Learning is a lot easier when it’s interesting. And it’s interesting, to a large extent, because you’re curious about the subject. Yes, the carrot of career opportunity and stick of exam failures can motivate. But if you really want to learn something, nothing beats curiosity.
Yet it’s boredom, not curiosity, that dominates student life. Research shows that students report feeling bored much of the time in class. This makes it harder to pay attention and more painful to learn.
How can you boost your curiosity for a new subject?
The Science of Curiosity
Curiosity remains an under-studied phenomenon. Early research focused on now mostly discredited drive-reduction accounts. Curiosity, like hunger, was envisioned as an aversive state that we were driven to reduce. But, if this were true, why would anyone read a murder mystery novel?
In 1994, George Loewenstein offered a more modern take in his information-gap theory. This theory argued that curiosity was driven from the gap between what you know and what you’d like to know. While this definition may seem almost tautologically true, there were a few key predictions:
- Curiosity is susceptible to framing effects. Like a figure-ground illusion, if the situation emphasizes a single missing piece, you’re much curious than if you think you haven’t assembled most of the puzzle.
- Insight-based problems evoke more curiosity than accumulative ones. If you need a single idea to make the entire idea snap into relief, you’ll be more curious than if the answer is only to be found by acquiring a mountain of facts.
- You need to believe you can solve the puzzle. Social psychologist Albert Bandura’s influential self-efficacy account of motivation argued that to be motivated (or curious) we need to believe we can be successful. If you think a lot of investigation won’t result in an insightful payoff, low curiosity is likely to result.
There isn’t a magic formula for curiosity. But there are a few strategies we can apply to make things more interesting.
You Need to Know More to Ask Better Questions
An implication of Loewenstein’s theory was that more knowledge should lead to more curiosity. The person who knows 47 of 50 states is more likely to be curious about which ones she’s missing than the person who only knows three.
Research confirms this by noting that knowledge about a topic predicted curiosity for new knowledge. One reason for this is simply that you need to know something before you can ask good questions. Since good (unanswered) questions are the raw material for curiosity, it’s difficult to be curious about something when you can’t ask any questions.
Researchers Naomi Miyake and Donald Norman summarize the importance of knowledge base to curiosity nicely in the title of their paper, “To Ask a Question, One Must Know What is Not Known”:
“At a research seminar on computer techniques, we noted that beginners at programming (to whom the seminar was addressed) asked few questions and generated few comments. More expert programmers, however, had many questions and, eventually, dominated the discussion.”
This means learning itself creates a positive feedback loop. The more you know about a topic, the more likely you are to have unanswered questions that drive curiosity. Read more books and the books get more interesting.
Start Asking Questions
Curiosity is susceptible to framing effects. Which means you’ll be far more curious when you have a concrete, unanswered question that seems like it shouldn’t be too hard to solve.
The problem is that knowledge is often presented in a way that actively stifles this question-generating approach. Rather than creating a mystery, for which new knowledge is needed to unravel, most subjects are presented as already solved: “Go ahead and memorize this. Don’t worry, we already proved it’s the correct answer.”
To be more curious, you have to reframe what you’re learning in terms of the key mysteries it was developed to decode. What were the burning questions that kept people up at night as they tried to solve the puzzle?
One way to start is simply to ask questions about more things that you’re asked to take as a given. Why does DNA need to be translated into RNA before it can make things? Why is there a minus symbol in this equation? Why do profits maximize when marginal revenue equals marginal cost?
The attitude that leads to more question-asking, and thus more curiosity, is one which recognizes that the world is deeply strange. Only with the benefit of hindsight do the answers we’ve discovered seem obvious. To be more curious, you need to recapture the spirit of those who puzzled over them when they were still unsolved.
Know Where to Get the Answers
If the response to a question is simply, “that’s just the way things are,” or worse, “shut up and memorize,” the outcome is frustration, not curiosity. Thus, the art of asking questions needs to be paired with actually finding the answers.
Luckily, this is easier than ever. Online forums, like Quora or Reddit’s Ask Science, offer ways you can ask questions and get expert replies. For many questions, teachers, peers and people around you can often answer questions you’ve missed.
Figuring out the answer for yourself is also satisfying. Some of my greatest joys in math have been getting that breakthrough insight that makes sense of a confusing problem. It can take a little bit of time and playing around, but suddenly having the reason why it must be that way snap into view can be immensely gratifying.
Learning is Dialog, Not Consumption
The attitude that creates curiosity is to see learning as principally driven by asking questions and coming up with answers, not consuming information. While we don’t always have a choice in how knowledge gets presented to us, if you see that there’s always a deeper layer of questions and answers, mysteries and insights, then even seemingly dull topics become a puzzle waiting to be solved.