Curiosity: Our superpower for everything from breaking bad habits to overcoming anxiety

What is curiosity and how can we tap into its power to break bad habits?

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” – Albert Einstein

“Curiouser and curiouser” – Alice, in Lewis Carroll’s Adventures in Wonderland

In 2007 New York City did something radical, which was so effective it has become commonplace across the country: it installed train arrival “countdown clocks” to most subway and train stations, allowing passengers on these routes to see train arrival times using real-time data.

In a New York Times article announcing the arrival of these clocks, 13 year old Damian Scipio, who was on his way home from school, noted, “It doesn’t get you that anxious because you don’t know when the train’s coming and you think it’s going to come in an hour but it’s really five minutes away.” Was it worth the initial $17.6 million investment (plus subsequent costs for rolling it out on a larger scale)? You bet.

In fact, the city knew something about how we learn, and leveraged that knowledge to ease our minds and our commutes. Now, a new science of curiosity reveals how we can take this a step farther, explaining why we get sucked into an endless newsfeed scroll-a-thon on our phone or go down the rabbit hole of exploration on an internet search. This has everything to do with tapping into our innate drive for information, and how uncertainty urges us to action.

In fact, knowing a few key essentials about how our brains get curious can help us harness its power to supercharge learning, break bad habits, and even live happier, more engaged lives.

You were born with curiosity

Curiosity is an innate natural and universal capacity that we all have. It naturally blossoms when we are children. When we can tap into our own curiosity, it helps us discover how the world works, drawing us in with a childlike fascination. Leon Lederman, who was director of Fermilab and won the 1988 Nobel prize in physics, said:

“Children are born scientists. They do everything scientists do. They test how strong things are. They measure falling bodies. … they learn the physics of the world around them. They are all perfect scientists … They ask questions, they drive parents crazy with why? Why? Why?”

Yet not all curiosity is created equal. And as adults, we often struggle with trying to tap into that wonder state that we had as a kid that feels so good; it gets overrun by a different type of curiosity, one instilled by instant access to information and goaded on by Google. Yo-yo Ma, a pioneer in music (and cello virtuoso), who said, “I’m the curious kid, always going to the edge.” How can we channel his inner kid to awaken our inner explorer?

Knowing how curiosity works from a brain perspective is the first step to reawakening our childlike fascination and tapping into its potential.

Curiosity comes in two flavors: pleasant and unpleasant

In 2005, the psychologist Jordan Litman named two main categories or flavors of curiosity, which he called I-curiosity and D-curiosity. The I curiosity stands for interest, the pleasurable aspects of the hunger for knowledge. On the other hand, D curiosity stands for deprivation and fits with the idea that if we have a gap in information, we develop a restless, unpleasant need to know state.

In other words, curiosity, that drive state for information, can be both an induction of a pleasant state or a reduction of an aversive state. Our curiosity can come online both through joyful interest, and wanting to be rid of the unpleasant feeling of not knowing something. Let’s look at an example of each of these to make sure you can see the difference between them. Let’s start with D, or deprivation curiosity, because it is the simpler of the two to understand.

Deprivation curiosity: the closed-down, restless, need to know itch that must be scratched

Deprivation curiosity is driven by a lack of information, often a specific piece of information. For example, if you see a picture of a movie star or someone else who is famous, and you can’t remember her or his name, you might start racking your brain to remember who that is (“Oh, she was in that romantic comedy…the one where she…Urrgh what is her name!”). You are uncertain about or deprived of that piece of information. You might even notice that you go into a little bit of a contracted state as though you are trying to squeeze that answer out of your brain. If the squeezing doesn’t work, you google the movie that you saw them in so you can find the answer. Oh right you think, when you see their name, and you feel a bit of relief because you are no longer deprived of that information. This extends to texting and social media as well. What’s it feel like when someone sends you a text, but you can’t check your phone right away. If you are in a meeting or out to dinner, its as though the fire alarm in your brain has suddenly gone off, and keeps blaring in your head until you check your phone. That fire of uncertainty is suddenly put out when you see who texted you.

Here’s another example: Think of what it feels like to be stuck in traffic and you don’t know how long the backup will last. You have a lot of uncertainty and are deprived of knowing, which usually doesn’t feel very good. This drives you to pull out your phone or google maps so you can learn exactly how long your wait will be. Once you know the answer, you feel a lot better. In fact, your wait hasn’t changed a bit, but your anxiety has been relieved simply by knowing how long it will be. You’ve filled that knowledge gap and reduced uncertainty. This reduction of the stress of not knowing is the reason that New York City installed digital signs in their subway system that told people exactly how long they had to wait for the next train. Ironically, people would rather know that the next train is 15 minutes away than not know that it is only 2 minutes away.

You can simply remember Deprivation curiosity as that restless need to know itch, that gets scratched when you get that piece of information. The relief of that negative state is in itself rewarding -it feels better when the itch has been scratched. Another way to remember this is that deprivation is about the destination. If we are on a long car trip and are tired or have to go to the bathroom, it feels great to get there. Getting a certain piece of information is like arriving at our destination. We’ve got it. We’re all set. We’re done.

Interest curiosity: the opened-up wide eyed wonder of discovery

Now let’s look at I or interest curiosity. This type of curiosity is piqued when we become, well, interested in learning more about something. Usually this isn’t a specific piece of information (like the movie star’s name), but a broader category. For example, did you know there are animals that keep growing in size until they die? Does that pique your curiosity? Well in fact, it turns out that there are a bunch of animals that keep growing and growing until they die. They are called indeterminate growers, and include sharks, lobsters and even kangaroos. In fact a 20 pound or 9 kg lobster was once found and believed to be 140 years old based on its size. That’s one big old lobster! Hmmmm, how old would Jaws have been based on his size…

With interest curiosity, think of getting fascinated with a topic, diving into an internet search and waking up 4 hours later, having quenched that thirst for knowledge. It feels good to learn something new. This is different than having a deficit being filled because there wasn’t a deficit there in the first place per se. When we’re out exploring nature or learning something new, there isn’t a particular place that we’re trying to go. We’re just out exploring. It’s about the journey more than the destination.

Pop quiz: why do TV shows have cliff hangers? To drive deprivation curiosity -we have to know what happens, so we binge watch! Game of Thrones was so wildly successful with this approach that it has almost become a norm.

So you can hopefully see by now that deprivation and interest curiosity are different both in their focus (D-curiosity tends to be focused on specific information while I-curiosity is broader), but also in their flavor. In other words they have a different taste or feel to them. D-curiosity is more of that closed-down, restless itch to be scratched, while I-curiosity has a more open feel to it. At it’s extreme, I-curiosity is that wide-eyed wonder that draws us to explore.

Why are we curious to begin with?

Speaking of exploration, now that you have the basic flavors down, let’s explore some of the evolutionary origins of curiosity, or at least some speculation on why we have curiosity in the first place.

Let’s start with the flavors and feelings associated with D and I curiosity. With D-curiosity, uncertainty or being deprived of a piece of information feels bad. Reduction of that uncertainty feels good. With I-curiosity, the act of exploration in itself feels good. And this fits pretty well with what we know about how the brain learns through reinforcement or reward-based learning. Both types of curiosity can be rewarding, yet in different ways.

Reward-based learning is based on positive and negative reinforcement. You want to do more of things that feel good and less of things that feel bad. In fact, this ability is so important and evolved so far back scientists can see it in sea slugs -organisms with only 20,000 neurons in their entire nervous system (a discovery so big, that Eric Kandel won the Nobel prize for this).

Back in caveman days, this was really helpful. Since food was hard to come by, if we see some food that looks good, our brain says calories, survival! And we eat the food. We taste it, yummy, and especially with sugar, our brains release a chemical called dopamine that says: remember what you are eating and where you found it. We lay down a context-dependent memory, and we learn to repeat the process next time. See food, eat food. Feel good. Repeat. Trigger, behavior, reward. Simple right?

This might also be the case with curiosity. Those saying “thirst for knowledge” or “hunger for information” may have something to them. In fact, the idea that curiosity lines up with reward-based learning has been supported by a growing body of research. In a study by researchers at the University of California Davis led by Matthias Gruber and colleagues, they had students go through a list of trivia questions and to rate their level of curiosity of learning the answer ranging from not caring what the answer was to “dying” to know. Not only did they find that dopamine pathways in the brain were firing with peak curiosity, but there was an increased connection between reward centers and the hippocampus, a brain area associated with memory. And ready for this? At those moments, their brains were primed to learn -not just the answers to their trivia questions, but anything. Gruber’s team tested this by presenting somewhat random information right after subjects were “primed” to be curious by trivia questions, and seeing how much people could remember months after the experiment: the subjects could remember more of the information paired with interesting trivia questions than boring ones. Based on these intriguing results, the researchers speculated that curiosity primes the brain for learning in general.

Another study, by Tommy Blanchard and colleagues looked at the brain regions associating reward value in the brain -the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). The OFC assigns value to different things. For example the OFC assigns different values to broccoli vs chocolate so that when we can make decisions based on these values (if given a choice, I’d pick chocolate over broccoli). Blanchard’s team wanted to know if the OFC assigned value to information in a similar manner. Does information actually have a reward value? Their studies showed that indeed it does -orbitofrontal cortex neurons activate not only for things like food and water, but for information as well! In fact, in studies of primates, Blanchard’s team found that primates were willing to give up rewards such as getting a drink of water when they were thirsty over information. Perhaps someone will take the next step in humans and see how much chocolate we would be willing to pass up in order to know when the next subway train is coming…

Together, these studies suggest that the saying “thirst for knowledge” really is more than metaphorical. Not only does curiosity follow the same basic behavioral pathways as reward-based learning (interest curiosity is positively reinforcing, and deprivation curiosity is negatively reinforcing), information also has literal reward value in the brain. And we can tell the difference based on the pleasant or unpleasant drive state. If we’re driven by an interest that pulls us in, that’s Littman’s I or interest curiosity. If we’re driven by the restless, itchy, need to know state, that’s D or deprivation curiosity. Both drive learning. They just feel different.

Curiosity: Internal rewards vs External rewards

Different flavors, different rewards, different results: deprivation curiosity is based on external rewards, interest curiosity is intrinsically rewarding.

Now let’s go even deeper. Deprivation and interest curiosity fall into different categories in terms of how they feel in our bodies -deprivation feels closed and interest feels open. What about their reward structure drives these behaviors? With deprivation curiosity, getting the answer is rewarding. That’s the destination. Getting somewhere. This is dependent upon something outside of ourselves. We literally have to get the answer. What drives interest curiosity? The journey itself. In other words, the process of being interested or curious is its own reward. This is really important so I’m going to say it again. With interest, the process of being curious feels good. It’s its own reward. This is critical for two reasons. First, we don’t need to get something outside of ourselves to get a reward, as in it is intrinsically rewarding. We can simply tap into this anytime we want. Second, because it is intrinsically rewarding, it doesn’t run out.

In other words, with I-curiosity, we never get bored of being curious. My lab is researching this but this hasn’t been proven scientifically yet, but I would guess that the quality of interest curiosity feeling open means that it taps into a different reward pathway than the classical dopamine pathway that depends on getting something. The dopamine pathway drives us to get things based on deficits. For example, we smoke a cigarette when we haven’t smoked in a while, eat a cookie or chocolate when we are stressed, begin to worry when we don’t have control over a situation, and do a google search when we can’t remember that darn movie stars name.

Deprivation = deficit-driven fact finding. Interest = joyful exploration.

The differences between the felt sensations of deprivation and interest curiosity are really important. With Deprivation curiosity, we start at a deficit, and are aiming to get back to baseline, or back to normal (whatever that is). With Interest curiosity, we’re moving from normal -as in, no deficit here – to joyful exploration and flourishing. Not only are we learning things along the way, but it feels good unto itself. Social media is a great example where we can tap into both types. We might be automatically, mindlessly, itch-scratching scrolling or using social media in a proactive way to learn new things. And if we don’t pay attention, we might not even notice that we are switching off between the two: scrolling until we find something interesting to read.

Now you might have noticed, that most of us transition from that wide eyed wonder of interest curiosity that we had so much of as children, to predominantly deprivation curiosity when we are adults. In fact, it might feel like we’ve lost that lovin’ feeling when it comes to curiously exploring the world.

This switch from Interest to Deprivation curiosity is probably pragmatic in nature: we don’t have time to stare at a blade of grass or a butterfly for 10 minutes. In other words, we know enough about how life works to get by, so we don’t step back to explore big questions that aren’t directly in line with getting ahead in life (or simply surviving). Instead, we are mostly driven by those moments when we want to know something specific, whether to wow our boss or friends with our wondrous store of knowledge (though Google has largely taken our trivial pursuit trophy away from us), or to scratch that itch of “I knew that!” when we have a brain fart and can’t remember something. And in the process of getting pragmatic, we may have lost something along the way…

Turbo-charging curiosity-driven learning: knowing too little or too much thwarts curiosity

How can we use what we know about curiosity to optimize curiosity-driven learning? There is an idea that can be traced back to Plato, which is that it is very difficult to become curious about something when you know nothing about it. Also, it is also difficult to get curious about something that you are an expert on or know everything about, as you may feel that there isn’t anything else to be curious about, at least from a deprivation curiosity perspective -no information gaps to fill.

As scientists like myself love to do, this can be graphed out in the form of an inverted U shaped curve. Imagine curiosity on the Y or vertical axis and knowledge on the X or horizontal axis. With very little knowledge, curiosity is also very low. As a little knowledge is known, curiosity goes way up until it plateaus, it hits the top of the inverted U shaped curve. Finally, as more and more knowledge is known, curiosity decreases, because information gaps have been filled.

How to find the sweet spot: staying atop the inverted U shaped curve of curiosity

This inverted U shaped curve makes a lot of sense. If we know absolutely nothing about a topic, we’re less likely to want to learn more. If we know a little, or learn some fascinating tidbit, we’re drawn in to want to learn more.

Let’s return to the previous example that I used for I curiosity -the question around what animals keep growing until they die. The first time I heard this question, I didn’t even know that some animals might not stop growing. I hadn’t thought to even think of this -my knowledge before this was zero, and so was my curiosity. As soon as I learned that this was even possible, my curiosity skyrocketed. The guy who mentioned this to me, Jonathan Schooler, actually studies curiosity in his research lab at University of California Santa Barbara. He used the question of what mammal grows until it dies, as an example of curiosity while giving a short talk at a think tank we were both involved in, so I had to wait until we could ask questions to get the answer. My deprivation curiosity was going wild. I was itching like crazy to know the answer. I was riveted until the question and answer period; my hand immediately shot up so I could ask. So, what mammal is it I asked? He replied that it was the kangaroo. Ahh, my curiosity was sated, and thus I didn’t think I wanted or needed to know more.

Ironically, when I was doing my own research on the origins of curiosity, I did an internet search for which animal keeps growing until it dies to confirm what Dr. Schooler had told me, not because I was curious, because my curiosity had been quenched when he told me. Yet, I didn’t specify mammal specifically. I simply googled “what animal grows until it dies.”

And that’s when I found out that there are a bunch of animals that keep growing -those indeterminate growers. My curiosity spiked again because I hadn’t known. But because this is a whole category of animals, this time it was my interest curiosity that was piqued. And I won’t tell you how much time I spent off on this tangent of searching the internet to learn all I could about indeterminate growers, but let’s just say it was consistent with an inverted u shaped curve. Learning a little got me curious to learn more until I thought I had learned enough, at which point my curiosity dropped off.

More is not better: when we are an expert on a topic, we’re less likely to be curious about it

Ok, so how can we harness this tantalizing tidbit of information about curiosity to help drive more curiosity and learning? Well as you may have already figured out yourself, having a little bit of information can help prime the curiosity pump. But what happens when we have too much information?

One reason that information might not make us curious is because it seems that curiosity seems to have a Goldilocks rule with regard to information. If we get a piece of information about something that we already know a lot, we’re already on the other side of the inverted U shaped curve. Our brain says meh, I already know enough about this topic, I’m not interested. We’re scrolling on social media, see a new article that we already know about and keep scrolling. Goldilock’s bed is too hard, so she moves on. On the other hand, if we get a piece of information about something that we know very little about, this can also not generate curiosity.

I’ll give an example, and then explain why this is the case. Let’s say that some mathematician comes running up to you and says she solved Fermat’s last theorem (which was actually solved in 1994, but for argument sake let’s say it hasn’t been solved yet). If you aren’t a mathematician, you might think, who is Fermat? What was his theorem? Actually, what is a theorem? Do I even remember how to solve an algebra equation? Even if you are a math wiz, you might think, if Fermat came up with this theorem in 1637 and it hasn’t been solved yet, this is probably something way beyond me. I’m not interested. I’d rather do a google search and learn more about what animals keep growing in size until they die, because at least I can understand that. Or we are scrolling on our news feed and see a story about some new physics breakthrough that explains something new about black holes. This can be like Goldilocks trying out the bed that is too soft. We keep scrolling. Why is this the case? It turns out that if the perceived knowledge gap it too big, instead of feeling curious, trying to imagine all that we’d need to fill it feels overwhelming and even be anxiety provoking.

Our brains need that perfect Goldilocks bed: too little uncertainty about something fails to provoke curiosity; too much uncertainty provokes anxiety. It’s that middle ground -where we know something, but not everything in a topic that feels within reach that creates and sustains curiosity.

We’re all curious about one thing: how our minds work

How can you experience and enjoy the benefits of I-curiosity? Well, becoming a scientist and researching the cosmos (or the brain in my case) is one way. But for all of us, there is a subject that we care deeply about, and which is always changing, so we never leave the top of the U -we’re always interested in learning more. That subject is our own experience. Most of us approach ourselves with D-curiosity, like a problem to be solved. We’re always looking for the missing piece of information that will give us the Aha! and “fix” whatever is wrong with us. But by applying some I-curiosity to your experience, it opens up a whole new world.

Ready for this? I’m going to suggest that you are at the perfect place to build and sustain curiosity about your mind. I’m also going to suggest that you are at the sweet spot for building interest curiosity -that open quality that feels good even more than building deprivation curiosity – that curiosity that comes from an information gap, that itch that needs to be scratched. And I’ll add that this is the perfect Goldilocks place to be in to optimally learn. Ready? Let’s go.

Ok, let’s start with the inverted U shaped curve. The topic is not math or astrophysics, which for most of us would create anxiety instead of curiosity because we know so little about these topics, but instead your mind. Even as a neuroscientist that studies the brain and mind, I’ll be the first to admit that we don’t know everything about how the mind works, so let’s narrow it down a bit so that information gap isn’t too wide. Let’s focus on something we all know from our own experience: how our mind creates habits.

If you have read my book, used one of my mindfulness apps, or even watched my short video on everyday addictions on my website, this is something you already know a bit about.

Even if you are still new to understanding how our minds work, simply focus on reward-based learning that I outlined earlier (trigger, behavior, reward). I’m going to suggest that this is enough information to be in sweet spot territory – moving up on the inverted U shaped curiosity curve. But I’m guessing you might not feel like you have mastered your mind yet to the degree where you always stop at one cookie or never get stressed or anxious. And you might have gone down a number of deprivation type curiosity rabbit holes, trying to fill that proverbial information gap of “oh if only I know every little tidbit of information about habits and how to break them, I will master my mind”.

The deprivation curiosity rabbit hole: information can prime curiosity but isn’t enough to make the itch go away

If it were simply a matter of more information, and that information was known, you would have found it by now -and I promise that I would have surely shared it with you if I knew it. But mastering your mind isn’t just about reading some manual. But some knowledge, like learning about habit formation, and how our brains learn via finding rewards and so on can not only get us interested and curious but it can also help point us in the right direction so we can fill in the gaps from our own experience rather than a book or a YouTube video.

I think of this as knowledge in the service of wisdom. The science from my lab and many others has laid out the foundational elements of how habits form, which is enough knowledge to put you in the sweet spot to get curious about your own experience, time after time, so you can develop that wisdom to know exactly how your own mind works, so that you can work with it. And you can probably also see how these specifically prime you to stay at the top of that inverted u shaped curve -getting more and more curious about what your habits are as well as becoming curious about what you can learn when you get caught up yet again in a habit loop.

Deprivation primes Interest. Interest primes itself

So let’s bring all of this together. First, it seems that there is a sweet spot for curiosity. Knowing too little about a topic that feels overwhelmingly big leads to uncertainty that can lead to anxiety or fear rather than curiosity. At the same time if you knew everything about habits and could start or stop habits at will, you would have filled that information gap to the point where you were no longer curious (and likely no longer interested in learning more). Second, you can use deprivation curiosity to catapult you into interest curiosity. Just like my example with mammals and animals that grows to unusual sizes, you can take a piece of information and help it foster your natural interest in learning more and more about a general topic.

For example, we all like to learn about ourselves, so see if you can use this information to prime your curiosity pump so that you get out there and learn how your mind works! See if this can start setting the habit of being curious about everything as a way of living a rich and fulfilled life -exploring life one moment at a time!

As Einstein put it, “Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day. Never lose a holy curiosity”


ps. if you are curious about the history of curiosity, and how it got associated with killing cats, read on…

A brief (not so happy) history of curiosity

Let’s start with a bit of history. As early as the garden of Eden story, curiosity has actually not been interpreted as something desirable. “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also to her husband with her; and he did eat.” This has been interpreted as their downfall through indulging their curiosity as a mark of discontent. In other words, it was seen as some drive to know more than that which was given by God’s providence. Eat some fruit, get kicked out of the garden. This is obviously not the best interpretation of the Adam and Eve story, but the point is that curiosity gets a bad name. In the 1600’s Thomas Hobbes, the famous philosopher described curiosity as the “lust of the mind” and Blaise Pascal added that curiosity is “only vanity.” As he put it, “we only want to know something so that we can talk about it.”

Cats have not fared much better. Where did the phrase curiosity killed the cat come from anyway? It wasn’t until 1868 that an Irish newspaper reported that “They say curiosity killed a cat once” which apparently cemented it as a proverb. In the 1902 edition of Proverbs: Maxims and Phrases, curiosity killed the cat is the lone entry under the topic of curiosity. For the record, the Washington Post did report in 1916 that a cat named Blackie fell and died after climbing up a chimney flue. Cause of death: curiosity…

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