Notice. Wonder.


These two headings,  ‘I notice’ and ‘I wonder’, were written at the top of my son’s workbook page just after the first spring flowers bloomed, which had followed a particularly harsh winter. I asked him what he was focused on noticing and wondering. He described that his entire class went outside, sat quietly in the garden, and took note of how the world around them appeared and what that caused them to wonder about. 

That afternoon, when we went to the park, I consciously kept my phone on silent, sat on a bench, noticed and wondered. Everything was vibrant and alive. Birds were chirping, kids were running, and adults were smiling. This made me wonder about how the dreary winter dampened our spirits and how the sounds and sights of spring immediately lifted our mood. After focusing just a few minutes on noticing and wondering, my curiosity in the world around me left me feeling invigorated. The exercise of intentionally noticing and wondering teaches us to focus and naturally engages our curiosity. 

Why is curiosity an important trait to cultivate both as a child and adult? Two benefits are: it improves our learning and activates the reward circuits in our brains. A 2009 study utilized functional MRI and measured increased brain activity in structures related to reward that paralleled study participants’ curiosity about various trivia questions. Another study in 2014 measured brain activity while participants learned answers to trivia questions they had classified as highly curious about or not curious about, followed by an image of a neutral face. These results also showed increased activity in the brain circuits relating to reward, demonstrating that intrinsic, not only extrinsic, motivation may stimulate the reward circuit. When challenged to answer the trivia questions in a memory test, as one would expect, the participants remembered more answers to the questions they were curious about. Surprisingly, they recognized more of the neutral faces associated with those answers, suggesting that a curious state improves learning even for things we aren’t curious about.

Curiosity is often described as the desire and drive for learning and knowledge. It is a trait we associate with all children, but not all adults. As we age and learn answers to questions that puzzled us as children, it’s easy to become less curious. We can cultivate our curiosity by improving our ability to focus. When we’re focused and engaged, it’s more likely and easier to be curious. 

Try cultivating your focus with a simple exercise. Find an ordinary object, for example a coin or stone. Sit in a quiet place for 3 minutes and take note of the details of the object. What colors is it? Is its surface smooth, rough, bumpy? Is it shiny or dull? Next, ask yourself questions about its history and future. Where has it been? What could it be used for? Where will it go next? Do this without any expectation of the outcome. Notice how you feel afterwards. This practice may be expanded to consciously focus on any routine activity during the day and observe details that you previously haven’t. Over time, you may notice that you’re naturally more engaged and curious.