Stay Curious

It’s never too late to build and deepen our innate desire to learn and explore new things.


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As far back as African hominids 2 million years ago, curiosity has been the tool that has assisted us with staying alive. It helped us explore uncharted territories, find new food sources, and discover the best methods to communicate with each other. In these ways, curiosity became a critical skill for our survival, something that’s been passed down to us by our ancestors that is now encoded into our brain’s architecture. Today, we are all born curious, and scientists learned this by pulling back the curtain and examining what’s actually going on in our brains.

There are 86 billion neurons in our brains, which use over a hundred types of neurotransmitters, like histamine, oxytocin, and serotonin, as chemical messengers that trigger actions in other cells. Neurotransmitters provide a language for our brain and impact important functions like movement, memory, and regulating our heart rate. My absolute favorite neurotransmitter is dopamine. In fact, I love it so much that you might find me at a party standing on a chair and raising my glass “To dopamine!”

Many of us are familiar with its role in the reward system, motivating us to engage in behaviors that are usually important for survival. Whenever you eat yummy food, for example, your brain produces dopamine, giving you a heightened feeling of pleasure. That delightful sensation is how dopamine got its “happy hormone” nickname. It subconsciously motivates you to engage in the behavior of eating again and again, because food provides you with energy. Dopamine is also produced when you have sex, bask in the sun, or receive positive public recognition. These three behaviors are critical to our survival: Sex could lead to passing on our genes; the sun gives us vitamin D and regulates circadian rhythms; and praise is a sign that you’ve won the approval — and possibly the protection — of your group.

Turns out dopamine is all over our curiosity too. Through fMRI scans, researchers have found that dopamine is produced in our brains when we are in a state of curiosity. This means that, at a chemical level, we’re being rewarded for our exploration and information-seeking behavior. One study by cognitive neuroscientist Matthias Gruber found that when participants were curious, there was increased activity in the brain’s reward circuit, which elicited the kind of pleasure we’d experience while eating a tasty meal or after having sex. I don’t mean that curiosity is literally orgasmic — although if you find out how to make that happen, let me know — but that it produces a similar chemical reaction in our brains that motivates us to continue the behavior in the future.

Since curiosity is integrated into our brain’s reward circuit, this signals that it is a behavior that’s been favored by natural selection. Over time, having curiosity became a competitive advantage, passed down to the generations that followed. We see this in scientific research, such as in one study that observed that newborns spent more time looking at novel visual scenes compared to previously known ones. Since these newborns were expressing curiosity before they’d had the chance to learn this behavior from the people and environments around them, studies like these indicate that curiosity is something we are all born with, rather than something we learn over time. That said, just like we have to learn how to eat better or have better sex, we can improve at being curious, with time, practice, and guidance.

Smack dab near the midpoint between Iceland and Sweden, just on the outskirts of the town of Lancaster in England, there is a place called the Babylab. No, they do not create babies there; rather, they study them, led by researchers like Gert Westermann.

A prominent slogan hangs on the lab’s walls: Children Are Little Scientists. The lab’s researchers study children’s development, especially in the first six years of life, with a focus on how kids use their curiosity to learn things like speaking a language.

This is where Katie Twomey, now a researcher at the University of Manchester, shed her proverbial training wheels after earning her Ph.D. in psychology. In a bright room in the Babylab, Twomey could be found looking through a dark-paned one-way window — like the ones you see on Law & Order — to observe the way infants and toddlers explore language and their voice.

Since then, she has continued to study how curiosity drives language learning in kids, from how they make babbling noises to how they form concrete words like “Mama” or “Papa,” all the way until they begin to construct sentences like “Let’s build a giant tower!”

Through her research and observation, Twomey found that when kids “babble” — Dah! Aaaa! Wa-ow! Oooo-eee! — they are actually exercising their curiosity about their vocal anatomy. They explore different sounds and notice how some lead to distinct results. When a baby babbles “Wa-ow!” they notice that an adult says “Wow!” back to them. Now they’re getting attention, physical touch, and a smile. This praise releases dopamine (yep, it’s everywhere!), motivating them to continue this exploration of their vocal cords and building an understanding that the way they use this part of their body has an impact on how others may treat them.

Infants are hungry to take in the world around them, listening to the sounds coming from the people who converse with them or with others in real life. This helps children turn their babbles into words and then, eventually, sentences. That’s why talking to children matters: It helps them with processing and building vocabulary. When you watch this unfold before your eyes, it produces a sense of awe. If you’re watching closely enough, you’ll see how children use their curiosity as an instrument for learning and growth.

While kids get a knack for languages because of their curiosity, it plays a much broader role in a child’s development beyond communicating. In those critical years of early childhood, kids must sort out what is threatening and what is not, how to crawl and then walk, and how to be social. They’re constantly asking questions, because curiosity is key to their evolution. If you’ve ever spent time with a five-year-old, you’ll know their favorite word is often why. It’s what powers their obsession for certain topics, like the TV show Bluey, dinosaurs, all things Egypt, or marine animals.

For this reason, as we grow up and become more certain about the world, most of us leave curiosity to the children. The problem is, research shows that curiosity is critical for learning. In fact, a meta-analysis of dozens of studies and over one million participants found that we actually get more curious as we age into adulthood and middle age, and even as we become elders. The only slight decrease in curiosity happens as our cognitive faculties decline, such as when we are nearing death. Therefore, that widely held idea that kids are more curious than adults — because they ask more questions than us — is actually a myth! Whether it’s finding a job, listening to other people’s stories, or exploring ways to solve problems, we are constantly generating new thoughts and asking small and big questions — curiosity is our partner in life that never leaves our side.

Curiosity’s role in learning powers our knowledge-work society, encouraging us to read books and take classes long after our school years. Scientists and researchers rely on it for research and discovery. Entrepreneurs and inventors leverage it to come up with new ideas, with recent studies finding that curiosity is a predictor of entrepreneurial and workplace innovation. It plays an important role in creativity as well, with studies showing a correlation between curiosity and creative behaviors, and asking open-ended questions to get to better results in creative endeavors.

That’s why the misconception that curiosity is just for kids, or just for the creatives among us, also needs to be challenged. Curiosity is something that grows inside all of us. Although research shows that our dopamine declines by 6.6 percent per decade of life, which might explain why our learning can reduce with age, there are many elders who demonstrate that curiosity fuels lifelong learning — fighting against the pervasive narrative that the majority of our growth happens before the age of 30.

It’s not unusual for elders who age into their nineties or hundreds to tell us they’re still kicking because they’re engaged in life and the world around them. Personally, I think about my mom, in her 70s, who spent the past few years learning to belly dance on Zoom, taking extension classes at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, and joining a hiking club for the first time in her life.


Scott Shigeoka is a curiosity expert and speaker, known for translating research into strategies at the UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and through his popular courses at the University of Texas at Austin.

Excerpted from Seek by Scott Shigeoka. Copyright © 2023 by Scott Shigeoka. Reprinted with permission of Balance Publishing, an imprint of Hachette Book Group. All Rights Reserved.

This article is featured in the May/June 2024 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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  1. You make a lot of great points here I can definitely relate to, Scott. The magazine (and this website) certainly contributes to my learning about people, places and things (not mutually exclusive from one another), I didn’t know about and am glad I do now.

    Staying curious is largely about learning. Information you WANT to learn; not obligated to, as in (say) passing tests in school. Curiosity is wonderful, but also requires common sense like everything else.


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