Our brains are hardwired for worry—and there’s good reason why. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had to keep an eye out for danger at every turn: If I eat those plants, will I get sick? Is that man with 18-inch biceps who smells of charred human flesh a threat to me?
Yet it was only when our ancestors ventured off beyond the boundaries of what was known that they could add to their knowledge and skills. They had to discover absolutely everything for themselves. In other words, they had to be curious.
Indeed, cutting-edge research from neuroscience suggests that while we may be natural born worriers, we’re also wired for worry’s neglected, underappreciated neural twin: curiosity. This research suggests that our curiosity and threat-detection systems have evolved over millennia, working together to ensure that we make optimal decisions in an unpredictable, uncertain world. As a result, we find intense, lasting fulfillment in seeking new knowledge, new experiences, and in embracing uncertainty. Choosing to explore the unknown rather than avoid it is key to a rich, meaningful life.
The three-pound curious explorer
To solve some of the many challenges they faced everyday, our ancestors had to be motivated to seek out the new. Along the way, they may have found that remaining hungry is far superior to eating a (decomposing) carcass lying in the sun, and tree bark is a poor tool for cleaning oneself after a bowel movement. It was a creative trial-and-error process.
Imagine the number of objects our ancestors discarded before they tamed fire. Generations likely played with bones, rocks, turtle shells, and anything else they could lift. They probably tried to eat, lick, carry, rub, squeeze, hit, shake, toss, dance, and chant with these objects while waiting for something interesting to happen.
Arguably, curious explorers were at a competitive advantage over their less daring peers. Their new skills would have been more attractive to their clan and, in turn, would have led to greater access to food, water, tools, and sexual partners. With more resources, a greater number of curious explorers survived, and with access to plenty of sexual partners, their traits became more common with each generation.
If natural selection did favor the curious, then we should see deeply ingrained markers in our modern day brains—evidence of a hardwired system that would cause us to eagerly anticipate rewards and reinforce our curious impulses.
Modern technology allows us to witness how our brains are archeological maps of our shared human history. And sure enough, brain science sheds light on the origins of our curious nature.
Consider the most commonly discussed and misunderstood chemical in the brain linked to happiness—dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that carries information from one nerve ending to another, preparing our body for action. Brain regions housing the largest collection of dopamine receptors, the nucleus accumbens in the ventral striatum, an area tucked deep inside the brain, are often referred to as pleasure centers. Research suggests that these brain sites light up when we enjoy rewards—when we eat chocolate, snort cocaine, laugh, or answer questions correctly. However, if dopamine is crucial to seeking rewards, the same brain sites should light up when we eagerly anticipate those rewards, not just when we receive them. In other words, is the seeking and anticipation—the feeling of curiosity—enough to activate these areas of the brain? Is curiosity a reward in and of itself?
Consider the methods scientists, including Brian Knutson of Stanford University and Gregory Berns of Emory University, have used to answer these questions. Resting in a brain scanner, you are told that you are going to be shown pictures of an important mystery person from your past. During this period of uncertainty, researchers look to see which parts of your brain light up. Afterwards, when you finally see pictures of this person, solving the mystery, they examine your brain activity again. The big question in these experiments is whether timing matters: Do our brains show greater activity when we are uncertain and intrigued, feeling a mixture of curiosity and anxiety?
In study after study, scientists have found that the striatum lit up like an inferno of activity when people didn’t know exactly what was going to happen next, when they were on the verge of solving their mystery and hoped to be rewarded—it was more active then, in fact, than when people received their reward and had their curiosity satisfied.
This is very important: Our brains prepare us for action. It doesn’t matter if we approach an attractive person at the bar and are told to buzz off, or if they give us their phone number—the striatum lights up before our first move. Dopamine doesn’t only fire when we get our rewards; scientists see this neural activity when we are curious, showing a readiness to explore and capitalize on opportunities.
The finding makes sense in light of our real-world experiences. When we get rewards, we are satiated. Just like after eating a hearty meal, we are no longer motivated to do anything. When anticipating rewards, however, we are driven to take risks, and approach and engage the world in pursuit of them. This process is energizing and often enjoyable. When curious and exploring, we often get the best of both worlds: The anticipatory excitement of seeking new rewards and the fulfillment of consuming them.
This research also shows that not all rewards are equal in releasing dopamine from the striatum. We see dopamine produced and released at a greater rate when we approach something that elicits more of our curiosity—something that’s novel, uncertain, or a just-manageable challenge. When the activity is personally meaningful or important to us (picture a five year old who can’t sit still, pleading to open Christmas gifts), there is even greater activation in the striatum and a greater cascade of dopamine.
Brain research also shows that curiosity is not just a neutral process. Our feelings come along for the ride.
Sometimes we feel an exciting sense of wonder on our curious adventures (imagine hiking next to an inactive volcano at sunrise). This means that besides an active striatum with a dopamine explosion, we also experience a surge of opiates in the brain. Opiates are the neurotransmitters most central to enjoying basic pleasures in life, and they’re activated by positive experiences containing some degree of curiosity and exploration: a parent listening to their child enthusiastically describing a field trip, a teenager losing herself in dance, a child immersed in a captivating movie.
But curiosity doesn’t always involve joy. Tension and frustration can be part of the experience. Think of those times when your computer malfunctions. You wait on the phone for a computer technician and neither of you can figure out the problem. Sure, you’re interested in what’s happening, but you’re certainly not joyful. You’re still curious, but in the end, you want to relieve the tension and extinguish your curiosity. Dopamine cells often fire in response to seeking new knowledge, but in these situations there’s little or no opiate activity before we get our answers.
Also, keep in mind that most positive experiences are ephemeral, so transitory that they do little more than give us a jolt of goodwill. For a positive experience to last, we need to transfer information into our memory banks. We need to be profoundly aware of it so that it stands out among the backdrop of other stimuli clamoring for our attention. Why do we only remember some of what we encounter and explore? Why do we remember some events in exquisitely rich detail, and forget others entirely?
Part of the answer is whether a portion of the brain’s temporal lobe called the hippocampus is energized. The hippocampus is another key part of the circuitry of curiosity. It is the main location where new knowledge and experiences are transferred into long-term memory. When the circuitry in the hippocampus is active, we can do more than simply recall a positive memory. We can remember vivid contextual details surrounding the event. When and where did it take place? Who else might have been around? What were we thinking and feeling at the time? How did things appear? By retaining these rich details, we can better savor moments, learn from them, and expand our identity or sense of self.
Essentially, the hippocampus is the brain’s mechanism for building on our curiosity: It allows a moment of exploration to linger and influence us. Without the hippocampus, our curious explorations often offer us little more than a one-time mood boost. And besides being crucial for remembering the backdrop of what happened to us in the past, recent studies suggest that the hippocampus is essential to imagining detailed scenarios of what might happen in the future. Dopamine, opiates, and the hippocampus—together they comprise an ensemble of brain activity that helps us turn fulfilling moments into a rich and meaningful existence.
The curiosity advantage
The greatest advantage of curiosity is that when we spend time and energy with the new, we can increase the shape, size, and number of neurons in our brain and the connections between them. Facts and experiences are synthesized into a web, paving the way for greater intelligence and wisdom—a phenomenon documented thoroughly in Norman Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. We become more efficient when making future decisions. We become better at seeing connections between seemingly disparate ideas, boosting our capacity for creativity. It is the neurological equivalent of personal growth. New pathways in the brain are inevitable when you seek out new information and experiences and integrate them into the previously known. Research by Kirk R. Daffner, a neurologist at Harvard Medical School, and others are even discovering that acting on our curiosity reverses some of the inevitable cognitive decline in old age, and buffers against some of the cruel degenerative brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Here’s the bottom line: You can’t always be happy, but you can almost always be profoundly aware and curious, and reap the psychological and physical benefits. Thankfully, curiosity is not a fixed characteristic. It’s a strength we can develop and wield on the path to a more fulfilling life.