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“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” —Albert Einstein

The philosopher Thomas Hobbes described curiosity as the “lust of the mind”. I agree that ‘deficit’ curiosity – a drive too ‘know’ something – is a version of desire. But apart from a brief moment of pleasure at having answered something unknown or forgotten, it’s of little benefit.

However, I have discovered a ‘secret’ that I’d love to share here!

The other version of curiosity, led by ‘interest’ or ‘intrigue’ is a superpower. I first became fascinated by curiosity as I was sit-skiing across the Greenland icecap, over a month-long journey into a vast white landscape. My body and mind were taken to new extremes. The physical pain of muscle contraction in my hands and shoulders, and the mental pain of twelve-hour days trekking in silence with little stimulation. There were many moments where I doubted we could do it, and I got fastidious with my thoughts.

“I have never felt in this much pain before…. I wonder what will happen next?” became my mantra throughout the crossing of the Greenland ice. Whenever my mind plummeted into anxious or over-whelming thoughts, this simple question released me. Instead of worrying about how we would manage or sinking into unhelpful thoughts of difficult or grim scenarios, the curious thoughts took me back to the moment in hand.

I recently discovered a body of research at the University of California Davis that goes some way to explaining this ‘freeing’ effect of curiosity. It’s rooted in the neurochemistry associated with curiosity. Students had to review a list of trivia questions, and rate their curiosity towards discovering the answer. At pique curiosity, dopamine pathways in the brain fired with more intensity. There was a stronger connection between reward centres of the brain that are wired to do more of the things that feel good and less of those that feel bad. The research suggests that the brain experiences curiosity as a reward. And thanks to the dopamine release, the process of interest- / intrigue-led curiosity feels good.

Research goes on to suggest that too little uncertainty about something fails to provoke curiosity, but too much provokes anxiety.

“Aha!!!” I had a light-bulb moment!

When we challenge ourselves – for example by choosing a ‘Quest 79’ challenge, we leave our world of comfort and begin a journey with uncertainty. We find our curiosity spikes…

“Can I do it?”; “What will happen if I do?”; “How will I feel if I succeed?” and so on.

If we take on a Quest which feels too stretching or overwhelming, we may go past the sweet spot of curiosity and feel anxious or stressed.

So, when you’re choosing a Quest 79, find that sweet spot that stimulates you enough to spark your curiosity. This will help your intrinsic motivation. It will keep you excited and stimulated and will help you accomplish your Quest. Just as my curiosity helped me cross Greenland.

Good luck and enjoy the journey!

Karen Darke

Author Karen Darke

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