For years, I have been wondering about how curiosity evolved.
It may be a silly question. After all, curiosity brings all sorts of benefits, especially when it comes to making us more creative.
But if you look back millions and billions of years to when the first life was evolving, there was real danger to being curious.
If you were an animal and you had everything you needed in your immediate surroundings (food, shelter and ability to reproduce), then why would you risk moving away from this safety?
After all, moving around could make you visible and susceptible to being prey for predators.
Or, travelling to a new area could result in danger through injury, lack of shelter, poisoning or dying due to lack of food or water.
So I used to think that curiosity must have evolved for survival. Animals would only move to try new things if there was a lack of resources where they previously were.
And then I saw stunning research that animals were actually more likely to be curious when all of their basic needs were met. In essence, when they felt safe and did not need to worry, this is what triggered their desire to try new things.
How could these two opposite drivers for curiosity exist? And which one was more true?
Then a few days ago, listening to the Tim Ferris podcast, I came across an amazing podcast with Dr Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist and tenured Professor in the Department of Neurobiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
In this episode, Dr Huberman describes one of the role of one of the brain’s primary neurotransmitters, Dopamine.
We might know Dopamine as the chemical associated with addiction, focus, rewards or motivation, which drives us to want more. Some scientists therefore refer to it as the “Molecule of More”.
Dr Huberman shows however that Dopamine actually has a different set of uses, which is that it is the universal currency of foraging and seeking.
Dopamine is the universal currency of foraging, seeking and wanting more.
We as humans, like with every living being, have a primary motivation, which is to reproduce. This in most cases involves us foraging and seeking for resources, which requires searching and finding more. After all, it would be impossible for our ancestors to survive by staying in the same place, as they would consume the food, water and other vital resources immediately around them, especially as families and tribes grew in number. This behaviour is in turn controlled by Dopamine. Even some of the simplest animals on earth, such as Nematode Worms, have Dopamine neurons, so it is almost universal in all animals.
Dopamine drives you to go out and get things, dopamine is released when you finally find what you are after.
But if you only got a hit of dopamine once you got what you were seeking, you would never have the drive afterwards to go seeking again. Essentially, one success would lead to you not being curious in the future.
This is where Dr Huberman’s research into Dopamine baselines and Dopamine peaks comes in.
His research shows that we all have a Dopamine baseline, which drives us to seek for what we are looking for. When we find it, we experience a Dopamine peak, which is like the “high” you get from winning, succeeding, gambling or other addictive behaviours.
But after that peak, you level of dopamine will drop below the previous baseline. This means you don’t experience that feeling of succeeding for very long. And the scale of the peak is related to the size of the drop below the baseline.
The more intense the high is, the lower you will feel afterwards.
This is why doing things for a second time rarely feels as good as the first time, like going to a restaurant you loved initially does not taste as good the second time.
So if you want to have more dopamine hits, you either need to go after bigger and bigger wins in the same field (which might then result in bigger drops afterwards). This can be achieved through deliberate practice, which is vital for developing our creative skills.
You could try finding peaks and hits in different places.
Which you can achieve by being curious and continually trying different things.
Ironically, dopamine has another property which can hamper creativity. Dopamine is also related to our ability to focus and be motivated. And too much focus on a single desire or idea can cause the brain to ignore other information and ideas. This can hamper the brain’s ability to find new associations between existing knowledge and actually inhibit creativity. In fact, neuroscientists have found that people with lower density of dopamine receptors have higher levels of creativity.
So it is about using the benefits of dopamine, to drive us to try new things and focus on improving through deliberate practice, which can keep us curious and open to new experiences.
We just need to make sure we don’t become so focussed and obsessed that it makes us less creative.
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