The Dangers of Being Incurious

Though Carl Sagan didn’t actually say the oft-attributed words, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known,” he undoubtedly thought it. It is impossible to think of Sagan and not connect the idea of discovery and curiosity.

“Scientists are often described as being childlike and the archetypal example is Albert Einstein,” said physicist Brian Cox in Human Universe. “I think it means thinking with simplicity,” he adds, “following threads carefully and tenaciously… seeing where they lead, following the implications of thought through, and asking the question: why? why? why? why? It is having a mind uncluttered by the adult affliction of common sense.”

When we become adults, we are coaxed by social norms into being incurious. But the human brain doesn’t reward incuriosity.

Last October, for example, a study out of University of California, Davis and published in the journal Neuron (“States of Curiosity Modulate Hippocampus-Dependent Learning via the Dopaminergic Circuit”) set out to discover why some individuals retain information. Using an fMRI they were able to show that participants in the study “improved memory for information that they were curious about and for incidental material learned during states of high curiosity.” In other words, priming for curiosity improved their ability to learn and remember the less interesting bits.

In a statement on the study, psychologist Dr. Charan Ranganath of UC Davis says that “…curiosity recruits the reward system [dopamine], and interactions between the reward system and the hippocampus seem to put the brain in a state in which you are more likely to learn and retain information, even if that information is not of particular interest or importance.”

Dopamine, that fantastic drug dispensed by the pharmacy known as your brain and a motivator behind love, lust, and even addiction, becomes a tool for encouraging curiosity in the brain.

This has ramifications for successful teaching, according to the study. By connecting those things often considered less fun for students (like math) to something they are interested in (like being an astronaut), one can improve the learning of the potentially less attractive of the two subjects.

A significant ramification—one that stands out to me with a family member who is currently suffering from dementia—is connected to aging. “Given that healthy aging and several neurological and psychiatric disorders are associated with changes in dopaminergic function,” says the study, “it is possible that these conditions affect memory, in part, through changes in intrinsic motivation to learn.”

“Curiosity has its own reason for existing,” said Einstein. With this study we might be finally getting a window into those reasons. Curiosity has a biological advantage. Keeping a curious life — letting wonderlust lead you — and “following threads carefully and tenaciously… seeing where they lead” is rewarding.

Its importance and prominence among humans is one that undoubtedly fuels our success as a species, and incuriosity — apathy toward that unknown incredible something —  isn’t an option.