“Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Through the Looking-Glass by Louis Carroll
One of the most important findings in the last few years regarding brain health is the benefit of being curious. Our brains seem designed to pay attention to novel things, perhaps out of a need to determine threat, but ultimately, apparently, purely out of curiosity. Like the Queen observed, however, it is much easier to be curious when we are younger. As we age, there is a tendency for some of us to fall back on habitual ways of thinking and experiencing.
The benefit of staying curious across the lifespan is that you get to engage with others. Sometimes others confirm and support your beliefs or ideas. In other cases, they may get your blood boiling because they challenge deeply held beliefs. Challenging your thinking is like going to the mind gym and lifting weights. It is a much more powerful boost to your brain health than just doing crossword puzzles. And it is so very easy to find challenges to our thinking these days! Just Google any topic, and you can find opinions galore!
Curiosity is more than just wanting to know something. It is also a way we manage anxiety states. For example, many of you have used the internet to do research on aches, pains, and diagnoses. Why? Because once we find others who have experiences that are the same as or similar to what we have, we feel better. Then again, sometimes we find information that makes us feel worse.
Still, asking questions and challenging your thinking seems to be a protective factor in brain health. Another aspect of curiosity is the personality trait of being open to new experiences. This trait is one of the “Big Five” personality traits (openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism). It is best described as an interest in new and different things. This can range from trying ethnic food to travel to exotic locations. It may include doing fun or sometimes scary things just for the thrill of it. It may also include the ability to easily see things from a different perspective and hold differing point of view without contradiction.
We often see this in people who are highly creative, are good problem-solvers, and who take risks. If you identify with these adjectives, then you can expect to continue to enjoy the benefits of curiosity. If you don’t, however, not to worry. Curiosity can be acquired and comes in amazing ways.
Finding something you love and doing it on a regular basis seems to light up the same regions of the brain that are lit up by those creative people. So if you love gardening, you probably look for and seek advice from others who share your love. You probably hunt through catalogs looking for different plants or vegetables. You probably check out sales at the local garden center. All of these things stimulate your curiosity.
Asking questions and talking with others also is an aspect of curiosity. There are some people who just love asking questions! Hopefully, that skill is balanced with listening to answers. Having a give-and-take dialogue about a shared interest, idea, hobby, or issue sparks different levels of engagement. The more active the engagement, the more benefit you receive. You can attend a lecture or concert and enjoy yourself. If you talk about it after with others and seek out information about the topic or the history of the band, you will get an even bigger bang for your buck.
Your brain literally lights up when it is faced with a problem to solve or a new experience to incorporate. But if the problem you are trying to solve is too difficult or doesn’t challenge you enough, your focus will drift away, and the benefit of curiosity will go with it. The greater your ability to pay attention, the greater your benefit from the experience. But if you are feeling afraid, or are sad, or tired, the experience itself will be tempered by your feeling unwell. This is true for any kind of painful experience. If you have poor or limited concentration because you are in pain all the time, your brain does not have the capacity to be curious for very long.
If you put this all together, you get a template for optimizing curiosity. It looks something like this:
- Interactions with others who challenge your thinking
- Openness to new experiences
- Attention (absence of distractibility)
- Pursuit of things you love
- Balance in activities and quiet time
One of the wonderful things about aging is that we have more time to pursue those things that we want to know more about. This isn’t a luxury! It is an essential strategy for staying cognitively and socially engaged.
A Word of Caution
It is easy today to go online and look things up on Google or Wikipedia or ask Siri or Alexa to handle finding what we want to know. Information is at our fingertips 24/7. The downside of this is not all information is accurate, truthful, or helpful. Many of us need to develop skills in determining fact from fiction. Truly being curious has at its most fundamental, the willingness to set aside prejudice. Critical thinking skills are essential in sorting through the avalanche of information out there on what is good for you and what is bad.
Use these skills, and stay curious! Your brain will thank you!