In Praise of Curiosity

Curiosity helps with everything from creativity to happiness. Tomsickova Tatyana/Shutterstock

Albert Einstein mused about many things, from his theories of relativity to the explanation of the photoelectric effect.

But it wasn't just science that fascinated the Nobel Prize-winning physicist. He realized that nothing great can be accomplished if we stop asking, "Why?"

"The important thing is not to stop questioning," Einstein said. "Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day."

Einstein even went so far as to say, "I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious."

Einstein was obviously as modest as he was intelligent, but it's interesting that he credits his accomplishments to his unbridled curiosity. Here are just some of the benefits, backed by science, when you continue to question what's going on around you.

Curiosity helps us learn

As any high school student can tell you, it's much easier to learn about something when your interest is piqued. A study in the journal Neuron found that people are much better at learning and retaining information about subjects that interest them. But curiosity also helps us learn about things that may not be all that intriguing to us.

For the study, participants answered trivia questions and, before they saw the answers, were shown pictures of faces. Researchers found that when the participants were very curious about a topic, they were much more interested in learning the answer. But as a side benefit, they also performed better on a sort of pop quiz, seeing how they did on a facial recognition test, Psychology Today reports.

"Curiosity may put the brain in a state that allows it to learn and retain any kind of information, like a vortex that sucks in what you are motivated to learn, and also everything around it," says Dr. Matthias Gruber, lead author of the study.

Curious people are happier

When you're very intrigued by something and want to know more, your brain gets involved, prompting the release of the "feel-good" hormone, dopamine. This helps you learn, but it also makes you happier. Your body also releases dopamine when you see a warm chocolate cake right out of the oven, says psychologist Cristina Nafria, who specializes in neuropsychology.

Greater curiosity has also been linked to better life satisfaction, lower levels of anxiety and greater overall well-being.

"Dopamine is associated with anticipatory desire, so the prospect of learning new information causes us pleasure," says Nafria. "Curiosity is a type of motivation in this case, which acts like that chocolate cake that we talked about earlier."

Curiosity boosts achievement

coworkers looking at a monitor
Being curious at work can mean greater job satisfaction and success. Pressmaster/Shutterstock

Whether you're in school or at work, being curious does wonders for success. Studies show that having a hungry mind not only leads to higher achievement for students, but it also helps them enjoy classes more, too.

Not as much research has been done to see if curiosity translates to success in the workplace. But some studies have found that when employees are interested in a subject and want to learn more, that plays out in workplace achievement and job performance.

It can help protect your brain

Staying curious and mentally stimulated can keep your mind protected from Alzheimer's, researchers found in a 2014 study.

"Keeping your brain mentally stimulated is a lifelong enterprise," David Knopman, a study author and a professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic told Bloomberg. "If one can remain intellectually active and stimulated throughout one’s lifespan, that’s protective against late-life dementia. Staying mentally active is definitely good for your brain."

Being curious helps with creativity

The link between curiosity and creativity seems like common sense. There's Einstein, of course, but also many others. Leonardo da Vinci was incredibly curious about the world, and he was considered one of the world's most creative minds.

One 2016 study tried to look at the link in a scientific manner. Researchers examined how creative problem-solving was impacted when combined with varying degrees and types of curiosity. Being curious led to greater problem-solving and more creativity.

It's good for relationships

couple looking through binoculars
Curiosity benefits social and romantic relationships. William Perugini/Shutterstock

In one study using "reciprocal self-disclosure," strangers asked and answered personal questions of each other. The people who showed true curiosity in the responses were rated as warmer and more attractive, implying that being curious about other people is good for relationships.

"Curiosity benefits our social and romantic lives. Curious people are often considered good listeners and conversationalists," wrote Ben Dean, Ph.D. of the University of Pennsylvania.

"In the early stages of a relationship, we tend to talk about our interests or hobbies. One reason for this is that people tend to equate 'having many interests' with 'interesting,' and for good reason. Curious people tend to bring fun and novelty into relationships."