S2E18 Curiosity

Humans are a curious species, although at times curiosity can cause anxiety or pain (i.e., think about the saying "curiosity killed the cat." Sorry to you cat lovers out there). In this episode, Dr. Rubin and Dr. Pete define curiosity as both a feeling AND a behavior, as well as discuss its relationship to willingness, openness, and acceptance. Curiosity is also highlighted as integral part of mindfulness practices. Curious as you read this? Listen to this episode to learn how to build deeper connections through curiosity.




Nikki: Pete we're talking today about, I feel like I would say, “it's one of my most favorite topics”,

Pete: How many favorite topics do you have?

Nikki: I think, I don't know, they're all my favorites. No such thing as a favorite child. Curiosity we're talking about today, which we talk about curiosity a lot. So I feel like it did needed its own episode.

Pete: It needs its own episode. So thank you for bringing it to our attention. Although, you're like the kid that cried wolf, too many favorite things.

Nikki: I know, I guess…

Pete: You just like a lot of things.

Nikki: Well, it's my geek flack, it's just I got a lot of flack. I do so. So today, we're talking about curiosity, which is a part of mindfulness though, not owned by mindfulness. It's something that everybody always, it's a common thing to talk about, like being curious, and why that's important and being open. But I think today, it's going to be really essential that we define what curiosity is. And I want to talk about sort of the relationship between curiosity, openness, willingness and acceptance, because I think those are, I always think of them as like siblings, like on a on a spectrum. Because it's something that we can learn to practice. It's a covert behavior. We talk about covert behaviors a lot on this podcast. And I want people to know that it's something that you can actually become more skilled at with time.

Pete: Yeah, I think it's, well, we've all heard it. And we're going to frame it from a behavioral lens.

Nikki: Of course, I mean…

Pete: Sometimes I'm not that curious.

Nikki: Really?

Pete: I don't know. I mean,

Nikki: I would never say that about you.

Pete: Really?

Nikki: No, you're super curious

Pete: Well, because sometimes I notice that I'm stuck in some of my ways, or I'm tired or burnt out in certain moments in my life. And so I'm just like, “Just get me to the end point”. And I think mindfully I bring it back. I know I'm starting with the negative, I'm sorry.

Nikki: No, you're not. I think you're starting with the human part, which is human.

Pete: Oh, I'm human.

Nikki: Yeah, you're human. Hey, hate to break it to you. Yeah, so what Pete's really highlighting is that sometimes it's difficult to practice curiosity, because, as Pete was just saying, he gets stuck in his ways, don't we all. We get stuck in our narrow way of looking at things or doing things a certain way, which we also say a million times, on When East Meets West, is a part of our design. Our brains are wired to think in black and white and more linearly. So curiosity can be really difficult. Maybe it'd be helpful if we started with, first I'm thinking of evolutionary psychology as where my mind goes first. And maybe explaining a little bit about…

Pete: You nerd.

Nikki: I know, well, yep. Not going to argue with you there.

Pete: But should I have a definition first?

Nikki: Well, yeah, go ahead.

Pete: Someone’s desire to know and learn something. I mean, this one's easy.

Nikki: That's easy, right. And so we can think about from an evolutionary perspective, why curiosity develops. So curiosity is one of these, like, it's both an emotion and a behavior. We can feel curious.

Pete: Well say more about that. Because I think that's going to be hard for people, go ahead. Break that down.

Nikki: Yeah, so I mean, well, so curiosity is a feeling we all know, like to… thank you, Pete for saying that definition. We know what it's like to want to know more about something. And then there's a way to also practice being curious, like actually investigating. And so if we think from an evolutionary psychology perspective, like to animals that are lower on the food chain than us. Pete, I'll ask you, why my curiosity develop as an emotion and behavior in the greater Animal Kingdom. Why would that be important?

Pete: I don't know. That sounds like a trick question to me.

Nikki:  It's really not. I don't know, imagine like…oh, I've heard an adorable article today about culture among animals like…

Pete: Oh my god of course, you would love that…

Nikki: Yes. It was in the New York Times today and it was talking about a chimpanzee who is just, I die laughing imagine that she started having some style, she took a blade of grass and would put it in her ear a certain way. I know, it's like, that's my spirit animal.

Pete: It is.

Nikki: And other chimpanzees in her in her social group started copying her and even after she passed away, it still exists. So anyway, side note, but there's definitely some curiosity or wanting to know or try things…

Pete: Well it's also fitting in?

Nikki: Well, sure, there it would be, yeah, it helps with social connection,

Pete: I’d love that story.

Nikki: Isn't that adorable. I just, I couldn't get enough. I was walking my dog earlier, just laughing thinking about it. Like that was like the coolest, I just love it. But so imagine though, those chimps, I don't know. They're like, out in the in the forest, and I don't know, maybe they see a new fruit that they haven't seen before. Why would curiosity be of importance?

Pete: It might bring them some food that they didn't have in the past?

Nikki: That's right, they might go investigate what it is.

Pete: They might go investigate, yeah.

Nikki: The might go investigate, so this is really foundational to exploration. Now I'm sure there are listeners that are hearing that and going like, “well, that fruit might be poisonous”, right?

Pete: That's right. Well, my mom would have said that. I honestly think that everything that grows on a tree is poisonous. Thanks, Mom.

Nikki: Well there is the trite saying, ‘curiosity killed the cat’. And it's like,

Pete: Well, she said that a lot, too.

Nikki: I'm sure she did. So yeah, curiosity doesn't guarantee, just like what we always talk about, that we own the outcome. We don't know what it's going to be. But it also helps us to explore and try things that are new.

Pete: Yeah. And you have to do that. Well, and I think what I'm getting at evolutionarily is, when you're in certain areas, or regions, if you're only eating grass, for example… Although, I think what those horses sometimes, and I guess, because they eat hay into their food, but there's a bunch of where I live, like, they're just out eating grass all day, doesn't it end, doesn't it stop? Grass doesn’t grow that fast.

Nikki: Right, and so you're saying, they have to go out and get curios about what else might be there?

Pete: Exactly, so it's like survival.

Nikki: Yeah, it's survival. Absolutely. And it contributes to learning, actually, to that point, it's about survival, it's like learning new food to eat, new social connections to be made, new places to live that if we didn't have curiosity, it would significantly impede our ability to grow, to learn new things. So with that baseline here, Pete, I would ask you, how might this apply to our modern human lives, and learning?

Pete: See what we like and don't like, curiosity helps. One of the metaphors I like to use is like a buffet. So you don't know what you like and don't like until you try. If you fill up on what you know like, then you're too full to try the other stuff that you're curious about, or that you're not sure if you like.

Nikki: Right, like if I only ever ate Domino's Pizza when I lived in New York, I would have never learn that New York pizza is pretty darn delicious.

Pete: Well, first of all, every New Yorker just rolled their eyes with that reference, New York Pizza rip Domino’s. You and I are the only two that think that that's okay. Secondly, I think our listeners need to hear that I still have the gift card for my birthday [inaudible 7:37] trying to spend so that it's done.

Nikki: To Domino’s.

Pete: To Domino’s.

Nikki: Yes, that's right, just to be clear.

Pete: If I could only eat that all the time, you would get tired. Yeah. And you want to see what else you like. Because maybe you like it with anchovies or with olives or with peppers. So remaining curious allows you to also see what you like and don't like. And that kind of makes me think about values. Because…

Nikki: You are literally just reading my mind.

Pete: Go ahead, Dr. Rubin.

Nikki: No, Only to say, that was literally the, those words were in my mind. So go ahead.

Pete: Yes, because I don't know where I want to go unless I've actually tried to go in certain places. I don't know if I like cold or warm water, or somewhere in the middle. I don't know, if I like a certain area or region of the country, or certain food I need to explore. And that's where curiosity comes in.

Nikki: Yeah, and this is also a lovely segue to talk about curiosity, is relationship with openness, willingness and acceptance. That which of course, all roads lead to mindfulness, part of mindful practice as well, which is that, in order to learn and to try things and move forward, including with our values and what we connect with, we have to be willing to take a risk, and without judging it. And I think that is where people tend to get stuck, because either they think like, if you're judging something as good or bad, it immediately shuts down your curiosity. Like you're saying, “I already know the answer. And this is the right way or the wrong way of doing something”, so that you're not going to try anything there. And it's also going to contribute to that false belief that you own the outcome, that you know what’s going to happen. We don't ever know what's on the other side of this moment.

Pete: Why do we get less risky as we get older? Are you becoming less risky as you're getting older?

Nikki: That's funny that you say that, because I was actually just thinking, I think it's…

Pete: The opposite?

Nikki: I think the opposite for some people

Pete: For you.

Nikki: No, I think it depends. I think some people get more entrenched in their rigid approaches or beliefs with age, they just keep practicing things that don't work. And I think other people with experience and exposure to all different types of people and ways of doing things that they become more flexible and they become more curious to say like, “you know what, I really don't know everything”. I'm always tell people like, “don't trust anybody that says they have the answers to everything because no one does”.

Pete: My mom always said don't trust anyone that says ‘Trust me’.

Nikki: Your mom is full of so many pearls of wisdom today. I love it.

Pete: Oh goodness, oh mom.

Nikki: Oh, mom. Yes, well, do you think that you're getting less…

Pete: Totally,

Nikki: Like with time, really?

Pete: Yeah. Well, except it's not when… I got defensive when you said rigid, because I don't feel like it's a rigid, less risk taking. I just feel like it's like… I like an aversion to fear and an aversion to risk, an aversion to adrenaline almost.

Nikki: Well, isn't that the definition of doing things in a linear way, though? It's a control oriented strategy. It's like the opposite of being curious. It's like… and I'm saying that without judgment. [inaudible 10:58] do that.

Pete: But like, I'll curiously look through the garden. I'll curiously try fruits in the tree in my garden.

Nikki: Well, so what you're saying is, “I'll practice curiosity when it feels comfortable”.

Pete: That's right, yes. That's better, thank you.

Nikki: Yeah.

Pete: Well, because, well, maybe go break that down more. Because we start off by saying it's both a feeling and a behavior. I think the listeners have a sense of the behavior.

Nikki: Or maybe they have a sense of the feelings, the behavior would be, because if what Pete's saying is that there are certain things that make him feel uncomfortable. And so you're like, “it's hard for me to practice curiosity in those moments. That's right, because it's like saying, this is where the sibling of curiosity comes in, willingness. You're saying “I'm not willing to feel anxious and try this curious behavior at the same time”. And so this is actually related to our motivation, versus willingness episode, where we talk about willfulness versus willingness where we can you can feel willful, which is like, ‘I don't want to do something’, and practice the behavior of willingness and openness and curiosity. So, yeah, I mean, it's actually hard to practice curiosity. It takes effort. I mean, think about being curious about somebody who disagrees with you.

Pete: Yeah, well, and that's a good strategy. It's an effective strategy. So in Episode Five, when we talked about willingness and motivation, we looked at, like the motivation. And so my motivation of talking to someone who doesn't agree with me might be that I want to get a job promotion, or get along with my in laws that I don't really like, because those are strategies that would help me relate and connect. But right, and the value there is driving it differently. So I think that's what… ultimately we're going to ask people to look out for the behavior is what's driving their curiosity or value?

Nikki: Well, I would say it's more the value. Because I think it's more that the behavior when you… instead of expecting yourself to feel curious first and then practice, which could certainly happen. A lot of times what we have to do is practice the behavior of curiosity…

Pete: Oh, yeah, I like that.

Nikki: To open us up, because that's what I think about when I'm meditating, actually, because in mindfulness, mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to and experiencing the moment as it is. So it's like I'm practicing just doing that, I’m mindfully coming back to observing what's happening, but I might not feel open when I sit down. I might be like, “oh, I got stuff to do”, or like, I'm tired” or whatever.

Pete: Of course.

Nikki: I mean, does that resonate with you?”

Pete: Yeah. And that's important for people to know, it sounds like every time I meditate, I'm like, “this is the best thing ever”. I mean, there are times when I can't wait to meditate. And I want to and I just don't want to get up. And there are times where I'm like, counting the clock or waiting for the bell to ring. So should I segue into like some of the Zen, Buddhist…

Nikki: Yeah, I would love to hear that. Yes.

Pete: I'm not 100% sure, because we come back to the translation again. But I think the way that I would try and integrate this would be around concentration. Because I think with…and clarity, so oftentimes, there's been some writings within the Buddhist literature that look at that sitting or meditation creates this relationship between concentration, clarity and equanimity. So we've used all those words here, previously. And so with this right, or by developing this greater concentration, I typically get more clarity. And that's what the silence sitting does, and it helps to create this potentially curiosity, right, insert what [inaudible 14:35]

Nikki: Yes, exactly.

Pete: And then also equanimity, because that's ultimately what Zen is about. It's about untangling what we've learned, so that we can create this homeostatic equanimity state. And I think through curiosity, you're able to figure that out. And what came to mind as we were talking about this risk, as I so vulnerably shared my…

Nikki: Yes.

Pete: My decline. Is that that's equanimity. I've had moments in my life that were really risk taking,

Nikki: Can you define equanimity for people, because I bet there's some people that maybe haven't heard that word or are not exactly sure what it means.

Pete: So think of a scale at, what are these scales called, Nikki?

Nikki: Like a balance?

Pete: A balance, is that what it’s called?

Nikki: I think it’s called a balance, yeah.

Pete: So think of a balance. And equity is when both levels are at the same place. So if I put an apple on one, I need to put an apple on the other to have that balance. But if I put like a 20 pound weight and an apple on the other, there's going to be like, real imbalance there. So what we're trying to do in equanimity, which I believe occurs through meditation, is create a stillness of that balance. And that's what equanimity is within Buddhist teaching. How'd you like that metaphor?

Nikki: I loved it. That was beautiful. And what came to my mind as you were talking was, okay, so I think another way curiosity is related to that, is that if we're looking for things to always feel good, you're out of balance. You're not opening up the space that Pete and I always talk about for, pain and discomfort is an inevitable part of being alive. For whatever living being you are on this planet,

Pete: Life is suffering,

Nikki: Life is suffering. And so if you're saying, ‘nope, it's got to be this way it's got to feel good. It has to go the way that I want it to', it's out of balance. And curiosity helps us open up our eyes and our minds too, our experiential part of ourselves to let all of that in, which from what Pete, you're saying, tell me if I'm hearing this right, that's what brings balance.

Pete: That's right. That's exactly right. And so being able to see these things, again, all linked to clarity, because I think we're so loud as a species.

Nikki: The loudest, because our minds are so loud, they're so chattery. It's the downside of language, it's just our minds don't shut up, frankly.

Pete: No, and they shouldn't. I mean, there's a strict statement there, as if they're meant to.

Nikki: No, totally. That's exactly right, they're just doing what evolution selected for them to do. And that's helpful in some ways, and not in others.

Pete: Yeah,

Nikki: I think another important piece here, when it comes to curiosity, and if we can, kind of link back to some Western science here is this concept of like being a scientist, actually. So one thing I often tell patients is, of course, I'll weave in eastern stuff, too, is like, I'll say, “when practicing mindfulness and meditating”, I'm like, “it's like being a scientist with yourself”. You're gathering data about how your brain works. Like, do you tend to get distracted by sounds? Do you feel uncomfortable when you're meditating? It's just information. And when you're curious, you can take in that data, and then decide what you want to do with that. And I say to people, that's how that's how scientists run experiments. They don't go in saying, ‘this is how it's going to turn out'. Or they don't go in saying, ‘What if this bad thing happens', or ‘what if the experiment doesn't work’, or ‘what if it's the greatest experiment ever’, they go, ‘you know what, we're going to gather the facts'. And then we're using curiosity, and openness, ‘and then we're going to formulate a hypothesis, and then we're going to try something'. And so, curiosity affords us the opportunity to be clear about what our hypotheses are, and then try something different. And so anyway, I think that's just another important piece to this. Is that something you talk about with patience too?

Pete: Yeah. I mean, we love data. I mean, so it's…

Nikki: Love data, love it.

Pete: Love data gathering. And we can't make decisions without data. I mean, I guess that's the social scientists in us, is that I can't just walk into a forest, I need to know where I'm going.

Nikki: Yes, and that's a lovely place too. We can't just walk into a forest; you have to know where you're going. You need to have your compass out in the direction about where you might want to go and then begin to explore. So listeners, I hope from this episode, you will consider areas where you are practicing curiosity, where you can perhaps cultivate some more curiosity, and then be open to seeing whatever data comes and go from there.

Nikki: This has been When East Meets West. I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin.

Pete: And I'm Dr. Pete Economou. Be present. Be brave.

Pete: This has been When East Meets West, all material is based on opinion and educational training of doctors Pete Economou, and Nikki Rubin.

Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only.