The Curiosity Dividend
The wonderous benefits of being inquisitive
“Everyone experiences moments of interest, but not everyone is characteristically curious. Curious people have a tendency to recognize and pursue new knowledge and experiences, an open and receptive attitude toward whatever is the target of attention, and a greater willingness to manage and cope with uncertainty and ambiguity.”
- Todd Kashdan, 2004
“Let go of certainty. The opposite isn't uncertainty. It's openness, curiosity and a willingness to embrace paradox ... The ultimate challenge is to accept ourselves exactly as we are, but never stop trying to learn and grow.”
- Tony Schwartz, Be Excellent at Anything: The Four Keys To Transforming the Way We Work and Live, 2011
“There may not be in the world an example of another genius so universal, so incapable of fulfilment, so full of yearning for the infinite, so naturally refined, so far ahead of his own century and the following centuries.”
- Hippolyte Taine, Voyage en Italie, 1866
Source: Alamy Stock Photo - A 19th-century engraving of Leonardo.
Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was the genius’s genius. An ultra-polymath in an age of virtuoso polymaths: a painter, sculptor, inventor, geologist, architect, anatomist, astronomer, botanist, anthropologist, and palaeontologist—before the last five of these fields had even been invented. On one of the pages of his Notebooks from 1490 when he was 38 is a to-do list that is way more interesting than anyone else’s in the fifteenth century, and any other century for that matter. He set himself up to do the following.
Table: Extract from Leonardo’s Notebooks in 1490
How outrageously inquisitive is that? A mind so eclectic that in its jottings of things to follow up, it shows its owner to be interested in things as diverse as measuring the sun, the mathematics of vision, a problem in hydraulics, the mechanics of crossbows, and various artistic, architectural and city planning challenges, amongst others. His Notebooks run to over seven thousand of surviving pages, and many have been lost. But within those which have come down to us, there are many other puzzles and paradoxes for which he seeks answers: “Between the sun and us is darkness, and yet the air seems blue”. In another famous extract, he exhorts himself thus: “Describe what sneezing is, what yawning is, the falling sickness, spasm, paralysis, shivering with cold, sweating, fatigue, hunger, sleep, thirst, lust”.
Unique among human characteristics, curiosity occupies a special place as both an emotion (sometimes intense, as in a fervour to know, right now) and a long-term behaviour – a longitudinal commitment of life-long learning.
Being curious is radically not about being dispassionately interested. It is about engaging with the world, its events, happenings, circumstances and the people in it. It is a drive to scratch the intellectual itch: to seek out novelty and go beyond the superficial. It is a willingness to embrace complexity, be sensitive to the new, and to tolerate uncertainty. Curiosity is, in essence, a state of being continuously poised to take an acute interest in things that perplex, and find out about stuff that begs to be understood.
To activate one’s inquisitiveness and follow where it might go is to experience pleasure. Paradoxically, although it is a reaction to tension and sometimes to an anxiety to figure things out, it is largely a de-stressor, because being curious takes you away from the same-old, same-old, out of the rut and to be immersed in a world of fascination.
Aristotle thought that eudaimonia (in the Ancient Greek: εὐδαιμονία) was the highest aim of humans. This is centrally about living well, engaged in self-discovery and with a thirst to know: being invested, building a sense of purpose, having an interest in pursuing one’s potential. This, for the ancients, was key to happiness.
So curiosity is good. How good?
As for people, so for rodents. In a 2003 study by Sonia Cavigelli and Martha McClintock of the University of Chicago of male Norway rats, Rattus norvegicus, the lab experimenters divided the participants into two groups: those that were curious and those that weren’t. Rats in the lab group that explored their environments and went up to and examined objects provided for them in their cages had lower corticosterone levels (the stress hormone in rats) in response to a psychological stressor, and better posture, than those that didn’t. The more cautious, less prone to explore, more fearful rats had higher stress levels and took longer to recover from their stress levels.
In a second study, “neophobic” male rats (those who responded to novelty with fear) and “neophilic” males (those who expressed their inquisitive nature) were followed across the lifespan. Neophobic males were 60% more likely to die at any point in time. Indeed, all the incurious rats were dead by 2 years, 110 days whereas the curious cohort lived up to six months longer. For simply being more inquisitive, they got up to 25% of additional life.
It's not just male rodents either. In a 2006 longitudinal study of female rats who were biologically prone to breast and pituitary tumors, those who were temperamentally the least exploratory (the neophobic group) got cancer and died six months earlier than the curious group.
Fear of novelty— incuriosity—is a subset of behavioral inflexibility, or an unwillingness to try different things such as new foods or to check out novel things, ideas and events. This was investigated in 2005 in house sparrows, Passer domesticus, by Lynn Martin and Lisa Fitzgerald of Princeton University. The sparrows who invaded the city of Colon in Panama were compared with house sparrows who had been domiciled in the city for 150 years. Successfully invading sparrows were less fearful and more curious, and accordingly expanded their range. They also had a taste for new food types, with a more varied diet.
Just in case there is the obvious concern that rats and sparrows aren’t humans, and this couldn’t possibly apply to us, Gary Swan and Dorit Carmelli at Stanford tested the levels of curiosity in 1,118 older men with an average age of 71 years and 1,035 older women, average age 69 years. Those with higher levels of curiosity were more likely across a five-year period to survive.
To establish that curiosity benefit we might reflect on why curiosity arises in early humans. Amongst traditional societies or hunter gatherer groups, it’s logical that acquiring information about the environment had adaptive value. Underlying a complex melange of behaviours such as finding somewhere to live, tool-making, using fire, feeding everyone, and locating somewhere to sleep each night, it’s a relatively simple algorithm: in a harsh environment, first and foremost, protect yourself, your family and your tribe. Then, within the constraints that need for security imposes, investigate the environment around you.
That’s an unwritten, but nevertheless universal script for success: Stay safe and secure. Then explore. Uncover information as you go. Learn about your surrounding ecosystem. Assess risks and opportunities. Distil the knowledge. Benefit from the exploration. Store up the experience for next time. Repeat.
Yet you can overshoot the exploration bit, and expose yourself to too much of a good thing. Being overly willing to pursue new knowledge or experiences—what we could label excessive adventurism—might mean depleting energy or resources in the pursuit of that novelty, or assuming overmuch risk and embracing real danger. Anxiety and even death can result if while you are on the prowl you fall into a hole, or run into a snake, sabre-toothed tiger or hostile band of marauders. On the other hand, failure to accept the urge to explore new things is to be bored, to stagnate, or to starve, and, if rats, sparrows and older people are a good correlate to everyone else, the less curious are destined to be more stressed, have worse quality of life, and to die earlier than others. There’s clearly a sweet spot.
For all that convergence of evidence, there is an important distinction. Rattus norvegicus and Passer domesticus are probably born curious or incurious. Homo sapiens can learn, develop and become more motivated, and interested. Humans have consciousness and agency. Our choice is, if we are not inherently inquisitive or born with a curiosity gene, to mobilise: to take the trouble to explore anyway. Each individual can decide whether to cultivate his or her innate wonder, and prime themselves for the curiosity bonus.
If, like me, you can’t help yourself, and always want to find opportunities to hone your latent or naturally-occurring curiosity, there are many paths to take. Being intrinsically smart is a good start. Raw intelligence has long been linked to curiosity and this shows, right across history. Brilliance and curiosity were always in partnership: think Plato, Julius Caesar, Hypatia of Alexandria, William of Occam, René Descartes, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Simone de Beauvoir, Margaret Mead, and Florence Nightingale, for instance.
The bad news is you can’t do that much about your set-point level of intellect. We can’t just go to the IQ store and buy more smart brain components, then bolt them on. Or take a pill for a Hollywood-style inspired intelligence surge like Bradley Cooper in Limitless.
But don’t give up. Anyone can deliberately raise their willingness to search for novelty, be persistent in seeking out interesting pastimes and people, and consciously be on the scavenge for good ideas. Cultivate a thirst for the new, I say. To increase our curiosity, amongst the best levers are reading widely, and sectioning part of every day to pursue some novelty—wherever it is your probing mind goes, or your heart desires. You can also travel more, to the extent you are physically able: whoever said travel broadens the mind knew what they were talking about, as foreign places are a great generator of new ideas and different thinking. And in the internet age, if you can’t travel because of age, lockdowns, social isolation or infirmity, it’s obvious: do this virtually. There are 200 million active websites, and growing.
There’s more. It’s probably wiser than you think when you meet an expert to ask questions, even if you worry that you might appear to be dumb. While on the issue of experts, don’t just talk to the narrow-cast pedants. You know the kind. Those who have accumulated unbelievable amounts about next-to-nothing. I know lots of these. Talk instead to the experts who are also dilettantes, connectors, eclectics, pansophics, adventurers, entrepreneurs, cosmopolites, mavens, influencers, networkers, or tertius iungens. I’ve long been struck by the linguistic fact that there are so many nouns for wide-ranging intellectual explorers. Find them, talk to them, befriend them, hang out with them.
If you think about it, that linguistic profusion means that there are many people who are following in Leonardo’s footsteps all these centuries later. Maybe not as successful as the Medieval Master of Outrageous Invention, as I like to think of him, but committed to enriching—and even liberating—their imagination.
Penultimately, Todd B Kashdan and colleagues in the Department of Psychology at George Mason University in the US conducted a series of studies to create a curiosity questionnaire scale. They identified four types of people, on a continuum of highly curious to low: those who were fascinated (highly educated, perpetually enquiring, and with a wide range of interests); to problem solvers (independent seekers of information – the types who enjoyed being obsessed with cross-word puzzles); to empathizers (the generally anxious, stressed networkers who seek to show that their life is under control); and finally to avoiders (who lacked curiosity, had few passions and small-scale social networks). It’s patently clear by now to which group I think you should aspire.
A final point. There’s a lot of belief in ‘genetics is destiny’, and overly much made of the idea that by the time adulthood is reached, behaviour traits are fixed. These ideas inhibit anyone’s moves to be more curious. For older people, too, there’s too much emphasis on brain bootcamps, with lots of advocates encouraging everyone of a certain age to learn a language, take piano lessons, enrol in a bridge class, or do sudoku by themselves or play chess with a friend. That’s fine as far as it goes, but the point I’m making is that these pursuits don’t of themselves sharpen anyone’s curiosity. They may keep an ageing brain more active than it would otherwise be, and be enjoyable stimulation. They may even forestall cognitive decline amongst ageing cohorts.
But unquenchable inquisitiveness, what I’m interested in, is a different thing entirely from doing healthy brain-ageing activities. If you’ve got the itch, or want to accelerate it, this website’s compendium of ideas is a great place to keep coming back. It might not make you into the genius that was Leonardo da Vinci, but it will strive to provide a plurality of topics, and offer ways for you to increase the range and depth of your interests.
You might move from being an avoider, empathizer or problem solver to one who is perennially captivated by the rich, buzzing profusion of the world we inhabit. And if you do, or are already inclined to be fascinated, then do enjoy the curiosity dividend that Naturally Curious helps provide.
Video of interest (1:19):
Cavigelli, Sonia A., and McClintock, Martha K. (2003). Fear of novelty in infant rats predicts adult corticosterone dynamics and an early death. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100(26), 16131-16136.
Cavigelli, Sonia A., Yee, Jason R., and McClintock, Martha K. (2006). Infant temperament predicts life span in female rats that develop spontaneous tumors. Hormones and Behavior, 50(3): 454-462.
Crow, Jonathan (2014). Leonardo Da Vinci’s To Do List (Circa 1490) Is Much Cooler Than Yours. Open Culture. December 2. https://www.openculture.com/2014/12/leonardo-da-vincis-to-do-list-circa-1490-is-much-cooler-than-yours.html
da Vinci, Leonardo, and Suh, Anna, ed. (1490; 2013). Leonardo’s Notebooks: Writing and Art of the Great Master. Boston, United States: Little Brown.
Kashdan, Todd and Steger, Michael. (2007). Curiosity and pathways to well-being and meaning in life: Traits, states, and everyday behaviors. Motivation and Emotion. 31, 159-173. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-007-9068-7.
Kashdan, Todd. (2004). Curiosity. In C. Peterson & M. E. P. Seligman (Eds.), Character strength and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press, 125-141.
Martin, Lynn B., and Fitzgerald, Lisa (2005). A taste for novelty in invading house sparrows, Passer domesticus. Behavioral Ecology, 16(4), 702-707. https://doi.org/10.1093/beheco/ari044
Swan, Gary E., & Carmelli, Dorit (1996). Curiosity and mortality in aging adults: A 5-year follow-up of the Western Collaborative Group Study. Psychology and Aging, 11(3), 449–453. https://doi.org/10.1037/0882-79184.108.40.2069
Taine, Hippolyte (1866). Voyage en Italie. Paris: Hachette.
Wai, Jonathan (2014). Seven Ways To Be More Curious. Psychology Today. July 31. https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/finding-the-next-einstein/201407/seven-ways-be-more-curious