By Dr Justin Kennedy & Meg Price
(Originally published in Psychology Today on 11 November 2020)
Curiosity has its own reason for existing ― Albert Einstein
Many can recall Einstein saying that the most important thing is to never stop questioning. And that curiosity is key!
The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio reminds us, humans are not either thinking machines or feeling machines, but rather feeling machines that think. So, if we feel first it seems a good idea to understand how we ‘feel’ about our emotions and think about how curiosity can motivate emotionally intelligent behaviours.
So, let’s be curious about curiosity for a moment. The classic view of curiosity from William James in 1899 is “the impulse toward better cognition”. A common contemporary view of curiosity is a special form of information seeking distinguished by the fact that it is internally motivated. Curiosity leads to the activation of several neurological systems including substantia nigra, the hippocampus, and the ventral tegmental area. And connectivity between these same regions links curiosity to motivation to learn new information. We can also agree there are huge advantages to being curious from helping us surviving to innovate.
There seems to always be growing interest in the study of emotions, scientific definitions, and explanations around this topic. There is a classical view that sees emotions as hardwired with unique neural fingerprints in the brain, so emotions happen to you. Then more recently there is a view from Lisa Feldman Barrett that emotions are constructed. This theory of constructed emotions suggests that numerous areas of our brain work together to predict what is about to happen using our senses, and the brain then predicts and categorizes the present moment so it can construct the emotion in order to decide what the best action is to deal with impending events.
We know that ‘feeling’ a state of emotional dis-ease can cause us a great deal of pain and suffering. The opposite is directly linked to ‘feeling’ happy. People who are emotionally healthy have a greater understanding of their stressors, their emotions, feelings, and behaviours. They are able to bounce back and cope better with life’s challenges. This is where we bring in curiosity as critical to improving wellbeing. However, if you ask a group of neuroscientists or psychologists to define curiosity you will also receive a myriad of opinions.
So where in the brain does the curiosity signal come from? Schoenbaum G, et al, 2011, proposed that dopamine (the reward hormone) sends signals originating in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), which receives input from basic senses, like sight, touch (a feeling), or smell, etc. After we have a change in the brain, we can notice this causes a physical experience which in turn increases our self-awareness at that moment. A feeling emerges psychologically when we consciously observe these changes. Emotion is an event in the brain and feeling, in the mind. My recent research suggests that an emotion is triggered neurologically. But this is my opinion and no doubt there will be a great deal more research on how and where emotion is formed in the brain and mind.
The concept of emotional curiosity brings these two ideas together. We all have a degree of agreement about being curious about our emotions, feelings, and behaviour means. For example in a study done in 2007 by Nancy Mcintyre and Michael Harvey found that having a trait of curiosity was the best predictor of having higher emotional intelligence. We also know that those with higher levels of emotional intelligence have higher psychological well-being.
Curious ideas that can help your emotional wellbeing
There are millions of emotional wellbeing programs, books, apps, and experts telling us all the different things we need to do to increase our emotional wellbeing. Today 9 in 10 organizations across the globe offer employees at least one kind of wellness benefit and more than 3 in 5 have dedicated “wellness budgets” which are expected to expand by 7.8% in the coming years, according to Harvard Business Review. But are these programs really working and motivating healthy emotions and associated behaviour change? Some would suggest not – well at least not enough.
If we start with emotional curiosity, we can learn not only more about why we feel and what we do about it, but we can motivate our behaviour change more effectively.
The why, what, and how of emotional intelligence
Those times when we have strong emotions, say you are really angry at the person who cut in front of you in peak hour traffic nearly causing a serious accident. At that moment you may have trouble calming down. Getting curious about why and what is going on inside your mind and body will increase the likelihood you will apply emotional management tools.
Perhaps even the guy who cut you off didn’t mean it personally but was in a hurry? If you were curious about his emotional state and your reaction, you might become interested in their why? As curiosity increases so do the neurological functions of motivation and problem-solving. And because of this curiosity, you can more easily bridge the gap between awareness and management and how to respond more intelligently.
Curiosity Cured the Cat
By being more curious about our emotions there is an opportunity not only to build our emotional vocabulary but also to innovate how to best apply the best management tools or even just change of perspective to feel better.
There is a great story about this guy who is about to go into Starbucks to buy himself a latte. On the pavement, he spots a $5 note. ‘’Oh what luck!’’ he says. While in the queue he thinks of how can now super-size his order. Then a curious idea pops into his mind. ‘’What if I just give this $5 to the guy behind me?’’. He turns around, smiling, and tells the story of finding the money. And says to the guy – ‘’ Now this is your lucky day too!’’ This act pays off double! He has found an innovative way to feel he’s a better, nicer person for sharing – and the other guy feels happier too. This ripple effect was caused by his curiosity to improve his emotional wellbeing. He acted in a very emotionally intelligent way making two people – rather than just himself – feel a little happier.
How can you be curious and find ways to make others and yourself happier today?
This can also motivate us to be innovative in finding ways to build that bridge between emotional awareness and applying the tools that improve well-being. And by looking curiously for ways to show your compassion (like giving a stranger a latte), will this make you feel that little bit happier?
Schoenbaum G, Takahashi Y, Liu TL, McDannald MA. Does the orbitofrontal cortex signal value? Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 2011;1239(1):87–99. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
Strait CE, Blanchard TC, Hayden BY. Reward value comparison via mutual inhibition in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Neuron. 2014;82(6):1357–1366. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
Strait CE, Sleezer BJ, Hayden BY. Signatures of value comparison in ventral striatum neurons. PLoS Biology. 2015. [PubMed]