Updated: Mar 16
Everyone is innately curious. But not everyone explores their curiosity. The article's premise is that smart people let their curiosity beast out of their cage!
Table of contents:
Background and what makes someone smart?
Why curiosity becomes smart
The origins of curiosity
Adaptability - managing uncertainty to enable curiosity
Curiosity exploration and letting your curiosity beast free!
Conclusion and Notes
We begin by presenting a thought experiment that addresses the question "what makes someone smart?". After we contextualize the "what," we then explore why curiosity is the foundation for "smart." We connect the dots between smartness and curiosity. We then explore our neurobiology and how emotions impact curiosity. We then provide examples of how curiosity and adaptability help manage uncertainty. Finally, we provide our approach to curiosity exploration.
1. Background and what makes someone smart?
Next is a thought experiment we first provided in our article The case for range. Imagine if every person had access to a “smart-defining” app on their smartphone. Upon activating the app, it could provide a report suggesting the key reasons they are “smart.” For sure, the app report would look different for each person. The app would show how their smarts are different than others. It would also show you how they compare to the rest of the world.
People tend to define “smart” differently. There is no “one-size-fits-all” description. Some definitions include:
Our memory capacity or speed of recall,
Our speed of processing or reasoning finite topics,
Our ability to find commonality between disparate topics,
Our ability to understand and integrate emotion,
Our ability to build deep and enduring relationships,
It could be something else.
The smartness category we fancy may also relate to the personality preferences we naturally favor. For example, a person favoring extroversion may be more likely to "build deep and enduring relationships." As contrasted to a person favoring introversion, they may be more likely to favor "reasoning finite topics." [i]
For this article, we define smart from both the “inside-out” and the “outside-in.” “Smart” is when an individual reaches a higher-than-average level of mastery concerning some subject. That subject is generally considered successful in reducing entropy for those consumers of the subject.
In the notes, we cite interesting connections between the physics law of entropy and our work. The bottom line is that the work we perform from our “smarts” is directly related to economic value created for others. Higher economic value is comparable to reducing another's entropy. [ii]
Thus, our “smart” definition is taken from two perspectives.
Inside-out => The perspective of the mastery-providing individual. Their mastery is generally higher than the average level of mastery of all people in a subject, AND
Outside-in => The perspective of the market for that entropy-reducing subject. The market size (consumer demand) for the products or services supported by the entropy-reducing subject governs the number of people that may perceive one as smart.
For our imaginary smartphone app, both perspectives would be included to rate one’s “smartness” level.
Our definition of smart is relative and based on consumer preferences. For example, the smartphone is very popular today. But the common use of the smartphone is a relatively recent phenomenon. If consumers consider smartphone apps as a means to reduce their entropy, then a person achieving above-average app engineering mastery will be considered smart by smartphone-using consumers. If someone had developed app engineering mastery in the past, before the common use of the smartphone, they would not have been considered smart by many people. This is because the market did not yet value their mastery. [iii]
We may not always consider certain disciplines as having “smart” providers. For example, from an outside-in perspective, athletes may not rate highly. Following this “reducing entropy equivalence to smart” logic, the consumption of sports entertainment may not be considered necessary for reducing entropy. Even though, professional sports athletes achieve well above-average mastery specific to sports entertainment. In our notes, we describe how price sensitivity, or the microeconomic concept of demand elasticity, impacts our perceptions of smart.[iv]
So, this is a way to define “smart.” But what about different levels of smartness? Would most people consider Nobel-winning scientists smarter than those not receiving Nobel prizes? If you are considered smart by the mastery definition but have not received a Nobel, are you less smart? Then, what about polymaths? These are people that achieve deep mastery in multiple disciplines. Is a polymath without a Nobel less smart than a single-subject Nobel winner? It does seem our society rewards “narrower and deeper” over “broader and shallower.” [v]
The bottom line is, "smart" varies by individual and "smart" depends on the market perspective. We provided different characteristics and different perspectives (like Inside-out or Outside-in) on what makes people smart. [vi]
So far, we have only addressed the "what" makes people smart. We have not yet addressed the "why?" That is, what motivates someone to become smart? We address the "why" in the following sections. The underlying motivation for why someone seeks smartness has more to do with something we are all born with. That is, being smart is related to curiosity.
2. Why curiosity becomes smart
Ken Jennings is one of the all-time winningest Jeopardy players and a famous “smart person.” He has amazingly broad and encyclopedic knowledge. He also has incredible recall speed. When asked about being "smart," he was quick to relate it to curiosity. [vii]
"I would say the general rule is if I learn something once and I find it interesting, I think it's more likely to stick. But again, I think that's near universal. You know, somebody who thinks they have an unremarkable memory or a kid who can't learn their times tables, they still know every word of every song on their favorite album and they know every player on the roster of their favorite team. The memory is working just fine when engaged. Like the people you see on Jeopardy tonight. They don't have photographic memories. That's not a real thing. They're just interested in like ten times the things you are. And so more facts stick..."
Mr. Jennings suggests smart people are more curious people. I agree and believe we can further advance the definition of smart in the context of curiosity. My theory is that ALL people have the capacity for high levels of curiosity. Thus, all people have the capacity to be smart. So "smart" is less based on whether we have the capacity to be curious (which was likely initialized at birth) and more to do with the degree to which we use our natural curiosity. "Smart" has more to do with practicing curiosity as a learned behavior. My theory starts with this learned behavior not long after birth:
Toddlers were born curious -- that is why we must secure anything dangerous in our home located below three feet high! Our precious and precocious toddlers naturally want to explore it all. Their recent big increase in mobility provides means to explore the world they had only previously observed from their backsides. Exploration even includes placing interesting things in their mouth. For a toddler, ALL things are interesting! Why? Because one of the first things they learn after birth is that food is interesting and helpful to life. If food can be explored with the mouth, then why can’t everything else be explored with our mouth?! Toddler behavior is an example of early curiosity exploration we all share. People generally have this curiosity capacity when they are young. Progressive parents do not discourage their kids from being curious, they try to protect and channel their children's curiosity. Some children are taught to suppress their natural curiosity. [viii]
As such, my belief is all people have the natural capacity to be curious. As a result of experience, some may need to re-learn their curiosity behavior. Think of your curiosity as a caged beast. If you want to express your smartness, then let your curiosity beast free!
3. The origins of curiosity
People are emotional and curiosity is formed from our emotions. Curiosity, like other expressions of our humanity, is based on a mixture of emotion-based processes. For this section, we focus on the emotional building blocks relevant to curiosity.
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor is a Harvard University-trained neuroanatomist and the stroke-surviving author of My Stroke Of Insight. Dr. Jill said:
"Most of us think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, but we are actually feeling creatures that think."
This suggests our brains process sensory information and utilize "fast" emotion-based cognitive processes in advance of using "slow" and more logic-seeking cognitive processes. This has to do with human evolutionary biology, as unfolded over a half million years of human development. Our brains adapted to best survive our environment over this time. Until most recent human history, "thinking fast" was the only way to survive long enough to have children and pass on our genetic information. [ix] This is the basis for “natural selection” as brought to us by Charles Darwin. [x] The reference to fast and slow brain processes is attributed to Nobel prize-winning behavioral psychologist Daniel Kahneman. [xi] Dr. Kahneman is widely considered the founder of behavioral economics.
Our "emotion-first" brain processing state is a necessary byproduct of human evolution. It also creates in-the-moment challenges. Our fast brains are more likely to take mental shortcuts that create significant and predictable biases. [xii] These biases may impact our curiosity by reducing the accuracy of the information found in the sensory signal. Sometimes, we need to be even more curious by validating the information provided for our curiosity exploration. More on this in sections four and five.
Also, it has been shown that even when the opportunity is provided to think slower, we sometimes still rely upon initial "thinking fast" impressions. To dig deeper, please see the citation for the High Emotion & Low Language case in our notes. This model describes the "fast path" our curiosity emotion will generally travel. Notice that the sensory information bypasses our slower and more logic-seeking left hemisphere. [xiii]
Curiosity is based on emotion. I call it the "smart emotion" because it provides an emotion-based signal encouraging knowledge accumulation. This feeling also signals whether we "feel" we are learning and growing our understanding. Curiosity provides an emotion-based signal that motivates us to move forward productively and pursue our curiosity exploration.
Our brains attach chemical "tags" to sensory information. Those tags are formally known as "neurotransmitters." There are many kinds of neurotransmitters that provide for different emotions. The four primary curiosity-oriented neurotransmitters are dopamine, acetylcholine, oxytocin, and serotonin. These neurotransmitters combine to provide for and enhance our curiosity. [xiv]
Dopamine and Acetylcholine are reward neurotransmitters. Acetylcholine relates to the learning process and dopamine relates to the learning outcome. Acetylcholine rewards by providing calm and contentment to enable the learning process. Dopamine-based rewards are activated as an outcome of successful learning and when we receive positive feedback for that learning. Grace Lindsay is a computational neuroscientist. Dr. Lindsay said:
"Dopamine – which encodes the error signal needed for updating values - is thus also required for the physical changes needed for updating that occur at the synapse. In this way, dopamine truly does act as a lubricant for learning." [xv]
Oxytocin is our tribal neurotransmitter. Oxytocin causes a feeling of love as people connect. Oxytocin is both a neurotransmitter and a neurohormone. We desire to share our curiosity and learnings with others.
Serotonin provides a general sense of well-being. Serotonin stabilizes our mood and is present when we pursue our curiosity.
Curiosity is the result of a reinforcing feedback loop. Positive habits and positive reinforcement will enhance the curiosity feedback loop. The reinforcing nature of the feedback loop suggests it is like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once initiated, the feedback loop will become a habit. Habits have a way of sticking. Once habitualized, not being curious will seem strange. Encouraging the curiosity habit is enabled by “feeding your curiosity beast.” We will discuss approaches to feeding our curiosity beast in sections four and five.
Traveling the curiosity feedback loop:
1. It starts with learning, generally via practicing and doing tasks. The learning discipline is enabled by the mood-stabilizing serotonin neurotransmitter.
2. Improvement and mental efficiency then occur as tasks are habituated. The learning process is rewarded by the acetylcholine neurotransmitter. Improvement generally leads to positive feedback from those benefitting from the task execution.
3. That positive feedback is related to the oxytocin neurotransmitter. Positive feedback stimulates reward impulses via the dopamine neurotransmitter.
4. Dopamine causes the good feeling received by a job well done. This reward-based neurotransmitter information tag encourages more learning
... and the loop continues and leads to continuous improvement and enhancing our smartness.
As discussed in section two, if the toddler is provided positive reinforcement for "safe" curiosity, they will be more likely to explore their curiosity as they grow.
4. Adaptability - managing uncertainty to enable curiosity
Next, we explore adaptability and how we optimize the curiosity-enabled environment hosted by our brain. Adaptability enables curiosity. Curiosity realization occurs by adapting to what we learn.
Venture capital and early-stage investing offer relevant parallels for adaptability. Often, early-stage investors are looking for founders with adaptable mindsets. In other words, investors value founders with a curiosity that enable them to adapt to market reality. Sure, investors appreciate a good business plan, demonstrating a winning economic proposition. But early-stage investors also know that uncertainty has a way of seeping into even the best plans. As such, investors look for founders with the ability to adapt as their plans are inevitably challenged by the evolving marketplace. [xvi]
Natalie Fratto is a venture capitalist. Ms. Fratto provides some evaluation points to understand the adaptability of founders. These points are easily generalizable to test the degree to which curiosity and adaptability are expressed in our lives.
Do you regularly ask “what if” questions? - this indicates how comfortable you are stimulating counterfactual thinking.
How flexible are you with active unlearning? - this indicates your ability to quickly error correct.
Are you an explorer? - this indicates whether you prioritize exploration (testing) v exploitation (harvesting).
Entrepreneurship - Tina Seelig suggests a related perspective on managing uncertainty via a curiosity-enabled mindset. She addresses uncertainty from an entrepreneur's standpoint. Dr. Seelig relates uncertainty to the wind. The winds of uncertainty are constantly blowing. The wind can be erratic and unpredictable, blowing hard, light, or in unexpected ways. The idea is to build as big a sail as possible to catch the positive outcomes available from the winds of uncertainty.
Next are Dr. Seelig’s three ideas for building a big sail to encourage entrepreneurial success. These points are easily generalizable as ideas to help get the most out of your natural curiosity:
Take risks / get out of your comfort zone. Be ok with exploring uncertainty.
Show appreciation for those that help you understand the uncertainty.
Think of uncertainty as a doorway. Be open to new ideas and possibilities presented as uncertainty is resolved.
Changing our minds can be difficult. It seems even more challenging to convince someone else to change their mind. Beliefs tend to stir tribal emotions, like when our favorite football team wins or our least favorite political candidate wins. Our beliefs, while sometimes of mysterious origin, are foundational when evaluating a decision to change our minds. Applying a "change-ready" mindset is critical for adaptability and curiosity realization. We note that children are taught resilience and grit by their parents. Parents often use simple, high-impact rules such as:
“Winners never quit, and quitters never win.”
For adults, the truth is often more nuanced. Sometimes quitting a job or a bad relationship is very necessary. Sometimes “Winners really do quit!” We provide an article citation to explore how we change our minds, especially as it impacts our personal and professional growth. The cited article provides suggested tools to implement an adaptable and curiosity-enabled mindset. [xvii]
5. Curiosity exploration and letting your curiosity beast free!
In our article Curiosity Exploration - An evolutionary approach to lifelong learning, we provide an approach to curiosity exploration. This is an approach that has worked for me. I do find most people have a unique way of exploring their curiosity. I share this in case helpful to you as a means to travel your curiosity journey. Next, provided is the high-level curiosity exploration approach. Please check out the article for more context.
As a standard, I regularly experiment with various curiosity exploration approaches. I regularly make small adaptations to existing approaches and try new approaches and technologies. I’m a curiosity tinkerer. For me, my curiosity exploration has evolved based on both theory and experiment. This section describes my general approach to feeding my “always-on” curiosity engine.
As background, I am a big fan of the Kindle and eReaders in general. I understand this is controversial for book purists. Many accomplished people prefer paper books. N. N. Taleb comes to mind as a paper book purist, he has many valid reasons….just different than mine. For me, eReaders and supporting technology are a curiosity exploration game changer.
In the curiosity exploration article, the stepwise creative method for my curiosity enablement is described. This is accomplished via reading, thinking, connecting the dots, writing, editing, experimenting, and practicing. It is an evolutionary process that may be described as a heuristic learning spiral. Please see the “Climbing the reasoning spiral” graphic. My approach to learning is facilitated via a biological evolution-like model, including trial, error-correcting, and action-updating processes. The learning spiral uses reasoning associated with both deduction (like theory development) and induction (like theory testing and updating via practice and experience.)
We owe thanks to the ancient Greeks, like Aristotle, as well as Rene Descartes for defining and advancing deductive reasoning. Thanks to Leonardo DaVinci and Francis Bacon for their groundbreaking work on inductive reasoning and the scientific method. It was the stoics, like Marcus Aurelius, that taught us how to operationalize our curiosity. The ancient stoic philosophers taught the four tenets of Stoicism: wisdom, courage, justice, and moderation. The pursuit of wisdom and the courage to take "learned action" are core to Stoic beliefs.
I am reminded that understanding “why” (causation) requires doing. It is difficult to understand “why” only through observation (correlation). Randomized control trials (RCT) are the gold standard for “doing” a proper experiment to confirm causality. In recent times, natural “RCT-like” experiments have become accepted in the social sciences. This is important since being “in the wild” is often the only option for gathering social science-related data and insight.
Judea Pearl provides more causality context in The Book Of Why Dr. Pearl does a nice job of describing the importance of causation in terms of a ladder. Causality needs to get to at least the second rung of the causation ladder, whereas correlation is only at the first rung. Notice, we have to climb the “see” and “do” rungs before we get to the “imagine” rung on the causality ladder.
My experience suggests curiosity fulfillment is a balance of theorizing and doing. As such, to climb up the learning cycle, we need to do deductive and inductive exploration. I believe physicist Heinz Pagels said it best:
“The relationship between theory and experiment is like a dance in which sometimes one partner leads and sometimes the other.”
6. Conclusion and Notes
Curiosity exploration is one of life's great pleasures, along with faith, family, and friends. Beyond our formal education, curiosity exploration is an expression of lifelong learning. We provided a perspective on how curiosity is the key driver of what makes us smart.
My belief is, that rarely are people born to do some specific grand pursuit. Much more likely, via persistent curiosity exploration, we will receive both great pleasure and personal fulfillment. It is the curiosity-enabled process, not the product, that provides for our fulfillment. Curiosity enables us to adapt to our environment and to provide for our community. And, just maybe, a grand pursuit will be revealed by our curiosity!
We are born with the capacity to be smart. It is our natural curiosity that enables learning and intellectual growth. In this article, we provided a curiosity exploration framework, examples, and resources. We started by offering an operational definition of "smart," we then showed how our emotions, via a positive reinforcing feedback loop, help us grow and nurture our curiosity.
[i] Hulett, Creativity - For Both Introverts and Extroverts, The Curiosity Vine, 2022
[ii] Hulett, An example of the Stoic's Arbitrage - how our work enables kindness to others, The Curiosity Vine, 2021
Hulett, Fight Entropy: The practical physics of time, The Curiosity Vine, 2021
These articles provide background for how reducing entropy is the purpose of our work.
By the way, if the word “entropy” is causing confusion, you may replace it with the word “value” with only a modest loss of fidelity. As such, in the app engineering example, instead of “decreasing their entropy” one may replace it with “increasing their value.”
[iii] The notion of time revealing economic value in terms of reducing entropy relates to a quote from the 19th-century economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen. He said:
"Invention is the mother of necessity."
We provide a music history timeline example in the following article.
"In the "music machine" graphic example, it was the timely invention of streaming services like Spotify and Pandora that enabled people to improve the method by which they listen to music - that is - the music listening method that lowers entropy."
Hulett, Fight Entropy: Living your best life by using the practical physics of time, The Curiosity Vine, 2022
[iv] In economics, the "outside-in" mastery perception relates to demand elasticity. Elasticity is also known by the slope of the demand curve. That is the slope of the curve relating price to quantity demanded. The degree of elasticity relates to aggregate consumer sensitivity to the price of a particular product.
Inelastic: Need-based consumer goods are generally more demand inelastic. That is, their demand curve is steeper. The steeper the curve, the higher the degree of inelasticity.
A small price change relates to a small change in quantity demanded. Thus, more inelastic consumer goods are less price sensitive.
Elastic: However, a want-based good such as sports entertainment is likely more demand elastic. That is, their demand curve is flatter. The flatter the curve, the higher the degree of elasticity.
A small price change relates to a large change in quantity demanded. Thus, more elastic products are more price sensitive. This suggests sports entertainment is easily substituted by other entertainment alternatives.
By the way, at an individual level, you may feel sports entertainment is super important. You may be the sort of person that will "pay whatever it takes" to watch your favorite sports team. As such, you may be less price sensitive (i.e., relatively demand inelastic). This discussion of elasticity is at the aggregate level. So, you may be an outlier across the broader sports entertainment demand group.
[v] Malone, Laubacher, and Johns, The Big Idea: The Age of Hyperspecialization, Harvard Business Review, 2011
[vi] The question of genetics has not yet been addressed.
Is there something in our genome that impacts our smarts?
The answer is a potential "yes." The interaction between our genome and physiology (or phenotype) is complex. Genes are the blueprints to provide the protein building blocks for our physical existence. Also, our environment impacts our physical existence and provides a feedback loop for how our genes are expressed. Helpful citations are provided below. In general, our environmental compatibility impacts the full expression of our smarts.
For example, dyslexia is a genetically influenced condition creating challenges for our brain to interpret the written word. Birth rate estimates for dyslexia are in the 5-15% range. This is a big number, potentially over a billion people globally. It may be higher as learning disabilities are not always properly diagnosed as dyslexia. Given our environment often expects writing and reading as a means to increase synaptic development, this environment "could" keep a dyslexic from reaching their brain's "smart" potential. However, if different environmental conditions are provided, such as visual or relational learning, learning by doing, etc., then a dyslexic could reach their full "smart" potential. Richard Branson, a serial entrepreneur and the chairman of Virgin Atlantic, is certainly an example of a successful reaching of smartness via alternative means. Dyslexia is one example of how our genome interacts with the adaptability of our environment. Next is a plot of different gene-based conditions requiring environmental adaptability.
Process for developing "smart" with neuron and synaptic growth:
Hulett, Dreams are a window to our memories and healthy thinking, The Curiosity Vine, 2022
Gene and behavioral sources:
Mukherjee, The Gene: An Intimate History, 2016
Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, 2017
Richard Branson and dyslexia:
Doyle, Richard Branson Opens Door To Bigger Thinking On Neurodiversity, Forbes, 2019
[vii] Levitt, Ken Jennings: “Don’t Neglect the Thing That Makes You Weird” People I (Mostly) Admire, 2021 (bold and italic emphasis added)
[viii] There have been several studies completed on the development of curiosity as a behavior. In Hayden and Kidd's paper, they provide over 30 citations. They observe "...attention biases get the infant started down the road of knowledge acquisition." They make an interesting observation supporting the feedback loop and the dopamenic response. This suggests as knowledge complexity increases, the human desire to fulfill information acquisition increases. "The theories predict the learners will preferentially select stimuli of an intermediate level of complexity - material that is neither overly simple nor overly complex." They also mention evidence that curiosity will build over time: "...learners seek stimuli that match their preferred level of complexity, which increases over time as they build up mental representations and acquire more knowledge."
Kidd, Hayden, The Psychology and Neuroscience of Curiosity, Neuron, Vol. 88, Issue 3, p.449-460, 2015
[ix] Roser, Ortiz-Ospina, Ritchie, Life Expectancy, Our World in Data, 2019
As an indicator of our reduced need for physical protection has impacted human evolution, in the last 200 years, the world's life expectancy has more than doubled.
[x] Darwin, The Origin of Species, 1859
[xi] Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, 2011
[xii] For a nice compendium and taxonomy of our cognitive biases, please see:
Desjardins, Every Single Cognitive Bias in One Infographic, The Visual Capitalist, 2021
[xiii] Hulett, Our Brain Model, The Curiosity Vine, 2020
[xiv] Berry, Han, What are neurotransmitters?, Medical News Today, 2022
In terms of learning and curiosity, the reward neurotransmitters focus on different parts of the creative process. We explore introversion (acetylcholine) and extroversion (dopamine) in the following article:
Hulett, Creativity - For Both Introverts and Extroverts, The Curiosity Vine, 2022
[xvi] Hulett, Wayne Gretzky and creative-divergent thinking, The Curiosity Vine, 2021
[xvii] Hulett, Changing Our Mind, The Curiosity Vine, 2021
Duke, Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away, 2022