My oldest son was an insatiably curious child. Right from his very first sentence, I knew this kid was different. His first sentence wasn’t the typical kind where he was asking for something (i.e., “I want juice”), but was a sentence asking about the world around him (“What’s that?” followed by every parent’s personal favorite: “Why?” Why why why why why?)
And then it just multiplied from there. His level of curiosity for all the things was near consummate at times. This is common for kids who have been labeled gifted or have some higher-order level of thinking. They obsessively have to learn everything there is about something, and when that is done, they move on to the next thing.
If you’re the parent of a kid like this, I know the struggle. I know the mental exhaustion of trying to fill the days (and minds) of a toddler and school-aged child like this, of having to have all the answers all the time. The never-ending filling of sponge-like brains can deplete even the most confident and energetic of parents.
But what if I told you that raising curious kids and raising kids purposefully to be inherently curious is actually a great thing? That what is going on in the minds of curious children means they have the capacity to better retain information than their less inquisitive counterparts?
A recent study on the brain functionality of curious minds published in the journal Neuron contends that the brain chemistry of curious people is different than less-curious people, ultimately helping them to learn better. Charan Ranganath, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, and one of the researchers involved in the study, states, “There’s this basic circuit in the brain that energizes people to go out and get things that are intrinsically rewarding.” It’s the same circuit that is activated when we receive material rewards like money or candy.
When researchers quizzed study participants on things they were asked to learn, those whose brains lit up the “curious” component when learning were the ones most likely to remember what they learned. Something even more surprising came out of the study: Naturally curious people were better at remembering “boring” and “incidental” material as well.
Educators have long since known this to be true — that when we can pique the interest level of students by somehow teaching them in ways that make them more curious about something — we will succeed more than we will fail.
Evie Malaia, an assistant professor at the Southwest Center for Mind, Brain and Education at the University of Texas at Arlington, goes as far as saying, “Curiosity really is one of the very intense and very basic impulses in humans. We should base education on this behavior.”
Education researchers are also using this information to learn how long a child’s mind stays curious. For example, is their interest at its highest first thing in the morning? Does it last all day? Should certain subjects be taught at certain times based on that information? And why do some children naturally possess more curiousity than others? They conclude, “Lots of factors, including stress, aging and certain drugs can affect dopamine processing in the brain, and genetic factors may also influence how inquisitive we are.”
Nurturing a very curious child, and trying to raise children to develop curiosity and remain engaged in perpetual learning, is a daunting task. Spending years answering all the what, when, where, and why questions curious children throw at you can leave even the most patient of parents flustered and spent. But lest we forget that it is those insatiable brains — the ones that drive us parents a bit crazy — will be the same ones running society one day. Let’s just hope they’re curious about finding us a great nursing home.