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Curiosity Allows Us to Focus Our Attention

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We're living in a society that encourages multi-tasking; all interruptions by phones, texts, emails or other 'luminous rectangles' are welcome and what's more make us feel warm and wanted. 'I'm busy, therefore I am' (a slight twist on the Descartes line). Brain research shows that rather than it being a great accomplishment of mankind to be able to 'juggle everything', it may actually scramble your brain. (Duh!) The part of the brain you need for learning and memory, the hippocampus, is only active during uninterrupted focus. Interruptions of attention impair learning so if you're trying to learn Mandarin while speed walking on a treadmill, forget about it; it won't stick. You need focused attention to grow neural connections in the hippocampus, that's how learning happens. Focused attention builds up grey matter in the brain, which increases the ability to remember, attend, inhibit and execute actions, no matter what age you are.

Learning to pay attention; to focus on what you want to focus on and not focus on what you don't want to focus on is the road to freedom. It allows you to see things as if for the first time and novelty is a component of happiness. If you actually taste, smell or touch something as if for the first time, you feel alive, excited and rediscover that sense of wonderment you had as a child when everything gave you a buzz. If you see the world through curiosity rather than a 'seen it, done it' lens the world could become more manageable.

As far as being human, this is what makes us superior. Sadly many people don't use their curiosity. They have it, but it has become obsolete. We are born with this feature, that's why when we're children, our hunger for information is insatiable, we don't even care what the story is, we just want to be stimulated. That is how our brains grow and how, as more and more neurons connect, we become smarter. Then comes school. The point of going is, hopefully, to ignite that nascent curiosity in more ways; history, math, religion, literature etc. Millions of years ago they didn't have school but it was a matter of life and death for the kids to learn how to make a fire, beat animals sense- less with rocks and wash their hands before they went to the loo.

These days, I feel that what kills the spark of curiosity is the fact that everything hangs on a grade. Nothing will burn out an interest quicker. I'm aware high grades get you into a great university where you will go to the best parties, but if you get hooked on this chasing the grade thing and (even worse) if your parents push you too hard, you might find that you get the habit of chasing a rabbit for the rest of your life, thinking that there will be some reward in front of you, always just out of reach. And when you conquer something, it might not be for the personal satisfaction of attaining a goal but rather for beating the competition. So curiosity goes out the window and competitive spirit steps in and you've gained a grade and lost out on the reason we're alive.

Most people don't ask questions and some of the most brilliant people I know (with IQs off the planet) have no curiosity and are therefore idiots.

I'm on tour with Sane New World until the end of May, talking about the brain and mindfulness.

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