What Curiosity Does to Your Brain and Your Relationships

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Curiosity sharpens our brain and warms our heart.

The passing on of information referred to as knowledge is what allowed us to pull away from the rest of the animal kingdom in the evolutionary process and become the civilized species we are today. Animals, unlike humans, do not pass on information to successive generations. Each generation must learn anew without the benefit of legacy.

By being able to gather information, share it, and then act on it, our species developed higher cognitive capabilities which promoted our rapid advancement. It was so important for our survival that it is now hardwired into our DNA. Believe it or not, the drive for information (i.e. curiosity) is on par with the drive for food or sex.

Curiosity Makes You Smarter

In a 2014 study scientists confirmed that when curiosity is activated, it triggers a part of the brain that is tied to intrinsic reward through a dopamine response. This, in turn, drives the desire to learn more. Curiosity begets curiosity. Further, curiosity is the catalyst for deeper and more effective learning. If a person is first curious, the information absorbed through that curiosity is better retained.

But as an added bonus, other surrounding content not specifically being studying is also more efficiently retained. As the study’s author Dr. Matthias Gruber stated, “Curiosity may put the brain in a state that allows it to learn and retain any kind of information, like a vortex that sucks in what you are motivated to learn, and also everything around it.”

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Suffering from Information Overload

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For many of us, this is good news or at least convenient because our quest for more knowledge consumes our present-day lives. We consume more than the equivalent of 175 newspapers worth of content, every day. In just measuring the consumption in our leisure time, that’s the equivalent of 34 gigabytes or 100,000 words every day!

From constantly checking social feeds to being sucked into the latest reality show, we are driven to need to know more. The ferocious appetite can get out of hand as there are only so many hours in the day. Instead of trying to cram in more, we need to stop and consider what’s the ultimate benefit of this — the constant skimming on the surface of knowledge. What are we left with when we know barely enough of too much information? Instead, we should be more judicious with our time and our attention span. To support this, it’s important to consider the sources of our information and aim for quality over quantity.

Receiving Quality Information From Our Fellow Human Beings

This not to make an argument about scrutinizing the caliber of content (even though that’s a valid discussion), instead, I wish to suggest that we turn from our screens and instead turn towards each other.

Every one of us carries a lifetime (no matter how long or short) of expertise, history, and insight that is rich and personal. Ironically while the big search engines are trying hard to serve up relevant content using an algorithm, the human being standing next to you with years of experiences, stories, and lessons will do a better job of it.

Our fellow human beings are such untapped information resources. I’m always surprised when upon meeting someone new, no one seems to have anything more to say beyond simple pleasantries. As far as I’m concerned everyone has a story to tell or expertise to share and it’s up to me (and us) to prompt them with the right questions. In just one conversation, I can vicariously live in another time, in another place, or with completely different life circumstances.

Living Vicariously through Others

Let me give you an example.

When I was in my early twenties I dated a guy whose mother participated in primitive pre-1840 rendezvous gatherings. What’s that you ask? Good question. You get bonus points for being curious.

They are temporary gatherings (lasting a weekend to several weeks long) of people who are living out American historical epochs from 1640 to 1840. They gather together and live as if it were that time. It’s truly living history. They set up camps often with authentic teepees and portray many different cultures and regions of early America, complete with authentic period dress.

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Through their dress, they personify roles from that era such as a fur trapper, a native American, a Longhunter. There is a rich sense of community with craftsmen selling various historical reproductions and musicians playing on instruments that are period dated. Other activities include tomahawk throwing contests, muzzleloading target shooting, and primitive cooking. As you could expect any form of technology at these gatherings is frowned upon.

Wow! Did you have any idea such things existed?

Neither did I. But at the time when I learned about them, it made me stop and consider that we all have myriad interests, talents, and experiences that we all have but don’t readily share. And when I say we all I mean you and me and the people in your life who you’ve known for years. If you dig a little deeper, your friends and family may have back stories that would amaze you. I found this out first hand at my mother’s funeral.

Uncovering Untold Stories from Our Families and Friends

I hadn’t lived in the same state as my mother for almost twenty years so I wasn’t very clued-in to her day-to-day social activities except for what she told me. She was a very private person and chose to nurture her relationships one at a time, giving them each the care and consideration they deserved. I only came to fully understand this when people from her varied social circles came up to me at the service and told me stories that absolutely dumbfounded me.

Me with my mother

Me with my mother

They spoke of her free spirit, her fun, her kindness, and her generosity. Each one had a humorous or touching story that made the loss all the more painful. In some respects, the woman they described was hardly the woman I knew. I knew my mother in only one dimension.

I didn’t know her as a volunteer, a neighbor, a colleague, a travel companion, a social confidant. Hearing these stories was bittersweet. It allowed me to see my mother in an entirely new light but it made me regret I didn’t have these experiences myself with her. Like a quilt, she was made up of different colors, textures, and patterns.

Everyone in your life has something interesting about them. Challenge yourself to find out what it is. It will reveal depths of your loved ones you never knew existed and may make you look at them in a whole new light. Quiet Uncle Joe may be the most fascinating person you’ve ever talked to.

What you learn may not be relatable to you (now) but look at it as an opportunity to learn something new. You will begin to appreciate how big and diverse the world is and what there is to gain from it. And it may just introduce you to not-yet-realized interests you never would have known of if you hadn’t had the curiosity.

Take Action!

When meeting up with old friends or family ask if there is something about them that you don’t know but would be surprised by. Sometimes this is something they need to think about because what seems like nothing to them would be absolutely fascinating to you. Ask about their upbringing, their first experiences, their work, their travels, their interests, their secret talents, etc.

What about yourself, what is something that friends, relatives, and strangers would be surprised to learn about you? Share with all of us in the comments below!