Curiosity is a good thing, right? But what is it? Wikipedia defines curiosity thus: a quality related to inquisitive thinking such as exploration, investigation, and learning, evident by observation in human and animal species.
What, exactly, does this mean? What’s ‘inquisitive thinking’? Does it matter that everyone’s inquisitiveness is subjective, unique, and limited by their biases? ‘Evident by observation’? Evident to whom? And by what/whose standards? And ‘observation’? Really?
IT’S A BRAIN THING
We all see, hear, feel the world through our subjectivity, through our historic, existing neural circuitry that
- filters, defines and translates
- incoming signals into
- an understanding that
- aligns with what we already know and believe.
In other words, everything we think is nothing more than the output of the particular set of life filters that make us each unique. It’s all automatic, electrochemical, and mostly outside our control.
Here’s the problem: when we seek new data – i.e. when we’re curious – our brain has a high likelihood of misinterpreting the information we’ve discovered that might provide answers. Becasue of the way our brain filters incoming words, we end up (unwittingly) restricting what we hear according to our own beliefs and history, i.e. subjectively. In other words, we may not readily accept new ideas that are different from what we currently believe to be true.
Starting by seeking out a very specific set of criteria would make it easier to wrestle our brain into accepting new information. So what criteria can we use to recognize we’ve arrived at ‘the answer’ when we’re curious? What makes one piece of information the ‘correct’ answer? Or is it all subjective?
OUR HISTORY AND BRAIN RESTRICTS US
Let me provide more detail so you can understand how our brains restrict our curiosity. Incoming words and ideas are merely ‘puffs of air’, sound vibrations that have no meaning until they get translated into by circuits that carry our historic knowledge and beliefs. Oh. And along the way, our brains kindly (haphazardly, and without telling us) discard some of them.
Are you getting the point here? When we try to find answers when we’re curious, we’re sabotaged by
- the nature of our historic, subjective viewpoint, biases, and intractable Status Quo which automatically and unconsciously restricts everything that doesn’t match our mental models,
- our own conscious/unconscious existing beliefs, assumptions and knowledge about the subject,
- the direction, word choice, hidden agenda and prejudice built into our queries.
Sure, we’re told to ‘be curious.’ But what makes us curious? Seems our curiosity is restricted by what we already know! How, then, can we know that the information we seek and retrieve is accurate, complete, or the most useful data available? Can we be certain that our data gathering was sufficiently broad? How do we know that a new piece of learning is important, even though it feels uncomfortable and we want to dismiss it? Can we supersede our biased judgments (or intuition, as some would call it) that become the standard against which we compare everything we hear? How can we know if we possess other circuits that would offer less restriction?
Hence, I pose the question: can we really ever be entirely curious?
Sadly, as per brain science, we can only be as curious as our neural circuits allow. And although we use a higher number of our 100 trillion synaptic connections when we’re being ‘intuitive’, we’re still confined to the content of the circuitry we already possess. In other words, try as we might, our subjectivity rules our lives.
EVEN GENIUSES ARE RESTRICTED
Once during a conversation with a colleague, he complained that he had just gotten a cold, and that now he’d be ‘down’ for 2 weeks. How did he know it would be 2 weeks? As a doctor himself, he’d been to doctors over the years and followed protocol: lots of rest and liquids, and wait two weeks. The following conversation ensued:
SD: I hear your conclusions about a cold cure come from medical colleagues. What would you need to believe differently to be willing to expand your parameters to find a cure beyond your current comfort zone, in case there might be reliable cures you’re not aware of?
H: Hm… I’ve always used the medical model as my choice criteria. Well, I guess I’d need to believe that the source of the new data was trustworthy.
SD: I have useful data that has helped me and my family cure a cold in 2 days, but it’s very far outside the conventional model. And I’m not a medical professional. How would you know it would be worth trying, given it doesn’t fit within your criteria?
H: That’s sort of easy, but scary. I’ve known you a long time. I trust you. If you have a different cure, I’d love to hear it.
I offered him a simple vitamin-based remedy (large quantities of Vitamin C and simultaneous Zinc lozenges). He used it; he called 2 days later to tell me his cold was gone. And, btw: this man is a famous Harvard McArthur Genius. See? Even geniuses restrict their curiosity according to their biases.
WHY ARE WE CURIOUS
There are several different reasons for curiosity:
- Need to know something we don’t know. Sometimes we need to know something we have no, or skimpy, knowledge about. How do we know the difference between the ‘right’ or the ‘wrong’ answer? How do we know the most effective resources? How do we pose our query to lead to the broadest range of answers? How do we know that what our brain translates for us is an accurate rendition of new content?
- Desire to expand current knowledge. We need more data than we possess. How will we recognize when the available, additional data is the appropriate data set? How do we pose an inquiry that offers the broadest range of relevant knowledge? How can we keep from resisting new data if it runs counter to our long-held beliefs (given that new data gets compared against our existing, unconscious judgments)? How can we be certain that we will accurately understand new content?
- Achieving a goal. We’re missing data to achieve a goal. How can we know the extent of what we’re missing, or know to accept new content if our existing data has been our go-to knowledge and it now might be incomplete?
- Interest in another person’s knowledge. We suspect someone has knowledge we need, but don’t know how to judge what might be accurate. How can we adopt/adapt new content so we can avoid internal resistance, so we ensure what we think we’ve heard is an accurate portrayal of what was said? How can we language our inquiry to avoid limiting any possibilities?
- Complete internal reference points. Influencers (coaches, leaders, consultants, sellers) seek to understand the Other’s Status Quo to formulate action points. How can we know if our ‘intuition’ (biased judgment) is broad enough to encompass all possibilities – and be able to go beyond it when necessary – to match the Other’s mental models and existing/historic brain circuits? How can we know for certain that what was said to them was understood accurately?
- Comparator. We want to know if our current knowledge is accurate, or we’re ‘right’. But we unconsciously compare our query and hear responses against our subjective experiences, running the risk of acquiring partial knowledge, misunderstanding what was said, or blocking important data.
Unfortunately, it’s pretty impossible to seek, find, or receive what we don’t know what we don’t know. When we hear content that doesn’t fit our existing circuitry – regardless of the efficacy of the information – we face:
- Resistance: By the time we’re adults, our subjective beliefs are pretty much built in and determine how we organize our worlds. When we hear something that goes against our beliefs – whether or not it’s accurate, conscious, or unconscious – we resist. That means new knowledge will be accepted in relation to what we already know and believe, potentially omitting important data and making real change difficult.
- Restricting data: What we’re curious about is automatically biased, mistranslated, and limited by our subjective experience, ego needs, history, and current data set. We have no way to know if we accurately understand what’s been said, or if we’re posing our search query in a way that will include the full range of possible answers.
- Restricting knowledge. Because our subjectivity limits the acceptance of new knowledge to what fits with our current knowledge (we’re only curious about stuff that is tangential to current knowledge), our brains automatically defend against anything that threatens what we know. So we unconsciously choose answers according to comfort or habit rather than according to accuracy or need.
- Intuitive ‘Red Flag’. When our egos and professional identity are curious about something we have assumptions and expectations about, we limit possibility by our unconscious biases. How do we know if there aren’t a broader range of solutions that we’re not noticing or eliciting?
If you’re interested in learning how to consciously generate wholly new circuits to permanently change habits and behaviors I’ve developed a How of Change™ program. Here’s a one-hour sample video: https://bit.ly/3SlLjat
A few years ago I had an incident that simply exemplifies some of the above. I’d begun attending life drawing classes as an exercise to broaden my observation skills. I took classes 30 years ago, so I have a very tiny range of skills that obviously need enhancing. In one session I had a horrific time trying to draw a model’s shoulder. I asked the man next to me – a real artist – for help. Here was our conversation:
SDM: Hey, Ron. Can you help me please? Can you tell me how to think about drawing his shoulder?
Ron: Sure. Let’s see…. So what is it about your current sketch that you like?
Ron: If I put a gun to your head, what part would you like?
Ron: You’ve done a great job here, on his lower leg. Good line. Good proportion. That means you know how to do a lot of what you need on the shoulder.
SDM: I do? I didn’t know what I was doing. So how can I duplicate what I did unconsciously? I’m having an eye-hand-translation problem.
Ron: Let’s figure out how you drew that leg. Then we’ll break that down to mini actions, and see what you can use from what you already know. And I’ll teach you whatever you’re missing.
Ron’s brand of curiosity enabled me to make some unconscious skills conscious, and add new expertise where I was missing it. His curiosity had different biases from mine. He:
- entered our discussion assuming I already had all of the answers I needed;
- only added information specifically where I was missing some;
- helped me find my own answers and be available to add knowledge in the exact place I was missing it.
My own curiosity would have gotten me nowhere. Here was my internal dialogue:
How the hell do I draw a twisted shoulder? This sucks. Is this an eye/hand problem? Should I be looking differently? I need an anatomy class. Should I be holding my charcoal differently? Is it too big a piece? I can’t see a shadow near his shoulder. Should I put in a false shadow to help me get the proportions right?
Ron’s curiosity – based on me already possessing the skills I needed – opened a wide range of possibilities for me. I never, ever would have found that solution on my own because my biases would have limited my curiosity to little more than an extension of my current knowledge and beliefs.
HOW TO EXPAND YOUR CURIOSITY
In order to widen curiosity to the full range of knowledge and allow our unconscious to accept the full data set available, we must evolve beyond our biases. Here’s how to have a full range of choice:
- Frame the query: Create a generic series of questions to pose for yourself about your curiosity. Ask yourself:
- how you’ll know your tolerance for non-expected, surprising answers,
- what a full range of knowledge could include,
- if your answers need to be within the range of what you already know or something wildly different,
- if you’re willing/able to put aside your ‘intuition’, bias, and annoyance and seek and consider all possible answers regardless of comfort,
- if you need to stay within a specific set of criteria and what the consequences are if you don’t.
2. Frame the parameters: Do some Google research. Before spending time accumulating data, recognize the parameters of possibility whether or not they match your comfortable criteria.
3. Recognize your foundational beliefs: Understand what you believe to be true, and consider how important it is for you to maintain that data set regardless of potentially conflicting, new information.
4. Be willing to change: Understand your willingness to adopt challenging data if it doesn’t fit within your current data set or beliefs.
5. Make your unconscious conscious: Put your conscious mind onto the ceiling and look down on yourself from the Observer/Witness/meta position. This provides neutral data, sams your biases and resistence.
6. Listen analytically: Listen to your self-talk. Compare it with the questions above. Note restrictions and decide if they can be overlooked. And recognizing your brain may play tricks on you, be sure to ask if what you think you heard and learned is accurate.
7. Analyze: Should you shift your parameters? Search options? What do you need to shift internally?
Curiosity effects every element of our lives. It can enhance, or restrict, growth, change, and professional skills. It limits and expands health, relationships, lifestyles and relationships. Without challenging our curiosity or intuition, we limit ourselves to maintaining our current assumptions.
What do you need to believe differently to be willing to forego comfort and ego-identity for the pursuit of the broadest range of possible answers? How will you know when, specifically, it would be important to have greater choice? We’ll never have all the answers, but we certainly can expand our choices.
Sharon-Drew Morgen is a breakthrough innovator and original thinker, having developed new paradigms in sales (inventor Buying Facilitation®, listening/communication (What? Did you really say what I think I heard?), change management (The How of Change™), coaching, and leadership. She is the author of several books, including the NYTimes Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity and Dirty Little Secrets: why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell). Sharon-Drew coaches and consults with companies seeking out of the box remedies for congruent, servant-leader-based change in leadership, healthcare, and sales. Her award-winning blog carries original articles with new thinking, weekly. www.sharon-drew.com She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.