How Curiosity Works and Why You Should Care

  |  January 5, 2012   |  Comments

If you want to be a good analyst, manage analysts, and become an integral part of a data-driven organization, curiosity is the most crucial attribute you can have.

"The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny.'" - Isaac Asimov

Are you curious? If not, I can't imagine that you have spent any time reading articles on measuring and optimizing the success of your interactive marketing efforts. That's what I've been writing about for the past 16 years.

In order to be a good analyst, in order to manage analysts, in order to become an integral part of a data-driven (or simply data-informed) organization, curiosity is the most crucial attribute a person can have. Even more important than math skills. A mathematical genius with no curiosity is the same as a spelling bee master with no story to tell.

Curiosity is vital to invention, innovation, and keeping the cat population under control. Curiosity means you are open-minded, engaged, interested, and generally more interesting.

But what is curiosity? As it turns out, it's how the brain rewards itself for learning.

The brain rewards itself with drugs. In this case, we're talking about dopamine. It's that emotional rush you feel when you achieve realization; that moment that makes you cry, "Ah-ha!"

I just figured out what to get my niece for her birthday and she'll love it!
I just figured out how to get my car started in the snow!
I just figured out how to sell more blue widgets to Eskimos!

That flash of realization comes with a little squirt of dopamine to deliver a positive feeling. When the hypothesis is tested and proven true, another shot of dopamine reinforces the neural connections to reinforce the memory of that solution.

Some realizations are so strong and emotionally charged that a repeat performance is not necessary.

The stove is hot!
Barking dogs bite!

The truly curious individual will risk pain and suffering for knowledge.


Some realizations take a few iterations before the conclusion sinks in.

Beer and vodka don't mix.
Driving too fast really bumps up my insurance costs.
Showing up late for work hurts my chances for a promotion.

The mechanism of realization and a brief, dopamine brain high is an evolutionary strategy to make learning fun. The more we learn, the more likely our antecedents will outnumber those of our competitors.

One study got up close and personal with brain chemistry:

...When specific proteins in mice brains' dentate gurus were increased, brain cells changed how they communicated with one another. The animals' memory during complex tasks - and the level of exploratory behaviour - increased. However, when the proteins were blocked in this small brain region, curiosity and spatial memory decreased. Researchers say that they believe they've found a model for how brain activity leads to curiosity and that their findings, published in the journal 'Neuron' may lead to the development of drugs that improve human learning.

Another study got up close and personal with human subjects:

We scanned subjects with functional magnetic resonance imaging while they read trivia questions. The level of curiosity when reading questions was correlated with activity in caudate regions previously suggested to be involved in anticipated reward. This finding led to a behavioral study, which showed that subjects spent more scarce resources (either limited tokens or waiting time) to find out answers when they were more curious. The functional imaging also showed that curiosity increased activity in memory areas when subjects guessed incorrectly, which suggests that curiosity may enhance memory for surprising new information. This prediction about memory enhancement was confirmed in a behavioral study: Higher curiosity in an initial session was correlated with better recall of surprising answers 1 to 2 weeks later.

Until we can hand out Curiosity Pills, it is your responsibility to remain curious, to foster curiosity in others, and to hire people who are curious.

How do you foster curiosity?

  • Study "creativity techniques."
  • Get your hands on some IDEO Method Cards.
  • Go to lunch someplace you've never eaten before.
  • Go buy and read a magazine about something you know nothing about.
  • Audit a course at your local university on an unrelated topic.
  • Stretch your mind.

The most interesting man in the world says, "Stay thirsty, my friend." What he should say is, "Stay curious, my friend."


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Jim Sterne

Jim Sterne is an international consultant focused on measuring the value of the online marketing for creating and strengthening customer relationships. Sterne has written eight books on using the Internet for marketing, produces the eMetrics Marketing Optimization Summit and is co-founder and current chairman of the Digital Analytics Association.

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