How Curiosity Makes Us Smarter

14/09/2015 17:44 | Updated 14 September 2016

What drives us to become more motivated, creative, or intelligent? These questions have plagued philosophers and scientists for thousands of years and they continue to fuel scientific investigation. Especially now, as we are confronted with increasingly complex problems. However, these questions are just outcomes of something more core: curiosity.

Acclaimed physicist, Richard Feynman, said "we investigate for curiosity, because it is unknown". This is in essence is the start of intelligence. It starts with wanting to know more and quenching our thirst for the unknown. We think it's worth understanding, especially in the context of attention and intelligence as brands are striving to make better innovations.

Curiosity is a complex system with neurocognitive, psychological, and biological mechanisms that result in behaviours like creativity and intelligence. Curiosity creates a motive for explorative behaviour, it propels us to go and "seek". This seeking behaviour can have both negative and positive outcomes. On the negative side it has been tied to impulsive behaviour like addiction but on the positive side, it is linked to learning and creativity.

The most interesting aspect of our relationship with curiosity is our thirst for it. In its absence we create activities which will induce it, such as mysteries and puzzles. In some cases curiosity leads us to seek things for no specific reason, like stopping and smelling a rose. There is not immediate use for it, but we are curious creatures, so we stop and take it in. It seems our brain plays a statistical game, the more we seek the more we are likely to run into something useful.

So how does curiosity relate to intelligence? Many studies have shown that when we are motivated we have a more heightened engagement with the subject we are learning. In other words the more curious we are about a subject the more it engages our cognitive functions, such as attention and memory. This allows us to have better encoding, retention, and recall of a subject. The better your memory of a subject the more you can use it to make associations in the future. Finally the more complex associations between diverse subjects you make the more intelligent your mental processes will be. For example, take a mind like Da Vinci, his curiosity knew no bounds and he was able to make vast associations between math, nature, and science to create masterpieces in design, art, and technology. His ability to recall and puzzle together varied information is what made him seem so intelligent.

Curiosity is influenced by the reward system, which is mediated by dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that influences many of our brain systems including cognitive, sensorimotor and limbic.

Both the anticipation of novelty and the interaction with something novel releases dopamine. The theory is that it engages one's reward system, in the same way that sex, love, or hunger does. The reward being a surge of dopamine! We need dopamine to work our muscles, for digestion, cognitive functions, we even need it to regulate appetite. So maybe smelling the rose has a role after all, it makes us feel good.

Curiosity's tie to our reward system makes us want to constantly seek it. That is why when we are bored, we will seek things out, our brains thrive on stimuli. This could give curiosity an interesting evolutionary role. As without the intrinsic need to seek we would not evolve. Curiosity gave us airplanes, better healthcare, and Picasso!

As we already mentioned, curiosity plays an intricate role in memory and learning, however there's still a lot to understand about how the hippocampus functions and its role in memory. Studies have shown memory and learning malfunctions when there is damage to the hippocampus. On the other hand rat studies are showing the ability of the hippocampus to regenerate itself and not being affected by lesions. However, we are beginning to understand that curiosity plays a key role on the effectiveness of the hippocampus.

If you are studying a subject that you have little curiosity for the encoding of that memory will be less effective than if you were highly curious about it. So, next time you want to learn something new, ensure that you really have a curiosity and passion for it.

Finally, the amygdala also plays a crucial role in curiosity. This a region in the brain that is part of the limbic system, which regulates emotion, immune system, and memory. Studies have shown that it plays a role in the mediation of emotion towards a novel stimuli. Furthermore, the process of curiosity could help mediate fear towards the novel.

Intelligence of course has many other other components, such as emotion and embodiment. However, the starting point seems to be that impetus to be more adventurous to go and seek, that starts with curiosity.