Last week, when my six-year-old granddaughter was visiting for her weekly ‘date’ with me, she posed questions about why leaves on trees change colour in autumn, fall off, and re-generate in spring. She asked, “Wouldn’t it be easier for the tree to keep its leaves all the time”? We were admiring the yellow, red and rust-coloured leaves while she gathered samples for a school project.
As I’m not a biologist nor an arborist, I didn’t have a good answer. I talked about seasonal changes that plants endure and speculated that some types of trees, like people, needed to rest during the cold winter.
The answer seemed to satisfy my granddaughter. She is naturally inquisitive and observant about her environment. I breathed a sigh of relief and stopped myself from pointing out that spruce and pine trees stay green all year. I didn’t want to try answering another set of questions!
The questions sparked thoughts about the natural curiosity displayed by children. Children exemplify curiosity with incessant questions usually beginning with ‘why’ or ‘how’.
I wondered why so many of us lose curiosity as we grow older. Does this happen because we stop exploring the world around us through questions? Does it happen because we stop asking questions because we don’t want to risk sounding stupid? Does curiosity diminish because we limit how we pursue new ideas? Do we lose interest in how things work?
What is Curiosity?
Curiosity is the desire to learn. Annie Murphy Paul writing in TIME defines curiosity as the engine for intellectual achievement. As knowledge develops, curiosity gets fueled. We learn because we are curious.
Each of us is born with an innate curiosity. That’s why children marvel at the smallest of things and wonder about how things happen or how things work. They ask question after question until they receive a satisfactory answer. Sometimes the answer raises more questions as children want to understand the world around them. Finding answers propels their learning.
As adults, we lose the capacity to wonder about how things work. We stop asking ‘why’ questions. We don’t take time for close observation. We are busy looking for bigger patterns in the world. Most of us don’t want to sound weird by asking questions about how things work or why certain things happen.
Natural inquisitiveness is often hampered by programmed learning in schools and universities. Mastering necessary information to pass exams and attain diplomas or degrees can make learning a chore and not a means to receive the intrinsic reward of knowing something. Adult responsibilities further dampen curiosity for many of us. Earning a living becomes more important than asking questions about why leaves change colour.
How to Nurture Curiosity
As we age it’s important to find ways to keep curiosity alive. We need to intensify curiosity as there is evidence that curiosity may be memory-enhancing which means we want to remain curious in adulthood and in retirement. These techniques can help.
- Make curiosity a habit. We can foster the desire to learn new things and start to have fun learning. Retirement allows time for trying new things and actively seeking new experiences. Sparking curiosity may be as simple as using a search engine to find a piece of information or answer a question. The new experience might be an adventurous challenge such as trying a new sport such as wall climbing or learning to play chess.
- Spend time with children to observe their natural curiosity about common things. Listen to their questions and marvel at how their ideas are expressed in questions. Children ask ‘where does lightning go?’ or ‘why does ice melt?’ Children look closely at their surroundings. We can emulate the sense of wonder expressed by children. Of course, this may mean that we have to put away our screens and phones to look around! It may mean that we risk feeling stupid when we ask a question that seems obvious to others.
- Break or change routines to stimulate new ways of thinking. For example, you might try using your non-dominant hand to perform tasks. A favourite yoga teacher advises her classes to change hands for simple tasks such as brushing teeth. If you normally brush with your right hand, brush with your left hand to pay attention for new sensations that will challenge your brain. Finding ways to mix things up with occasional changes in routine makes the brain think differently. Other experts suggest taking different routes when driving to familiar destinations.
- Travel. Whether it’s a short day trip to a new place or a ’round the world’ adventure tour, travel creates new perspectives. Travel experiences enhance curiosity as we learn about other cultures. The real-life education from exploration boosts curiosity about how others live.
- Stimulate all 5 senses. Most of us are visual or auditory learners. For variety, let’s try learning through taste or smell or touch. Each of the senses gathers information differently and sends different signals to the brain. What’s not to love about the smell of freshly baked bread or the taste of good coffee with chocolate? Who doesn’t love the sensation of a soft cashmere sweater touching the skin? Experimenting with sensory experiences can trigger curiosity.
- Embrace a growth mindset. A growth mindset means thinking positively about the ability to learn continuously. Find ways to expose yourself to new ideas, diverse people, and different cultures. Keep asking questions and researching answers. Keep an open mind and explore various solutions/explanations for day-to-day problems; develop scenarios about how a situation could be different; explore perspectives of others; look for explanations for the odd things that don’t belong — you may learn to think about something in a different way.
- Ask yourself questions about the world around you. Dr. Google or your library can be used to answer questions, to investigate problems, and to find solutions. Finding answers and solving problems builds self-confidence and strengthens problem-solving skills.
Curiosity comes in a number of forms. Curiosity also changes as we grow older. Because interests diversify and change throughout a lifetime, it’s likely that the nature of curiosity also changes.
Nurturing curiosity in elder years creates the capacity to solve some of the dicey and difficult problems/questions of living. New ideas and exciting solutions arise when situations are confronted with questions. With perseverance and dedication, the answers may surprise us with more questions or new learning experiences. Staying curious as we grow older will add spark/passion/excitement to retirement — perhaps it will also help avoid cognitive decline!
Thanks for reading this post. I’m interested to hear reader suggestions for nurturing curiosity in retirement and staying young in body, mind and spirit.