Daniel J. Levitin is a neuroscientist and cognitive psychologist. He is founding dean of arts & humanities at the Minerva Schools at KGI in San Francisco, and professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at McGill University. He is the author of This Is Your Brain on Music, The World in Six Songs, The Organized Mind, A Field Guide to Lies and, most recently, Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives.
Alexander Fleming, a bacteriologist, had a trait many would consider a deal-breaker for a job as a research scientist: He was famously messy. Instead of meticulously cleaning his labware and Petri dishes of the staphylococci bacteria he had been studying (the source of staph infections), he just piled them on a bench in the corner of the lab before leaving on a month-long holiday. When he came back, he found that one culture had been overtaken by mould, and that the staphylococci it shared the dish with had been destroyed. Instead of just cleaning up the mess, he was curious: What happened here? He cultured the mould and found that it had the capacity to kill a variety of bacteria. This led to the discovery and mass manufacture of penicillin.
"One sometimes finds, what one is not looking for," he later recalled. "When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn't plan to revolutionize all modern medicine by discovering the world's first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I suppose that was exactly what I did." (Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it also killed harmful bacteria, ushering in a sea change in how we treat disease.)
The developmental psychologist Jean Piaget described children as “little scientists who construct their own theories of the world.” This led Canadian developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik to propose that “it’s not that children are little scientists – it’s that scientists are big children.” Scientists, and I would add artists and entrepreneurs, spend a great deal of time exploring, playing, figuring out what the world is like. That curiosity fuels creativity and innovation.
All children are born with an innate curiosity. Unfortunately, many have it bullied out of them by parents tired of the incessant “Why? Why? Why?" or by teachers who are more interested in keeping order in the classroom than in educating. Just look at bedtime for a typical five-year-old. “It’s bedtime.” “Why?” “Because you need sleep.” “Why?” “Because you want to be fresh for school tomorrow.” “Why?” “Because school is important.” “Why?” The parent, irritated now, replies: “Because I said so.”
Curiosity is a trait that is partly influenced by genetics, and partly by environment, culture, upbringing and experiences. Like all traits, it’s unevenly distributed throughout the population, but having it – or cultivating it if you don’t – correlates highly with good health and long life. People who are curious are more apt to challenge themselves intellectually and socially, and reap the rewards of the mental calisthenics that result. They are also more likely to be interested and engaged in what others are telling them, which makes them more fun to be around. Interacting with others socially – in person – is a good way to stay mentally agile and alert and helps to boost the immune system. In fact, loneliness among older adults is one of the biggest risk factors for disease, as it compromises immune system function. (If you want others to like you, be interested, not interesting, a quality that derives from being curious.)
Don’t confuse curiosity with intellectual horsepower – they’re separate things. Raw intellect, without curiosity, can lead to overconfidence, and that can lead to a number of dismal outcomes.
IQ, one’s intelligence quotient, is a familiar metric. Increasingly, so too is EQ, the emotional intelligence quotient, thanks in part to the popular writings of Daniel Goleman. Cognitive scientists now talk about a third metric, CQ, the curiosity quotient. It predicts life success even better than IQ and EQ.
As you might imagine, there are limits. Too much curiosity can lead to negative outcomes, particularly when one doesn't assess any potential risks. Curious what would happen if you mortgage your house and bet all your lucky numbers on the lottery? The mostly likely outcome is you'll end up broke. (Curiosity needs to be balanced with conscientiousness and prudence.)
My friend Jeff is an avid bird watcher. Going for walks in nature (another activity that is neuroprotective) takes on an entirely different quality with him. Instead of just seeing little brown birds scurrying in the dirt, he’s taught me to see it as a rufous-sided towhee, or a reed warbler, or a hermit thrush. He bought me a book to learn about their habits and habitats. Now when we walk, his infectious curiosity enriches my life in many ways as I see friends in the park, not just nameless organisms. There are so many more birds to learn, more books to read, more songs to listen to and more people to meet. I sometimes have to fight against the complacency of just sitting at home in front of my computer. Or letting dirty labware pile up. But every time I fight it, I am richly rewarded.
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