Why we Need to Embrace our Curiosity about the Future


Technology and humanism was the topic of my Ignite Austin presentation in 2011. My goal was to redefine the question of a vision for the future of tech. To me, the opportunity is for women AND men to co-create as connected minds on issues like sustainability, literacy, health and diseases, the economy, and much more. 

    We need our brilliant minds alive to the possibility of collaboration, and we need to redefine the idea of smarts, because it's not just about expertise and competence, both important, but also about understanding of the issues, empathy, and a willingness to put ourselves into each others' shoes.

    Umberto Eco says, “We like lists because we don't want to die.” Lists create culture. What kind of culture do we create when we continue to separate men and women on different lists? We're all going to die, eventually.

    But while we're here, if we are to make significant progress, we need to go from two lists of men or women individually — grouped by professions — to one with teams of women and men, grouped by expectation of what we want the world to look like.

    This is the logical step for humanity. The question then becomes, how do I get technology to help with that?

    As we debate the role of technology in our lives, we are also facing an enormous shift in the types of jobs of the future near and longer term. It's hard to pinpoint exactly which jobs we'll have, aside from those we are creating right now.

    In What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelley says the idea is to become more of what we already are, human. Whether we agree with his point of view or not, unless we plan to write ourselves out of existence, our role is to to do the imagining, to invent, and create.

    To have a future, we need to embrace our curiosity about the future. Researchers at UC Davis Center for Neuroscience have found that piquing our curiosity changes our brains. Investigators found that it increases activity in the brain circuit related to reward.

    “Curiosity may put the brain in a state that allows it to learn and retain any kind of information, like a vortex that sucks in what you are motivated to learn, and also everything around it,” says Matthias Gruber, a postdoctoral researcher at the center. “We showed that intrinsic motivation actually recruits some of the same brain areas that are heavily involved in tangible, extrinsic motivation.”

    When we're actively interested and want to know more about something, we become more open to unfamiliar experiences. Which means we create greater opportunities to experience discovery, joy, and delight even in everyday chores.

    When we're curious, we see things differently, we become more observant and immersed in the present moment. That's because it engages our intrinsic motivation, even affects memory, which is why everything seems to be more vivid.

    A recent survey by The Gallup organization with a sample of 130,000 people from 130 nations designed to represent 96 percent of the world's population found that there are two factors  that have the strongest influence on how much enjoyment we experience per day:

  1. “being able to count on someone for help”
  2. “learned something yesterday”

    The poll confirms that developing good relationships with other people and growing as a person are foundational components of a “happy” life. Curiosity helps us do both. In a 75-year-old study on adult development, pychiatrist Robert Waldinger found good data for understanding what makes a difference to a happy existence.

    A good life is the result of social connection, and the quality of our close relationships. Good relationships don't just protect our bodies, they protect our brains. Yet we hardly focus on developing them. Busy days and lives means we may go weeks, months, even years out of touch with family, friends, and our communities.

    There's another reason why social connection is good for us. In his book Stumbling on Happiness, psychology professor Daniel Gilbert shows that, while we think we know what will make us happy in the future, we're less likely to find joy by planning it. In fact, we stumble upon it on our way to something else.

    Cultivating our curiosity helps us stay open to new experiences and increase our odds of stumbling on activities we would not have imagined.

    We're curious by design. Our lifelong capacity to learn has worked well for the human species. An extended childhood — the brain develops fully during the first 72 months of exposure to experiences, but continues to build nuance and sophistication much longer — gives us the opportunity to absorb more from our surroundings, including culture.

    Even as adults, we continue learning new ways of thinking and doing things, which helps us adapt to new circumstances. We learn by experimenting at any age. Cognitive computing is also teaching us something new about how we learn. Computer scientists have explored how behavior evolves when guided by different algorithms. The best learning algorithms need encouragement to explore, or they stop learning.

   In a recent paper#, a team of scientists explores the question of AI self-confidence#. They say that Facebook's newsfeed algorithm is an example of overconfidence. Instead of pushing every article it thinks people want to see, a more uncertain algorithm would defer to a human’s better judgement.

   Which means there's room for curiosity in figuring out what would make an algorithm defer decision rights based on evidence. Researchers have also found that without some distraction from what they should be doing, these algorithms get stuck in a rut, relying on the same responses time and time again.

   Exploring may cost us opportunities to optimize, to build efficiencies, but it provides us with the potential for invaluable insights. Our brains crave novelty because that's how we're more likely to learn. In this light, daydreaming and pausing are not a waste of time. Plus we have the added bonus of happening on something interesting by chance.

    Curiosity helps us build the future.

    But there is one more sentiment that takes us even further, that helps us overcome fear and enjoy the moment more. And that is awe. We experience awe when we encounter an unexpected and vast stimulus, something bigger than us, which forces us to revise our mental models of what's possible.

    Research shows that awe can have profoundly positive effects on us. In fact, when we experience it, “we act more generously and ethically, think more critically when encountering persuasive stimuli, like arguments or advertisements, and often feel a deeper connection to others and the world in general,” says Jake Abrahamson at the Sierra Club#. “Awe prompts people to redirect concern away from the self and toward everything else. And about three-quarters of the time, it’s elicited by nature.”

    Psychologists Dacher Keltner of the University of California, Berkeley, and Jonathan Haidt, then at the University of Virginia, proposed awe as an emotion worth studying 14 years ago. In 2003, they wrote in the journal Cognition and Emotion:

“In the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear, awe is felt about diverse events and objects, from waterfalls to childbirth to scenes of devastation.


Fleeting and rare, experiences of awe can change the course of a life in profound and permanent ways.”

    Emotions are contagious, and we literally experience them in our mind.

    More on accessing our untapped power through an open mind, using curiosity to break bad habits, and how curiosity is the secret to a bigger life.


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