I remember, when I was 3 years old, obtaining a sudden interest in dinosaurs. I had no idea that my mother had been waiting for it. That very day, the house began its transformation into all things Jurassic. And Triassic. And Cretaceous. Pictures of dinosaurs would go up on the wall. I would begin to find books about dinosaurs strewn on the floor and sofas. Mom would even couch dinner as “dinosaur food, and we would spend hours laughing our heads off trying to make dinosaur sounds. And then, suddenly, I would lose interest in dinosaurs, because some friend at school acquired an interest in spaceships and rockets and galaxies. Extraordinarily, my mother was waiting. Just as quickly as my whim changed, the house would begin its transformation from big dinosaurs to Big Bang. The reptilian posters came down, and in their places, planets would begin to hang from the walls. I would find little pictures of satellites in the bathroom. Mom even got “space coins” from bags of This happened over and over again in my childhood. I got an interest in Greek mythology, and she transformed the house into Mount Olympus. My interests careened into geometry, and the house became Euclidean, then cubist. Rocks, airplanes. By the time I was 8 or 9, I was creating my own house transformations.
One day, around age 14, I declared to my mother that I was an atheist. She was a devoutly religious person, and I thought this announcement would crush her. Instead, she said something like “That’s nice, dear,” as if I had just declared I no longer liked nachos. The next day, she sat me down by the kitchen table, a wrapped package in her lap. She said calmly, “So, I hear you are now an atheist. Is that true?” I nodded yes, and she smiled. She placed the package in my hands. “The man’s name is Friedrich Nietzsche, and the book is called Twilight of the Idols,” she said. “If you are going to be an atheist, be the best one out there. Bon appetit!”
I was stunned. But I understood a powerful message: Curiosity itself was the most important thing. And what I was interested in mattered. I have never been able to turn off this fire hose of curiosity.
Most developmental psychologists believe that a child’s need to know is a drive as pure as a diamond and as distracting as chocolate. Even though there is no agreed-upon definition of curiosity in cognitive neuroscience, I couldn’t agree more. I firmly believe that if children are allowed to remain curious, they will continue to deploy their natural tendencies to discover and explore until they are 101. This is something my mother seemed to know instinctively.
For little ones, discovery brings joy. Like an addictive drug, exploration creates the need for more discovery so that more joy can be experienced. It is a straight-up reward system that, if allowed to flourish, will continue into the school years. As children get older, they find that learning not only brings them joy, but it also brings them mastery. Expertise in specific subjects breeds the confidence to take intellectual risks. If these kids don’t end up in the emergency room, they may end up with a Nobel Prize.
I believe it is possible to break this cycle, anesthetizing both the process and the child. By first grade, for example, children learn that education means an A. They begin to understand that they can acquire knowledge not because it is interesting, but because it can get them something. Fascination can become secondary to “What do I need to know to get the grade?” But I also believe the curiosity instinct is so powerful that some people overcome society’s message to go to sleep intellectually, and they flourish anyway.
My grandfather was one of those people. He was born in 1892 and lived to be 101 years old. He spoke eight languages, went through several fortunes, and remained in his own house (mowing his own lawn) until the age of 100, lively as a firecracker to the end. At a party celebrating his centenary, he took me aside. “You know,Juanito,” he said, clearing his throat, “sixty-six years separate the Wright brothers’ airplane from Neil Armstrong and the moon.” He shook his head, marveling. “I was born with the horse and buggy. I die with the space shuttle. What kind of thing is that?” His eyes twinkled. “I live the good life!”
He died a year later.
I think of him a lot when I think of exploration. I think of my mother and her magically transforming rooms. I think of my youngest son experimenting with his tongue, and my oldest son’s overwhelming urge to take on a bee sting. And I think that we must do a better job of encouraging lifelong curiosity, in our workplaces and especially in our schools.
By John Medina
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