Curiosity Fixes and Creativity Plummets: Our minds on Google
Updated: Oct 24, 2020
By Michael Whaby
“Curiosity (noun): desire to know” – Merriam-Webster
“… creativity: generating a concept that is both novel and useful” – Adam Grant
Curious about how designers were going to find a place to stay with the World Design Congress coming to San Francisco, Joe Gebbia emailed an idea to Brian Chesky on September 22, 2007 that would initiate ground zero for an original, creative company: Airbnb. Today, over 10 years later, you can book with Airbnb almost anywhere in the world. I wanted to use Airbnb as an example to highlight the teamwork between curiosity and creativity. To oversimplify, Fig. 1 displays how creativity can be generated:
Yes, curiosity can yield creativity; action is needed, though. Without action, creativity is just a thought, or an imagination. You can get stuck in the imagination–curiosity–observation loophole. This is like a mitotic cell in the G0 phase of the cell cycle, where division and growth are halted. Think about the year that Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia decided to act upon this curiosity. 2007. Wait, when did the first iPhone come out? 2007. And it just so happens, around the same time, people were starting to hear about this crazy taxi-like idea named Uber—talk about a great time for business and creativity.
If you can’t tell, I love learning about these creative startups that began with original ideas. Keep in mind, the resources back then were very limited compared to what we have now. Access to most information today is seemingly effortless with search engines like Google. Should any curiosities arise in our brains, Google can answer our questions immediately.
As drug addicts are addicted to drugs, curiosity junkies can become addicted to the instant satisfaction of immediate answers. If curiosity is beaten down immediately after its initiation, could this affect creativity? There’s kind of a science to it. Let’s talk more about curiosity first.
To curiosity, information is like a drug. Curiosity is that desire, or itch, to obtain knowledge in some domain. If information is the drug, search engines are the drug dealers—with Google running the majority of street corners. This instant gratification can prevent our curiosities from reaching their creative potentials. As we’ve seen in Fig. 1, curiosity has the potential to fuel creativity, but that potential is lost when we provide instant gratification and cut curiosity short.
When I mentioned there was a science to it, there really is. There is evidence that curiosity and the anticipation of obtaining new, desired information stimulate dopaminergic activity in the brain (1). Dopamine is part of the “reward system” in the brain. Among various physiological roles, dopamine plays a role in the feeling of pleasure, achievement, and in extreme circumstances, addiction. When you accomplish something big, that rush, or feeling of achievement, is largely due to dopamine.
Much like how fear and anxiety are directly proportional to the amount of time anticipating the cause of it—the longer you are scared of something the more intense that fear becomes—the longer you act on curiosity the more creative potential you accumulate (if you haven’t yet, check out Fear of Imaginary Things here). Unfortunately, instead of allowing our curiosities to flourish, we fulfill them as soon as they arise.
But we shouldn’t be so fast as to blame Google for these actions. Google may provide a quick answer, but most of us are just as fast to assume that the first thing we see is correct. The vast amount of information available presents another problem. How do we sort through the shit—what is good and bad information. Fig. 2 illustrates some common themes among curiosity junkies:
As a researcher, I am usually in the B section of Fig. 2, falling down many rabbit holes; however, each rabbit hole can be a new lead. The problems with curiosity arise when people lack the skills necessary for identifying and filtering out the bad sources.
What is a good way to filter this information? If you happen to become curious about a topic that you are unfamiliar with, Google is a good starting point. Even when sifting through scientific literature, I begin there. I find that Google delivers a good variety of primary literature mixed in with some other sources that may be useful as well—there is also Google Scholar, which mainly provides primary literature.
And dare I say Wikipedia is a great resource that receives too much shade. I’m not telling you to site Wikipedia for an assignment or anything, but it is one of the best sources to gain a general idea of what you’re trying to understand. There are also many links and resources available on Wikipedia pages that serve as great resources as well. Once you understand the topic a bit more, you can conduct a more concise, educated search to avoid endless rabbit holes or frustration.
Now, let’s talk more about creativity and tie in what we know about curiosity.
We have briefly touched on the relationship between curiosity and creativity in the opening paragraph, but there are more connections to make—there’s a science to it. To elaborate, remember how curiosity and the anticipation of desired knowledge increased dopaminergic activity? Well, studies have linked an increase in dopamine levels with increased creativity (2,3). Fig. 3 displays the proposed relationship between curiosity, dopamine and creativity:
I want to talk about drugs again. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is regulated by factors that release it, and other factors that deplete it. Cocaine prevents dopamine from being depleted efficiently—it blocks the re-uptake of dopamine—allowing it to have a longer-lasting and stronger effect. Overuse of cocaine desensitizes our bodies to this effect, ultimately leading to addiction.
To understand with an analogy, pretend you are bowling; it is easier to hit some pins on the first throw when there are 10 pins to hit—the bowling ball would be the drug and the pins would be receptors that elicit the reaction to the drug. What a rush! You knocked down some pins! That was great! After that, say there is only one pin left standing, it will be much harder to knock that pin down. The more frequently that we stimulate our minds, the more conditioned and normal the response becomes. When quick fixes become the norm, they are no longer quick fixes—they are just normal fixes; when a drug addict uses a drug for so long, they are not normal without the drug.
Relate this back to the quick fixes of curiosity. If curiosity is continuously obliterated by the instant gratification of quick answers, our creativity will surely take a hit. When on a quest to find answers to questions that have no answers yet, it is impossible to get a quick fix. As a researcher, you utilize the scientific method to go about answering unanswered questions; this usually starts with an observation. The creativity of this process arises from forming and testing hypotheses—an “educated guess” about what is happening. Once the hypothesis is tested via a designed experiment, the results will either confirm or deny it. Neither is bad, as both will lead to a better understanding of what is at question.
What initially pulled me towards the field of research, instead of clinical medicine, for instance, was the rush I would get from anticipating the results of an experiment. This requires interest, and if I didn’t have interest in the research at hand, then I wouldn’t have experienced that rush. Guess what! That rush was, at least in part, due to dopamine. That rush also fueled my curiosity. But did it make me more creative?
They say knowledge is power, but how that knowledge is treated is what really matters. To Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist and author of Originals, creativity is the generation of novel ideas that are useful. But remember, unless there is action, these ideas are just imaginations. “Originals”—those who don’t conform to the norm—work to make these ideas a reality. Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky of Airbnb were originals. They were also shameless. It took an immense amount of grit to make other people—investors as well as the general public—see the potential of their startup. But one curiosity spark after another, followed by one creative idea after another, and with action upon these creative ideas suddenly followed one of the most successful companies in the hospitality industry today.
References and Resources
1. Gruber MJ, Gelman BD, Ranganath C. States of curiosity modulate hippocampus-dependent learning via the dopaminergic circuit. Neuron. 2014 Oct 22;84(2):486–496.
2. Lhommée E, Batir A, Quesada J-L, Ardouin C, Fraix V, Seigneuret E, et al. Dopamine and the biology of creativity: lessons from Parkinson’s disease. Front Neurol. 2014 Apr 22;5:55.
3. Zabelina DL, Colzato L, Beeman M, Hommel B. Dopamine and the Creative Mind: Individual Differences in Creativity Are Predicted by Interactions between Dopamine Genes DAT and COMT. PLoS One. 2016 Jan 19;11(1):e0146768.
Grant, A. (2017). Originals: How non-conformists move the world. Penguin Books.
Stone, B. (2017). The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World. Hachette Book Group.
Berger, W. (2014). A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas. The Bloomsbury Group.