Children are often told that ‘curiosity killed the cat’. That it’s inherently dangerous. But because of the way our brains are hardwired, exploring your curiosity is one of the best ways to enhance your creativity and develop new innovations.
I’ve always been a curious person, wanting to know as much as possible about how the world worked. In fact, while I was in school some of my teachers needed to put a limit on the number of questions I was allowed to ask (yes, I was one of those kids).
But it’s only been recently that scientists are beginning to understand the benefits of an inquisitive mind to its ability to generate valuable new ideas. But before I tell you exactly why, let me ask you some questions:
- How much does a shadow weigh?
- How much money is love worth?
- Where do trees get their mass from?
- What is a candle flame made from?
- Why don’t animals have wheels?
- Is there a limit to the number of songs we can imagine?
These are just some of the questions raised by two Edutainers I’ve recently fallen in love with on Youtube: Derek Muller from Veritasium (playlist above) and Michael Stevens from Vsauce (playlist below).
If you watch their videos, one thing which will quickly strike you is that the topics being discussed have almost no practical application to your life. When most people have a question, what they are searching for is a specific solution or answer to a challenge they are facing (questions like: what mortgage rates can I get? How do I increase traffic to my website? How can I innovate like Apple?). Most of the videos here provide almost no practical solutions to any challenge you’re likely to face (unless you are trying to go faster than the speed of light). But rather than helping people find solutions, what they are in fact doing is appealing to the part of the brain which seeks to gain knowledge just for the joy of it.
What does curiosity have to do with creativity and innovation?
There are two predominant ways in which curiosity helps to breed creativity, so let’s look at each in turn:
Neuroscience: Curiosity brings more knowledge to build new idea connections
At a fundamental level, an idea is when your brain forms new connections between existing groups of memories and experiences. All ideas are therefore built up from previous knowledge and other ideas. The accepted process nowadays in neuroscience and psychology describing how ideas are generated is as follows:
- Preparation: Your mind gathering all the information (knowledge, the challenge at hand, context, memories, previous ideas etc) which will ultimately build the idea
- Incubation: Your mind subconsciously trying out new connections between these pieces of information, until one combination could potentially lead to a solution to the challenge. Check out my previous interview for more detail on this stage.
- Illumination / Inspiration: The brain makes itself consciously aware of the idea (often known as the eureka moment when the idea comes out of nowhere)
- Verification: The brain doing a quick test on the idea to see if it will really solve the challenge
Someone with a curious mindset is more likely to seek out new knowledge, which not only provides more information for the preparation (stage 1), it also gives the brain the regular exercise in creating new connections which strengthens its ability to incubate (stage 2).
Just as importantly, they’re also more likely to be interested in gaining knowledge across a variety of domains, not just the one they specialise in. Gaining variety in knowledge is one of the most effective ways to strengthen your ability to generate new ideas, since it extends the ways in which the brain can form new connections. It’s also a way to cross-pollinate ideas with other different people, which often results in finding solutions to challenges in places you weren’t expecting.
Getting comfortable with ambiguity and questioning your own knowledge
One of the Veritasium videos which originally inspired me to write this article set people the following challenge: Look at the sequence of three numbers below:
Challenge: I am thinking of the rule that makes the above sequence work. Can you name another set of three numbers that also meet the rule in my head?
Go on, take a minute, and figure out as many as you can.
Ok, now here’s the question. Assuming all your answers were correct (because we’re all smart people here in the Improvides community), how do you know whether or not they fit the rule that I’m thinking of? Here’s the full video to see what I mean: