Is Curiosity the “Holy Grail” of Lifelong Learning?

Is Curiosity the “Holy Grail” of Lifelong Learning?

Image: Henry Stacy Marks, What is it?, 1872, National Museums Liverpool, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

A few weeks ago, we wrote about curiosity, and the way in which new discoveries and realizations ignite lifelong learning. As we thought about the role professors play in awakening or nurturing curiosity, we felt that the topic might merit more attention.  

Professors contribute very important elements to the success of our programs. Their years in the classroom help them foster thriving conversations in our discussion groups. Their time spent facilitating discussion helps them create safe spaces for difference and even productive disagreement. And their subject matter expertise brings an added layer of depth to discussion sessions. Most of all, professors are curious. They are curious about the participants’ life experiences and the way in which these experiences shape their reading of a text. They are excited to share their own interests with others.

Curiosity – the kind professors exhibit and foster – is a key to knowledge retention, making it instrumental to lifelong learning. Using fMRI technology, researchers at the University of California at Davis found that the brain becomes more active when people are curious – and that knowledge accrued during the period of activity is easier to remember. What’s more, it doesn’t matter whether or not the knowledge learned has any relationship to the object of curiosity. As the researchers, Matthias Gruber, Bernard D. Gelman and Charan Ranganath write, “in real-life situations, learning is often self-motivated, driven by intrinsic curiosity in a particular topic, rather than by external reward.” What they call “a curious brain state [enhances] learning of incidental material.”

Moreover, as Spencer Harrison of Boston College demonstrates, “curiosity can be contagious”: “one person’s curiosity can trigger another’s, making curiosity a shared experience. . .when one person (or group) is curious, the curiosity drives exploratory behavior.”

Leonaert Bramer, The Curious Ones, c. 1655, Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Leonaert Bramer, The Curious Ones, c. 1655, Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

We see this as well in our programs. The professor’s curiosity – whether in people or the book the group is discussing – feeds that of our participants. As one participant reflected, she was surprised to find herself “really curious about history, historical types of things now. . . how much history I don’t know about. That was never anything I was interested in and I’m like, ‘Wow!’”  And after reading Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, another participant continued reflecting on the phrase “the victors write the history” months afterward – and she sought out multiple information sources on today’s many conflicts, instead of tuning out the news.

This is no coincidence. As George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University argued in his seminal work on the subject, the more we know, the more we want to know: “the likelihood of experiencing curiosity should increase as an individual obtains information about a particular topic.” Or, as one participant reflected after reading Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence in tandem with learning about “fashion and art from 100 years ago” from a professor: “I even asked about taking one of [her] art history classes.”

But curiosity is also serious business and worthy of investment. As Harrison argues, organizations can leverage curiosity into a driving force for innovation and development. “Generative curiosity” – what he calls contagious curiosity – serves as “both a driver of work (e.g., gathering new information, exploring new opportunities, etc.) but also as a sort of relational gravity that pulls people together.” According to Harrison,  organizations “can literally craft their environments in ways that stimulate intellectual curiosity” – in part by offering employees courses in non-businesses related subjects and other spaces for thoughtful engagement.

In this sense, intellectual curiosity results from the kind of social engagement we see day in and day out in Books@Work seminars: a group of people engaging in interested problem solving. They learn from each other, build off each other’s ideas and are even motivated to learn more. It’s benefits are plentiful: a “hungry mind” is as important as intelligence to academic achievement. And, as a 2011 study from SUNY Buffalo indicates, it may well be key to personal growth and successful interpersonal relationships. As researchers Tadd Kashdan, Patrick McKnight, Frank Fincham and Paul Rose show, “positive social interactions benefit from an open and curious mind set.”

And although someone else’s curiosity can have its uncomfortable moments, Loewenstein notes that a lack of interest in other people’s lived experiences may well “be a contributing factor to the well-documented resistance of stereotypes to change.”

In short, social engagement drives curiosity, curiosity drives innovation and collective curiosity develops community. By sharing their contagious curiosity in our seminars, Books@Work professors facilitate more than an interest in one topic or another – they contribute to better workplaces and communities.

Further Reading

Curiosity: One Key to Lifelong Learning

Curious Critics

The Element of Surprise: What Stories Help Us See

Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Hill is the Communications and Marketing Director of That Can Be Me, Inc., facilitator of Books@Work.