Intellectual curiosity: A deep dive into the power of the inquisitive mind

Image of a cat peering over a surface demonstrating intellectual curiosity.

Key takeaways

  • Intellectual curiosity provides opportunities for personal growth and development.
  • Genuine curiosity fosters empathy and helps build social connections.
  • Intellectual curiosity aids memory retention and enhances our ability to learn.
  • Mindfulness and curiosity go hand in hand, leading to a greater appreciation of life.
  • Intellectual curiosity helps individuals stay young by fostering a sense of wonder and novelty-seeking behaviour.

Since the beginning of human history, somewhere in the realm of 300,000 years ago, intellectual curiosity has paved the way for some of man’s most innovative and transformative discoveries. From the advancements that homo sapiens made in tool design right up until our recent advancements in renewable energy. With so much more information available at our fingertips now than ever before, you could say that we have no excuse for not exercising it.

However, curiosity has been historically cautioned against; think of the common phrase ‘curiosity killed the cat’ which, essentially implies that there’s a danger to unnecessary investigation. Just in researching this blog, I’ve compiled lists of prominent figures whose exercise of curiosity through asking questions and positing theories resulted in their forced exile, or worse, death. Take for example, something we now take as a non-negotiable fact; that the moon is made of rock. The Greek philosopher, Anaxagoras, was the first to come to this realisation after spending his entire life obsessively experimenting with different models to explain cosmology. Unfortunately, this contradicted the dominant view at the time that the sun and moon were gods, so poor old Anaxagoras was chased out of his city, never to return.

However, the intention of the blog isn’t to scare you out of thinking differently by sharing my VERY long list of persecuted thinkers, quite the opposite.

Today is Darwin Day, a celebration of the man whose curious and rigorous mind led him to develop the theory of evolution — an idea that changed the way we see the world. So, to mark the day let’s define what we mean by ‘intellectual curiosity’ and explore why it’s one of the most powerful qualities that a person can have, why it’s development should be encouraged, and why we are challenged to exercise it.

What is intellectual curiosity?

Intellectual curiosity is the desire to learn more about the world and find answers to deeper questions. Intellectually curious individuals are genuinely interested in understanding the inner workings of various subjects and are driven to learn something new about how the world works.

Charles Darwin — a symbol of curiosity

Born in 1809, the British naturalist Darwin changed the way we see the world. Of course, he wasn’t always right, it’s not hard to find passages in ‘The Descent of Man’ which were dangerously wrong and worthy of condemnation. However, several of his conclusions were undoubtedly innovative and insightful. His theory of evolution was a vital step in our understanding of how biological populations change over time through ‘natural selection’. Many of his scientific insights have led to advancements in medicine and a better understanding of human behaviour and psychological adaptations.

Now let’s take a look at the many benefits of curiosity and why we should encourage it.

How can we benefit and grow from exercising intellectual curiosity?

1. The more you learn, the more opportunities you create for yourself

You never know where the simple act of following your interests such as; taking piano lessons, or developing your fitness through joining your local touch rugby team, will lead you. All types of learning can lead to social expansion and increased brain activity which, in turn, can lead to surprising discoveries. Take, for example, Henri Rousseau, the 19th century French impressionist painter. He was entirely self-taught. In fact, he worked as a customs officer and had no formal art education but, out of curiosity, he started painting as a hobby in his early 40s. His unconventional approach to painting, which was not constrained by academic rules, led to the development of a distinctive artistic voice and contributed to the emergence of the modernist movement.

2. Intellectual curiosity and mindfulness go hand in hand

In the words of Elisha Goldstein, author of The Now Effect, “Curiosity leads the mindful person to get back in touch with the wonders and possibilities of life.”. For Goldstein, mindfulness involves training the mind to be curious about life itself. This involves finding the unfamiliar in the familiar and recognising a strong desire to explore, even in areas where one may think they already have sufficient knowledge.

3. Intellectual curiosity aids memory retention

There is strong evidence that curiosity aids information retention and our ability to learn. A study published in the journal Neuron suggests that if curiosity is sparked, it enhances learning via increased attentional processes during information seeking and retention via enhanced memory.

Furthermore, a neurological study has shown that curiosity makes our brains more receptive for learning, and that as we learn, we enjoy the sensation of learning, which in turn, leads to us wanting to learn more and more.

The value of these skills in the workplace is being explicitly recognised by organisations and think tanks. For example, The world economic forum’s future of jobs 2023 report finds that curiosity and lifelong learning are personal skills that will grow in demand in the coming years.

4. Curiosity helps you to stay young

Research has indicated that curiosity helps individuals stay young by fostering a sense of wonder and novelty-seeking behaviour. I see this in my grandmother who, at age 94, because of her drive to learn new things and be exposed to new perspectives, has meaningful friendships with people 40-50 years younger than her. I believe that her curiosity about the experiences and beliefs of those she encounters keeps her invested in the changing world around her (as well as being of practical benefit because she now has a social circle who are much more physically able than her and therefore able to help her with a cheeky task here and there like getting up a ladder or pulling weeds…very clever).

5. Genuine curiosity fosters empathy

The greater good science centre at UC Berkeley has highlighted that curiosity is linked to psychological, emotional, social and even health benefits, including expanding empathy. When we exercise curiosity through connecting with others outside of our usual social circle, we become better able to empathise with those who have lives and worldviews significantly different to our own.

Curious people are also rated more positively in social interactions. Unsurprisingly, we tend to favour building connections with people who show an active interest in our lives and ask meaningful questions. Therefore, as well as building your empathetic muscle, curiosity is a trait that aids social closeness and helps you foster intimacy with new people.

The concept of enhancing empathy through curiosity has been explored by the Harvard Business Review in their ’Business case for curiosity’ in which Francesca Gino shares her research findings based on surveying 3,000 employees across various industries. Francesca found that teams who valued curiosity demonstrated greater empathy which, in turn, reduced the potential for conflict. These teams tended to put themselves in other peoples’ shoes as part of their decision-making process, to understand the lived impact on those other than themselves in their choices.

Well, this all sounds extremely valuable, no? So, what’s preventing us from flexing our curiosity?

Challenges to being curious

1. We are change averse

Curiosity makes people uncomfortable because people tend to resist change. If the essence of your curiosity is questioning existing structures and ways of thinking, then you may well experience blowback. People often feel uncomfortable when their beliefs or assumptions are challenged by new perspectives. Darwin himself was no stranger to this as his theory challenged the religious and scientific views of his time. In proposing a theory which posited that the diversity of life could be explained by natural processes, rather than divine intervention, he sparked a controversy. Henry Cardinal Manning: England’s highest-ranking Catholic official denounced Darwin’s views as “a brutal philosophy — to wit, there is no God, and the ape is our Adam” whilst in 1860 at a debate at the Oxford University Museum Samuel Wilberforce, the Anglican Archbishop of Oxford,  condemned Darwin’s theory for directly contradicting many of the core teachings of the Christian faith. In many ways, Darwin was joining a lineage of revolutionary thinkers who had felt the consequences of their innovations such as Socrates and Galileo who were, respectively, sentenced to death by drinking poison hemlock and threatened with burning at the stake, as a result of their status quo busting beliefs.

2. An overreliance on instantaneous results

Coming back to the present day, our ability to exercise curiosity is challenged by our prioritisation of immediate answers over questions. Our constant access to technology has acculturated us to seeking quick solutions rather than formulating deeper questions. This is compounded by the time scarcity that so many of us experience day to day. Busyness seems to be a key characteristic of modern life as well as a glorified status symbol. The fear of missing out (FOMO) and the influence of digital culture, which promotes constant connectivity and the expectation of immediate responses, act as a barrier to taking the time to get curious about a subject.

3. Systems that reward conformity

I would also argue, and I’m not alone in this, that the institutions we operate within, have a tendency to reward conformity. I recently co-designed a new workshop on innovation for VTT and during the research phase I got really stuck into the work of Sir Ken Robinson, who was a professor of education who sky rocketed into public consciousness through his famous TED talk ‘Do schools kill creativity?’. Throughout his work, Sir Ken argued passionately that the assets of creativity and curiosity must be nurtured in children but that our school system tends to do the opposite. What we often find in classrooms is that we are predisposed to look for a single solution to a single problem (e.g. What is 10 x 7? What is the capital of Spain?). I remember how much of my educational experience was predicated on being able to learn the right answers to pre-established questions.

In many ways, this runs contrary to the nature of intelligence, which is dynamic; we think about the world in all the different ways we experience it and, as such, we devise with a variety of explanations and questions. When I look at my niece, who is five, I see how willing she is to take a chance, how she has absolutely no fear of being wrong and questions everything. For me, she is an example of how our natural state, is one of pure inquisitiveness, curiosity, and experimentation but our surroundings sometimes knock this out of us.

Final thoughts

Despite the barriers that exist and prevent us from exercising our intellectual curiosity to the fullest extent, the ability to stay curious may be one of the most important assets we have.

Although technology and connectivity have changed our lives by giving us access to instant answers, we must be mindful to not habituate ourselves to just asking and receiving information. If intellectual curiosity is like a muscle, then we need to be sure we are exercising it. If we don’t, it might wither. And without it, we run a risk of not experiencing the world and all of it’s possibilities for learning, new answers and unexpected experiences.

Don’t take my word for it though — Albert Einstein famously commented on his own intellect “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious .”

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