Curiosity, according to Ian Leslie, is said to come about by our awareness of an information gap.
An information gap is that uncomfortable feeling that you don’t know something you think you should. You recognize the known unknown, a hole in your pool of knowledge.
“The more we know, the better we are at thinking.”—Curious
When an information gap strikes you, you suddenly feel the urge to learn, a drive towards greater understanding. You need to fill in that piece of your puzzle.
The drive to learn is one of four motivating factors as defined by Paul R. Lawrence and Nitin Nohria in their book Driven. The others being the drive to bond, the drive to defend, and the drive to acquire.
They argue that the drive to learn is what has propelled every culture on Earth to create myths and stories of the afterlife—we need answers and coherence, and struggle to live happily without them.
Our drive to learn is enticed by information gaps. But not all information is made equal.
Ian Leslie points out two forms of curiosity:
- Diversive curiosity: a craving for novelty, it’s what sparks engagement with a subject to begin with, but can be impulsive and superficial. It’s this curiosity that has us swiping through Facebook and Twitter — we follow links and read headlines that are interesting, but it is directionless, it lacks a higher purpose, it’s simply fulfilling a fleeting desire.
- Epistemic curiosity: we want to learn something new, something specific. This type of curiosity has a direction, a purpose, it’s a conscious decision that requires self-discipline and focus.
Both forms provide an important balance. One sparks interest in something new, something we hadn’t considered before; the other drives further engagement and motivates us towards a fuller understanding of that topic.
Easy Access Answers
These days, when people have such an information gap, they usually turn to Google. With answers to almost everything popping up in mere seconds, it’s no wonder.
It’s great that we have such a powerful learning tool like the internet at our immediate disposal. But, there is a problem: if we get answers easily, do we remember them?
Learning is not supposed to be easy. Robert Bjork defined the most effective methods for learning as the “desirable difficulties.”
“We are poor judges of when we are learning well and when we’re not.”—Make it Stick
The most effective ways to learn are counterintuitive. When we find things too easy, we’re likely succumbing to the fluency illusion — we believe the things that come to us easily and without surprises.
We learn best when we struggle to find the answer — the difficulty signals to the brain that it’s important. Your effort is an indication of a need to know, a marker of necessity.
If you want to learn in an age of quick and easy answers, you need to inflict some pain.
How to get around the easy answers to properly plug your gap:
1. Generate an answer. Don’t go straight to Google, think about it, problem solve, be creative. Even if you’re completely off the mark, research suggests that the act of trying to come up with an answer causes the real answer to become more memorable.
2. Set a study reminder. Having to retrieve the answers from the depths of your mind at a later time — also known as testing — promotes longer retention. When you discover the answer to your question, use that question as an alarm on your phone or calendar so that it’ll alert you the next day, at which point you try to recall the answer. You can repeat this, using longer periods in between those you answer correctly.
3. Keep asking questions. Don’t be happy with one answer, continue exploring, making new connections. Facts aren’t good by themselves, they gain weight through relationships, when they become part of something bigger. Find the real-world applicability, tie the answer into your life.
“Asking good questions stimulates the hunger to know more by opening up exciting new known unknowns.”—Curious
The more you learn the more connected your mind becomes. Follow your curiosities and never stop asking questions.