Curiosity is good for your health. It’s good for your mind. Curiosity is the basis of creativity and innovation. It encourages personal growth. It is the foundation of an open mind.
We are born with it, but as we age, many factors will play a role in trying to limit our natural curiosity. And, as we age, we become less curious and more stuck in place.
“Curiosity, although it declines with age, plays an important role in maintaining cognitive function, mental health, and physical health,” an article in the Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews says. At the same time, it says that as people age, they become less curious.
Our fading curiosity isn’t only a matter of getting older, a reality we can’t control; it is also due to our losing motivation to explore new thoughts or question those we already hold, something we do have control over.
“In place of passivity, curiosity sparks an active mind. Continuously asking questions and seeking answers keeps the minds of curious individuals engaged. Like a muscle that strengthens through regular exercise, mental exertion due to curiosity enhances our intellect,” Francesco Nox writes on Medium’s website.
“Curiosity also injects excitement into your life. Far from mundane or monotonous, curious people constantly find themselves drawn to novel experiences and challenges. Being curious promotes personal development, creativity and innovation. This is why it is crucial to nurture curiosity and never stop discovering things,” he writes.
But curiosity also introduces us to challenges to our current thinking, making us uncomfortable when what we read and hear doesn’t conform to closely held beliefs.
To be curious implies having an open mind.
We’ve known for centuries that openness to change is at the heart of progress. More than 1,900 years ago, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote: “If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”
But the harm isn’t limited to self. It spreads in a family, a community, and a nation.
Curiosity leads to questions about your beliefs and makes you think more deeply about them, either to justify holding them or to motivate you to reexamine them, tear them down, and rebuild them with a stronger foundation.
When we stand on solid ground, when we can clearly and reasonably explain why we believe the way we do, questions are not a threat. They do not demand a vehement and angry response. For too many today, an open mind has been replaced by passion built on prejudice, ignorance, and a lack of empathy.
Today, empathy and compassion are fading, replaced by rigid tribalism and fanaticism. “I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization,” the late writer and movie critic Roger Ebert said.
Empathy is built on understanding the challenges others face in their lives. It doesn’t excuse the behavior, but puts it in perspective and, in doing so, allows us to better address the root causes of many of our challenges today.
How often do we ask if what we read, see, or hear is true? How do we process information that pokes at the holes in our beliefs? Curiosity is a dangerous thing for a closed mind; it can unsettle our comfortable certainty.
A fixed mind is a brittle mind. Rather than having the flexibility to consider new ideas in a changing world, it fights them. When we apply old thinking and habits to a changing world, we are bypassed. In nature, those who can’t adapt become extinct.
“Despite my firm convictions, I have been always a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it,” Malcolm X wrote. “I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth.”
When curiosity dies, so does our critical thinking and potential for growth. Some never have to think, never justify, so confident are they in the superiority of their beliefs.
“The essence of the way zealots think about the world is polar: good and evil, holy and profane, them and us,” Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Anna Quindlen writes. We have too many zealots today.
Those with rigid beliefs can see those who don’t share their worldview with contempt. Contempt dehumanizes others, stripping them of compassion and potentially leading to justifying violence.
We believe what supports our beliefs even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Such thinking can lead society down dangerous paths.
We are much more inclined these days to punish those who don’t think like us than an understanding that leads to empathy, compassion, and acceptance that those whose ideas differ from ours are still good people.
We understand that some ideas and beliefs are inherently destructive, violent, or malicious and that there is no room for compassion or acceptance.
Beliefs are important to identity, our status in our tribe, and our sense of self-worth. When curiosity is stunted to preserve that sense of worth to our tribe, it is hard to be open-minded.
Curiosity leads us down unexpected paths that can lead to discovering new ideas if we are receptive to them. But discovery, at times, means putting aside what we assume to be true in the face of new evidence. It means admitting we could be wrong.
“Every now and then a man’s mind is stretched by a new idea or sensation, and never shrinks back to its former dimensions,” Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. wrote in the “Autocrat of the Breakfast Table.” Curiosity exposes us to new ideas, expanding our thinking – and making us healthier.