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How to Spur Your Creativity by Being Curious Again

A guide on what makes it so hard to be curious as an adult, why it matters for creativity, and how you can reignite your love for questions.

Photo by MI PHAM

When I was little, my grandpa fondly used to call me khakhoran, ruffling my hair with his playfully cocked eyebrows and a grin. The rough translation from Hindi would be “constant questioner.”

He was the kind of person who collected facts and historical dates for fun. He loved answering questions as much as I loved asking them. But I thought of him as a rare exception to the adult world. Most adults, I quickly discovered, hated questions.

Everyone from my schoolteacher to my fourth cousin’s neighbor’s aunt rolled their eyes when I asked “why?” Eventually, I stopped asking.

It’s a normal occurrence for kids around the world. Three-year-old children ask an average of twenty-seven questions an hour, but as those children go to elementary school, the number drops to three questions an hour. By the time they’re ten, the average number is virtually zero. And we maintain the flat line into adulthood.

But while curiosity may have killed the cat, it’s never killed a good idea. As speaker and author Sam Harrison says, “Curiosity is jet fuel for creativity.” By pushing yourself to wonder about things you don’t know, you relax your mind. When you come back and work, you’re able to see the familiar in unfamiliar ways.

“Curiosity is jet fuel for creativity.” — Sam Harrison

Why does our curiosity dip as we grow older? And how can we snap ourselves out of the adulthood slump and foster curiosity?

It all starts with chasing the right kind of curiosity.

Let’s say you hear someone say the word “skeuomorph,” a strange word you’ve never heard before. Immediately, the parts of your brain most sensitive to unpleasant sensations are on guard. They feel your uncertainty and they’re not thrilled about it. Your brain then primes itself for answers by alerting the regions responsible for memory and learning.

A skeuomorph is an object that imitates the design of a previous or similar iteration of itself. Your iPhone camera making a shuttering noise every time you click a picture is skeuomorphic. It’s a sound reminiscent of the handheld cameras that came before them. When you discover this fact, your brain retains the definition with heightened memory and sends dopamine messages to your body.

One study by Harvard data scientist Tommy Blanchard investigated the orbitofrontal cortex, a part of your brain that helps you make decisions based on perceived reward value (i.e., figuring out whether to eat brussels sprouts or a brownie when you open the fridge).

What are people willing to do for a bit of relief from their questions? A lot, Blanchard discovered.

His study found many primates willing to give up basic human needs, like a sip of water, in exchange for satisfying their curiosity. Curiosity has a very tangible reward in your brain. It might even be the reason you’re dehydrated all the time.

The problem is this process has been somewhat reversed by societal norms. There’s a common misconception that in order to be high-functioning, you need to have all the answers. It’s been instilled into our brains since our first elementary school teacher chided, “Don’t ask me dumb questions.”

Over time, this has programmed people to treat questions as a sign of stupidity. The famous French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, even described curiosity as mere vanity. So, how can we reclaim our curiosity?

There are two types of curiosity, according to psychologist Jordan Litman: D-curiosity and I-curiosity. D-curiosity comes from “deprivation.” This is the kind of curiosity you are likely most familiar with. It’s the feeling of discomfort you experience when you don’t know something, like the definition of a skeuomorph. When D-curiosity is satisfied, the reward is comfort. Think back to the last time you sat through a conversation and didn’t know what everyone else was talking about. Remember how you felt when someone finally filled you in? That was your D-curiosity being fulfilled.

On the other hand, I-curiosity comes from “interest.” This is the kind of curiosity you feel when you’re generally interested in learning more about a topic. There’s no deficit to fill because your goal isn’t to find something specific. It’s just to learn for the sake of knowing more. It’s the way you feel when you go down the Google rabbit hole of reading obscure articles about the history of ice cream trucks (trust me, I’ve been there).

To reclaim and foster your curiosity, you need to maximize the dopamine you get out of curiosity. You’ll find that high reward in I-curiosity. When you seek information without a specific end goal in mind, the dopamine released is higher. When your desire for knowledge is rewarded, you seek it more often, creating a positive feedback loop of curiosity. On the quest to become more curious, I-curiosity is your best friend.

If you don’t know where to start with I-curosity, try these 3 exercises:

  1. Be a Library Explorer: Go to your local library or bookstore and find the last book you read that you enjoyed on the shelves. Then count down 3 shelves, and pick up the 10th book on that shelf. Flip through it and see what sparks your interest. Repeat until you find a rabbit hole to tumble down.
  2. Embrace Your Past Self: What did you want to do for a living when you were five? Chances are, it’s wholly different from what you’re doing right now. Go back to that occupation and spend a day learning as much as you can about it and the industry around it. Let your mind wander through the familiarly unfamiliar subject.
  3. Soak in Discomfort: Think about something you hate doing because you’re bad at it. Spend an hour on the internet learning how to get better at it. Then, spend an hour practicing. Give yourself the freedom to be bad and know little.

When you are interested, you become interesting. Go out, ask questions, and create something new today.

Hi! I’m Vedika, the author of a book called Think Outside the Odds. Let’s stay in touch! Give me a follow here on Medium or subscribe to my newsletter.

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Vedika Dayal

Vedika Dayal

Author of “Think Outside the Odds” & student at UC Berkeley. Thinking about empowering the underdog and how we can all live more intentional, innovative lives.

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