THE CURIOUS BRAIN
As children, we learn everything from our instinctive curiosity. Watching, absorbing, listening, touching, tasting, copying, and trying over and over. We learn language; our curiosity is expressed in questions. How many parents and adults have been frustrated by the 58th “Why?” asked in a high-pitched voice by the toddler and finally answered with an exasperated response: “BECAUSE I SAID SO!”
In a More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger reports on research revealing that a child asks about forty thousand questions between the ages of two and five. The questions range from simple factual questions to requests requiring explanations. As this is happening, there is rapid brain growth -- about a quadrillion connection of neurons firing in a child’s brain. (That is 1,000,000,000,000,000.)
Curiosity is a key to kindness because it is the antithesis of quick judgement. Judgment seems to come naturally to adults and puts up walls between people. Often, we make judgments without having a complete picture. We judge mostly negatively. It may give us a sense of security because we can believe we have something to hold onto. Yet life changes, situations change, and people change. When we hold onto judgments, we often miss opportunities to learn and grow. While curiosity opens doors, judgment shuts them.
Curiosity implies we are open and willing to see things differently, to change our minds. How often have you learned that what you thought was a fact about someone, was wrong? I make assumptions about what my husband is thinking, more often than I'd like to admit. When I become curious and ask him why he is doing something, his response is always surprising. It has been a game changer for me and our marriage.
Being curious doesn’t mean being stupid or not taking a stand on an issue. If we are open and at the same time willing to take responsibility, we get stronger. I remember being terrified of having my own opinion as a young woman. I wanted to be accepted, so I didn’t want to stand out too much. I would cry in shame and embarrassment when I spoke in a group. It was so unfamiliar. Then I evolved and discovered I wanted to have an opinion and became hard-nosed and opinionated. I made assumptions and quick judgments about why you did what you did. At that time in my evolution, it was more important to be right and to fight! Not fun to be around. You can ask my brother.
I am asking you to become like you were when you were a child – a perfect scientist or anthropologist. As we get to middle school, children stop asking. When I was growing up, the teachers at St. Agnes in Carroll Gardens were not happy if you got out of line, height order or alphabetical order. You had to raise your hand and wait to be picked. You had to read the answer, memorize it and spit it out. There was no encouragement for questions.
At the time, perhaps it was best. What if they asked me what was going on at home? I never asked my mother what was happening; or my uncle what he was doing to me under the covers. Why did I feel so shamed and overwhelmed? As so many survivors of child sexual abuse know, often we do not say a word. What words would we say? At 8 years old, my curiosity was crushed; it was frozen solid. So much for the curiosity of children.
But now my curiosity has melted and with practice, it is my prized treasure. Why? Because it is a way into a new world. A world where not knowing is an asset. Being found out for what I think and who I am is the goal. It is the world I lost at the age of 8 and now have regained. I can look at a problem and ask lots of questions. I always learn something I didn’t know before. I always feel joy and gratitude! It’s a hoot, really.
CURIOSITY, DISCOMFORT AND THE FUTURE OF INNOVATION
Technological evolution will demand curiosity and that we be comfortable with the unknown. Kevin Kelly in The Inevitable predicts that the future promises to be a series of upgrades, revisions. As frustrating as it is to learn a new App, to enter yet another password or to understand how to use the latest means of transportation, the more curious and comfortable we are with learning, the more valuable we will be in the future workforce. One thing I am sure about is that the more we learn to live with discomfort the easier and happier our lives will be.
I believe curiosity is a skill that will support innovation, prevent overwhelm, stimulate knowledge, and be the cause and a conduit for enjoyment. Curiosity is a desire for knowledge fueled by inquisitiveness. It touches imagination. It asks us to be open to what we do not know. To be able to sit with mystery, vagueness and uncertainty. Live with doubt. That is not comfortable but vital.
HOW TO PRACTICE CURIOSITY
Start your day with a question. What can I be curious about today? When I am angry at someone, can I try to imagine what they are thinking? If someone is a jerk on the road, can I imagine what might be happening for them? You have heard stories where folks are suffering and unconsciously going about their business. Perhaps their child is sick; they lost a beloved pet, or a parent. Maybe they are just being a jerk, but isn’t that fascinating? Aren’t you glad you don’t have to be one in return?
Can I be curious about my own behaviors? Seeking new ways to look at problems. What if I just started exercising this week? How can I be an excellent mother today? What might surprise and delight my husband? What if I read the labels to see exactly what I was eating? Could I be curious as to where my food comes from? Can I imagine the people who grew it, packed it and drove it to my store? If you questioned what you thought, what you believed, your brain would love it – neurons would fire.
Remember Mr. Rogers? He taught us to be curious and was delighted daily. He took his job seriously but was not glum.
LET’S DO IT
What if we spent the month of January driving everyone crazy (including ourselves) with questions just like we did when we were 3 years old? What if we took nothing for granted for just a day without expectation, just for the experience of learning?
Thursday – January 5, 2016, 10am, Join me for a Facebook LIVE on - CURIOSITY