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Curiosity has long been associated with creativity and artistic expression. As Zora Neale Hurston once put it,

"Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose."

A research team comprised of Daphna Shohamy and Ran Hassin of Columbia University, Thalia Wheatley of Dartmouth, and Jonathan Schooler of University of California Santa Barbara confirmed a strong relationship between general-interest curiosity and creative thinking. They also found that creativity is particularly associated with mind wandering.

While past research has focused on mind wandering’s negative impact on happiness and well-being, Schooler found that not all mind wandering is created equal. One of his lab’s previous studies showed that when people mind wander, they become less happy than when they’re mentally present and on task. “But we also asked people to indicate what they were mind wandering about. And if they were mind wandering about something they were especially interested in, they were actually happier than when they were on task.” This discovery led him to distinguish between mind wandering and what he termed “mind wondering.”

Mind wandering can cause us to ruminate in the past, stew in worry about the future, or obsess over others’ perceptions of us. Mind wondering, on the other hand, is a playful and curious state in which the mind wonders about something it finds particularly interesting. In mind wondering, our thoughts amble through an inviting and invigorating mental landscape. As Carl Jung put it, “The creative mind plays with the object it loves.” Mind wondering helps explain why many of our best ideas catch us by surprise while we’re washing dishes, strolling through the woods, or—in the classic example—taking a shower. This kind of curious and receptive mental state is essential for creative thinking.

Cultivating a state of curiosity

One of the team’s most exciting discoveries was that curiosity—particularly the exploratory and delighted kind—can be encouraged. “While curiosity is a trait, it’s also a state,” says Schooler. “And we find that you can cultivate that state with particular activities.”

It turns out the most effective activity for encouraging a state of openness and wonder is also a simple one: Ask questions. Like Socrates encouraged his students long ago, encouraging ourselves to ask questions helps us to embody a stance of general-interest curiosity. “When you’re faced with thoughts going through your mind or in a situation where you’re encountering information, just think about: what questions do I have here? That seems to be the way to get the mind into a natural questioning kind of state,” says Schooler. 

In one of his team’s studies, researchers asked a group of participants to read an article and summarize the basic elements. They then asked a second group to read the same article, but rather than summarize it, they were prompted to imagine questions they’d like to ask about what they read. The group that was prompted to ask questions was more likely to read other articles beyond what they received in the study. The age-old practice of asking questions created an appetite for learning more.

Asking questions as a way to cultivate curiosity also holds true in the context of social connection. People who ask questions and really listen to the responses encourage a change in brain activity. They create more neural flexibility through open, exploratory questioning. And the people who do that, Wheatley found, not only have the ability to receive and integrate other people’s points of view, but they also act as hubs in their social network.

“The people who are highly central to the social network, who are well connected to others, have a curiosity for other people's ideas [that allows them to] really listen and take on board what others are saying.”

It’s also possible to train your mind to practice mind wondering rather than drifting into the less beneficial habit of mind wandering. When your mind meanders off task, Schooler suggests, simply direct your thoughts toward a topic you find interesting. “If you find your mind returning to some ruminative thought, think about some idea that arose in a documentary or something you read in the newspaper that you’re curious about,” suggests Schooler. It may help to compile a mental list of topic areas you’d like to chew on. That way, you have a menu of intriguing options to explore the next time your thoughts drift. 

Want to cultivate a hunger to learn? Start by asking questions. Take delight in what you don’t know and practice deep listening around others. When your mind wanders, nudge it to wander with a purpose, and maybe your curiosity will lead you to thrilling new places. At the very least, you’ll be more likely to stumble upon your next good idea in the shower.