Curiosity Turns Your Brain Into A Sponge (In A Good Way)

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If you’ve ever had the pleasure of trying to spoon-feed a toddler, you know that you have to dress appropriately - it’s going to be a mess. Something resembling a hazard suit might be the most appropriate, with plastic spread across the floor in all directions. Please do not attempt this without a water hose at the ready.

The effort itself doesn’t sound all that tough: put content on transfer mechanism, convey to recipient who then chews and digests it. That is the idea, at least, and some of that banana-carrot-mango-sauce might actually make into the baby’s mouth.

The excitement is that you never know what the intended recipient is actually going to do while you are trying to so hard to pass along your nutrient goodness. They may grab the spoon and wrench it from you, dumping it all over the place; they may turn their head suddenly and you just put pear-zucchini-mix all over their cheeks; they may just spit it all right back up for no apparent reason.

This may also describe the last meeting you attended in which you were trying to convey the next quarter’s goals, or a learning session that you thought would provide invaluable material. You came away feeling like there is more left on the walls than what people walked out with. In fact, just like feeding a toddler, it seems like the more you want it the more they are enjoying grabbing it from you and dumping it on the floor.

I have good news for you - curiosity turns your brain into a sponge (in a good way). Curiosity is a state of intrinsic motivation in which someone is expending effort themselves to learn something new. Interestingly, when being in a state of curiosity, you are soaking in whatever information is in the near vicinity.

Research published in the academic journal Neuron provides evidence that a curious state of mind improves how well we remember and learn for topics that were not even the main focus.Dr. Matthias Gruber, lead author of the study, gave some insight:

"Curiosity may put the brain in a state that allows it to learn and retain any kind of information, like a vortex that sucks in what you are motivated to learn, and also everything around it."

What they found is that being in a curious mindset feels very rewarding and helps us learn at the same time; amazingly, the brain is receptive to new content that wasn’t even the primary focus.

But you can’t be curious if you are also being spoon fed.

When we are trying to pass along information to team members, coworkers, students, or friends, we often want to provide the entire package of material because we are excited about it, and we don’t want any of it misconstrued. But if you are trying to pass along content that has both the questions and the answers to the participants, then there is no room for curiosity.

Ian Leslie, in his book Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, describes curiosity as a gap in the knowledge the drives people to explore. Humans, love stories, and if you leave part of a story undone then there is a need to finish it. Or to use another example: if you give people the punch-line without the pause, the joke will go flat.

And that is exactly what happens in many classrooms and workplaces. We struggle with the irony of curiosity - we often pass along all the information right away because we fear what may happen if people start to explore it on their own, and yet it’s that gap that creates the mystery that leads to engagement.

If you truly want participants or coworkers who are intrinsically motivated, then you need to create an environment that fosters curiosity. The beauty of this is that they will be learners, almost without realizing it. Here are a couple of steps to take.

1) Lead them to the edge

It’s hard to be curious about something you know almost nothing about. You may think cricket is the most amazing sport ever, but since I know very little it’s hard for me to get excited. If you gave me some interesting information that is linked to something that I already find interesting, then I’ll have enough to want to learn more.

2) Mind the gap

Lead the participants right up to the edge so that if they want to learn more then they have to jump in themselves. You will know you have it right if they start asking questions. Try using questions that puts the ball in their court, such as “What if…” or “How would this work if…” or “Why is it…”. And then stop.

If you truly want people to grow, then at some point you have to stop providing answers and help them ask questions. Sure, they may come up with something a little different then you would have, but if that’s your concern then just do it yourself.

Creating an environment for curiosity is possible, but you have to resist the temptation to shove your cranberry-sweet-potato-mush into their mouths and hope for the best. Maybe try a bite of your own recipe, let them see your reaction, and see if they reach for the spoon to feed themselves.