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3 ways to train your brain to be more curious

Worried that you’re not naturally curious? Here’s how you can develop the habit of learning.

3 ways to train your brain to be more curious
[Photo: Martin Sattler/Unsplash]

Often, when we’re weighed down with work and responsibilities, it can feel hard to be curious about the world around us. We may not readily conjure the same natural curiosity we had when we were kids and spent much of our time asking questions and learning about how things worked.

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Cultivating this mentality in our adult lives requires thinking about what makes us want to learn in the first place. Curiosity is, very simply, a desire to know more about things. There are two forms of curiosity: a specific curiosity, which focuses on a particular topic, and a general curiosity, which is the desire to learn about everything.

There certainly are some people who have a deep natural desire to know a lot about a variety of topics. I call these people expert generalists. They have two psychological traits that drive this desire to learn: They are high on the personality trait of openness to experience—meaning that they find new ideas appealing. They are also high on the trait of need for cognition—so they like to think about things. This combination means that when they are introduced to a new topic, they are driven to think a lot about it.

But even if you wouldn’t consider yourself an especially curious person, there are some things you can do to develop the habit to learn:

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Make lists

Chances are you encounter lots of things each day that you know little about. Just listening to a single news report, you’re likely to hear about several topics that—when you think about it carefully—you’ll realize you don’t understand that well.

If you’re not sure how well you understand something, try to explain it yourself rather than just hearing someone talk about it. For example, this morning on the radio, there was a report about inflation concerns that are leading to indications by the Federal Reserve that they may raise interest rates. Could you explain to someone why raising interest rates would curb inflation? Try it. If you stumble on the explanation, that’s something to put on the list of things to learn about.

You might be tempted to limit your list to only things you think are important. But, if you look at the most creative people, they tend to be individuals (like those expert generalists) who have knowledge that comes a bit from left field. So, leave a lot of items on the list that you don’t think are important. You may be surprised to find which of the things you learn that will turn out to be valuable later.

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Make it easy to learn

Most of us tend to do what is easiest. We play time-wasting games on our phones, in part, because they are right there, available all the time. If you want to learn new things, you have to make new information equally available.

Start by keeping that list of topics close at hand. When you find yourself with a few extra minutes at work, or standing on a long line, or waiting on hold, look up the next topic on the list and read a bit about it. After you read, quiz yourself by explaining it back to yourself. You don’t really have good knowledge until you can construct a good explanation for yourself.

Prep for learning as well. Find a podcast on a topic you’d like to know more about and line it up on your favorite app. Or buy an e-book or audiobook that you can keep on your phone. You can even go old-school and keep a book by your bed. Lately, I have been listening to presidential biographies while working out on my rowing machine. It’s an easy way to encounter something new.

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Buddy up

If you’re still not that motivated to learn, find someone who’s also interested in becoming more curious. Set up a meeting with them once a week with the goal of teaching each other one new thing every week. That gives you a regular goal to have something new to present to your buddy. It also forces you to learn the new information well enough to be able to explain it effectively to someone else—and that will make the overall quality of your knowledge much better.

If you can’t find someone interested in being your new study buddy, consider starting a blog. The aim isn’t to have a ton of followers, just to provide an outlet for your explanations of new things you have discovered. If you do post what you write to your social media, you might find that friends of yours pop out of the woodwork not just to read what you have written, but also to share their own learning journeys.

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