On 7 January 1918 at New York’s Hippodrome, the incredible illusionist Harry Houdini unveiled one of his most famous tricks – the vanishing elephant – in front of thousands of spectators.
The beast in question, Jennie, reportedly weighed 10,000 pounds (4,536kg). She raised her trunk in greeting, before a stagehand led her into a huge cabinet and closed the doors behind them. After a dramatic drum roll, the doors reopened – and the cabinet was now empty. To the thousands of spectators, it seemed that she had vanished into thin air.
How could Houdini have managed to hide such an enormous animal? No one at the time could provide a definitive explanation of what had happened, though there is one predominant theory.
I’ll tell you what that is before the end of the article, but you might want to avoid the temptation of skipping straight to that section – since a wealth of scientific research shows that allowing your curiosity to be piqued in this way can be incredibly good for your mind. Research shows that not knowing the answer to an intriguing puzzle can, for example, increase your creativity on subsequent tasks, as well as priming your brain for learning. Curiosity in the workplace, meanwhile, increases engagement and enjoyment of your job and reduces your risk of burnout.
It is little wonder, then, that scientists have now been looking for ways to cultivate more curiosity in our lives – and even simple interventions could reap enormous benefits.
Given that the dictionary definition of curiosity is “the desire to know something”, it may be of little surprise that much research has concerned its benefits for education. Using questionnaires that ask people how much they desire new information and consider novel problems, various studies have shown that people’s curiosity can predict their academic success, independently of IQ.
The most recent research suggests that the benefits for learning may arise from changes at a neurological level. When we feel curious about a subject, the facts that we are studying become more deeply encoded, and more accessible when they are later needed.
With its proven benefits, you may be pleasantly surprised where this new-found curiosity eventually leads you (Credit: Getty Images)
Consider a study at the University of California at Davis in 2014. The researchers first asked each participant to rate their curiosity about learning the answers to a series of questions, such as “Who was the president of the United States when Uncle Sam first got his beard?” or “What does the term ‘dinosaur’ actually mean?” The participants then lay in an fMRI brain scanner while the same questions were presented, followed shortly after by the answers. The participants were then tested on their recollection of the facts an hour later.
The effects of curiosity on later recall were striking. When the participants were highly curious about a fact, they were 30% more likely to recall it. And this seemed to correspond to heightened activity in areas of the midbrain that release the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is normally associated with reward, but animal studies suggest that it can also enhance the formation of new neural connections. It looked as if the feeling of curiosity was helping prepare the brain to absorb the new and important information, and this then resulted in a more stable memory.
Intriguingly, the researchers found that the dopamine hit, arising from initial curiosity, could even enhance the memory of incidental information that had no direct relevance to the primary question. To demonstrate this, they had presented random faces alongside the answers to the questions and, an hour later, checked whether the participants still recognised the faces. The analyses showed that the participants were far more likely to remember the face if it had accompanied one of the more interesting trivia questions that had spiked their curiosity.
This additional, and unexpected, memory boost could be extremely useful whenever we’re trying to learn something new and complicated. We’re unlikely, after all, to find every single element of our studies fascinating. But if we can cultivate some curiosity about at least some of the facts, we may find that the rest of the material also sticks far more easily.
High curiosity meant that people wanted to have that moment of realisation and discovery on their own – Abigail Hsiung
Curiosity can also increase our patience. A recent, currently unpublished, study by Abigail Hsiung, a PhD student at Duke University in North Carolina, showed that heightened curiosity meant that people were more willing to wait to find out the solution to a puzzle. Less curious people, in contrast, were more impatient to get through the task quickly, and so they asked to jump straight to the answers. “High curiosity meant that people wanted to have that moment of realisation and discovery on their own,” says Hsiung.
In education, greater patience and prolonged engagement are likely to lead to extended research, deeper learning and understanding, particularly for complex topics – which may also help to explain why curiosity is such a strong predictor of academic success.
Similarly profound effects can be found in studies of creative problem solving, with signs that curiosity helps people to build more exciting and original ideas.
Evidence for this process comes through the story of the vanishing elephant. In a series of experiments, researchers exposed participants to one of two versions of the tale. Half read a version that amped up the element of mystery – the fact that other illusionists have struggled to work out how the trick worked. These participants were then asked to describe how they thought Houdini had hidden Jennie. Whatever their answer, they were told that they were “close but not completely right”, which left a gap in their knowledge, creating further uncertainty and intrigue.
The rest of the group read a less intriguing description of Houdini's trick that seemed to suggest that the workings of the illusion were already well understood, with a giveaway clue that Houdini had hidden the elephant behind a curtain in the cabinet. (This is, indeed, the favoured theory.)
Afterwards, the participants rated how curious they were to know more about Houdini’s trick. They were given a few minutes to design their own magic tricks, which were later rated by independent judges.
The researchers found that the participants who had read the first, more mysterious version of the story were indeed more curious, and this resulted in significantly more innovation during the subsequent magic-trick task.
Research shows cultivating curiosity leads to better learning, creativity and wellbeing (Credit: Getty Images)
This seemed to come through a process called “idea linking”, in which participants would continually build on their initial thoughts through an iterative process. For example, a participant from this group could start out thinking about a way to make a whale disappear, explains co-author Spencer Harrison a professor of managerial and organisational cognition at INSEAD, Fontainebleau, France. They might then go on to think about the possibility of making a dinosaur skeleton disappear from a museum, “And then the [skeleton] is not disappearing, it’s dancing,” he says. Step after step, they were modifying and expanding their answers, “pushing the idea into a realm that feels it’s wholly new”, adds Harrison.
Those who had seen the less intriguing version of the Houdini story, in contrast, tended to just settle on the first idea that popped into their head, which was generally less ambitious or interesting.
Engagement and wellbeing
The benefits of curiosity do not end here. In his recent book The Art of Insubordination, Todd Kashdan, a professor of psychology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, US, points out that greater curiosity can also make people more open to hearing others’ opinions, even if they differ from their own. That’s essential if we want to have productive disagreements and avoid issues like confirmation bias and groupthink.
Kashdan’s own research has demonstrated that curiosity brings comprehensive benefits to the workplace. The study included more than 800 participants from the USA and Germany from a range of industries, who rated a series of statements about their experiences of curiosity in their day-to-day lives, such as:
- I get excited thinking about experimenting with different ideas
- I do not shy away from the unknown or unfamiliar even if it seems scary
The participants also completed questionnaires about their job satisfaction and engagement, their social relationships with their colleagues, their feelings of burnout and their use of innovation at work. In each of these measures, the more curious participants tended to report better experiences, compared with the less curious participants.
According to Kashdan and Harrison, many organisations could encourage greater curiosity in the workforce with a few changes to their corporate culture. Managers might consider giving their employees a little more independence, for example, with various studies showing that a sense of autonomy increases curiosity. Even if there are only a limited number of options available, a project is more likely to stimulate someone’s interest if they have selected it voluntarily, rather than having the choice imposed on them by someone else.
We really need to get rid of this notion of ‘staying in your lane’ – Todd Kashdan
Where relevant, employers might also encourage workers to look beyond the narrow confines of their primary expertise. “We really need to get rid of this notion of ‘staying in your lane’,” suggests Kashdan. The increased interest in the new domain could then spill over into their own area, he says, energising their thinking and allowing them to spot new connections and lines of enquiry.
On an individual level, there is also some evidence that you can actively train your curiosity. The first step is to make it personally relevant; research by Rachit Dubey, a cognitive scientist at Princeton University, has shown that reminding people of the usefulness of the new knowledge can boost their curiosity when it’s lagging. So, try to keep your ultimate goals in your focus, if feelings of frustration or confusion have caused you to forget why you were interested in the first place.
For similar reasons, you might compile a list of questions that you would like to answer in the days or weeks ahead. Studies show that this simple step of identifying the current holes in your knowledge naturally sparks more curiosity, and subsequent engagement, in the relevant material. Your queries do not need to be profound: there is no such thing as a stupid question as long as your query prompts a desire to know more.
The physicist Richard Feynman may have put it best when he said: “Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough.” And with the proven benefits for your learning, creativity and general well-being, you may be pleasantly surprised where this new-found curiosity eventually leads you.
David Robson is a science writer and author of The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Transform Your Life, published by Canongate (UK) and Henry Holt (USA) in early 2022. He is @d_a_robson on Twitter.