Curiosity is often regarded as a positive trait, associated with openness, optimism, resilience, and having good mental health. It has also been linked with longevity. Yet curiosity has its downside. After all, it is what killed the proverbial cat!
My curiosity was triggered when I read an article describing a research study on curiosity. So I asked the folks who came to my mindfulness meditation group that evening – “When you’re meditating, how does curiosity show up for you?”
Curiosity is key in cultivating an attitude of mindfulness. It’s often described in the mindfulness literature as an antidote to being judgmental, and is associated with openness and acceptance. Yet as a mindfulness teacher I’ve found that not every student embraces the process of “exploring with interested curiosity the sensations, emotions, and thoughts that are arising.” Indeed, some of my group members described experiencing curiosity in a way that makes them anxious or uncomfortable (“what does that sensation I’m noticing mean? Is there something wrong?”)
The research study (Kashdan et al, 2017) identified five dimensions of curiosity: Joyous Exploration, Deprivation Sensitivity, Stress Tolerance, Social Curiosity, and Thrill-seeking, which point toward different motivations for being curious. The first, fourth and fifth are pretty self-explanatory. Deprivation Sensitivity means wanting to know because not knowing is frustrating, creating a need to keep exploring until an answer is found. Stress Tolerance is the ability to tolerate the negative emotions that can arise from exploring the new, uncertain or unfamiliar.
Another curiosity researcher (Litman, 2008) proposed that curiosity exists on a spectrum, and identified two distinct types, deprivation-based and interest-based. D-type curiosity is not experienced as pleasurable, in fact it may be downright scary (think of the character in the horror movie who can’t resist the temptation to walk into the woods alone, or open the door to the cellar). On the other hand, I-type curiosity is usually pleasurable, associated with excitement or at least a sense of satisfaction (Eureka! I’ve figured out the space-time continuum!)
Scientists, whether physicists or psychologists, are driven by interest-based curiosity; it’s actually built in to the scientific method. Artists, from painters to musicians, are also driven by the joyous exploration of the new and different; curiosity is an essential element of the creative process.
Besides scientists, artists and cats, who are the most curious beings? Children, right? This suggests curiosity is a natural-born trait, and therefore that it has a survival function. Indeed, curiosity drives kids to explore their environment, test limits, figure out how things work, meet new people, and discover new opportunities, all of which lead to competence, mastery, and brain development.
Curiosity-driven growth can continue throughout our lives. In a study of over 2,000 adults aged 60 to 86 who were carefully observed over a 5-year period, those who scored higher on curiosity at the beginning of the study were more likely to be alive at the end of the study (even after taking into account age, whether they smoked, the presence of cancer or cardiovascular disease!)
But we also have opposing natural drives: to stay safe, to avoid risk, and to crave certainty. As children we may be told by well-meaning adults that curiosity is dangerous; as adults we may shut down curiosity out of anxiety or fear, or a desire to stay within the certainty of our comfort zone. We may view curiosity as the enemy of safety and certainty, and develop an aversion to it.
How does this relate to mindfulness meditation? Well, if you crave safety and certainty you will find the principles and practices of mindfulness meditation quite challenging, as mindfulness is all about the willingness to be open, to explore, and to tolerate the unknown. But instead of worrying about what’s wrong, or whether you’re doing it right, can you allow a joyful and interested curiosity to develop naturally? If so, you will expand your capacity to remain calm in the face of uncertainty.
What I’ve learned is that when curiosity is paired with openness, it leads to pleasure (joyous exploration, being empathetic or fascinated) but when it is paired with anxiety, it leads to further discomfort (deprivation sensitivity, obsessive worry, avoidance). That’s the Curiosity Paradox!
Todd Kashdan discusses his research and the 5-Dimension Scale on this brief blog post: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/curious/201801/what-are-the-five-dimensions-curiosity
Here’s the research article I read (Kashdan et al 2017) https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0092656617301149
Here’s the Litman article: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886908000275
And here’s the study on curiosity and longevity: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1996-06396-007