosity helps us seek to understand the perspectives of others and are willing to find out both sides of the argument. “Many of us have a love/hate relationship with surprises,” says Tania Luna, coauthor of Surprise, “When we have too much surprise, we experience anxiety, but when we don’t have enough, we get bored.” Curious people welcome surprise in their lives. They try new foods, talk to strangers and ask questions they’ve never asked before.
Okay, but why are we curious? Scientifically speaking, one study revealed when curiosity is piqued, the brain enters a state of increased motivation to learn, triggering the dopamine reward circuits in our brain. This means when the reward system in our brain goes off, it gives us pleasure. That’s the same reward zone that goes off when we eat candy or have drugs or alcohol. Curiosity isn’t just about finding out information though. For example, most people slow down beside car accidents and are curious to see what happened. This is not because we want to see what’s going on, we already know what happens in a car accident. We look because we want to make ourselves feel better about the situation we’re in because even if we are in a stuck in traffic, we’re not in a car accident. We also love to find information that connects to us personally or emotionally like gossip. When something affects us emotionally we tend to jump on it. It’s not only humans that are curious though, as nearly all animals are curious as well. This is so they get to know their surroundings better and can scout out any potential threats in the environment. Even the most basic animal, roundworms do not crawl to a food source directly but circle towards it in a way that gives them the most information about their environment.
Have you ever been with a younger cousin or sibling and been bombarded with questions? This is because as a species, we’re so curious as young children. As adults, everything becomes routine whether your routine is eating breakfast in the morning, or going to the gym after lunch. But for toddlers, everything is new and they have not established these everyday routines that we have. Toddlers pestering can be pretty annoying, but they can come up with some genius ideas. One 8-year-old girl and her dad were making bacon only to find there were no paper towels. She asked why they don’t just hang the bacon while it’s cooking. This eliminates the use of paper towels and makes the bacon healthier by letting all the excess fat drip off. This may not sound like the most useful product but I beg to differ. Over 15 years ago, Entrepreneur.com reported this product was earning this family more than $1 million in royalties annually. Curiosity can have its benefits.
How do we lose our curiosity when it is such a valuable asset to us? Well, what do we spend most of our time doing between the ages of 6-18? In school, the average six to 18-year-old asks one question per one-hour class per month. Compare that to the average teacher who peppers kids with 291 questions a day and waits an average of one second for a reply. This makes it hard for us students, to explore our interests. Another reason we lose our curiosity is because we are taught not to make mistakes. Why would I try something new, when I can just do what everyone else is doing and get a good mark? Traditional teachers dictate our learning, decide what we’re learning, the grading system and the schedule of the classroom. This leaves no room for students to explore their interests.
Traditional teaching styles don’t just squeeze the curiosity out of us, but the creativity and passion to learn as well. If you’ve been learning things that bore you to death for years on end, chances are you’ll treat “learning” as something boring as many of us already do. This is where inquiry-based learning comes in and allows us to explore topics that interest us. A saying I found while researching was, “Tell me, and I forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I will understand.” When doing inquiry based learning, the teacher acts as a facilitator of the students learning, instead of controlling the information. This means doing something like giving a topic and having the students come up with questions to answer.
Why we have curiosity is clear to me, curiosity is our exploration bonus. We’re evolved to try things out, to get distracted and generally look like we’re wasting time. This is how humanity has come up with some of it’s greatest ideas. Now, don’t get me wrong, it would be beneficial to us if we just focused on what we needed to know and didn’t get sidetracked so easily. But how do we know what information we might need; that’s why we keep learning and expanding our skill sets. And, maybe we are wasting time today, but it might come in handy tomorrow.