Curious people live longer

Neuroscience: Reading sample: The power of curiosity

Quite a few people become increasingly narrow-minded, retracted, stubborn over the years. One thing is certain: if you want to postpone aging and maintain your mental powers, you should stay open-minded for new things as long as possible, and be mentally flexible. How can this virtue be cultivated?

The US neuroscientist Kirk Daffner did an unusual test with a group of retirees in Boston in the 1990s. He showed the elderly several pairs of drawings one after the other, each depicting different motifs. For example, neatly ordered lines and lines that ran wildly into one another. Or combinations of two that looked bizarre. For example, an elephant could be seen on one side, the other sketch resembled a dog-like creature that also carried a trunk. The scientist found that many seniors stared at the proboscis dog with fascination. But there were also older people who paid no more attention to the mythical creature than to the elephant. She didn't seem interested in the strange dog. They were evidently not curious to know what kind of creature it was, which is why it had such a long nose. These seniors had one thing in common: They suffered from Alzheimer's dementia.

Openness and a thirst for knowledge influence the brain in old age

It may come as little surprise that a sick brain no longer has a lot of curiosity, that a person with dementia increasingly loses their interest in the world. But could the relationship also apply the other way round? Could it be that it was not simply the illness that left the patient indifferent, but rather that they also became demented because at some point in their life - many years before the onset of the brain disease - they lost their curiosity? Since Kirk Daffner's experiment, medical professionals have made several discoveries that suggest that a thirst for knowledge and openness - the will to learn new things and master mental challenges - actually have a decisive influence on how well or poorly a person's brain works well into old age.

Learning new hobbies creates new connections between nerve cells even in old age

For example, researchers have observed that people who go through life with an open mind, have many different interests and are enthusiastic about new things, stay mentally fitter. According to some studies, they seem to suffer from Alzheimer's dementia only around half as often compared to their peers who are not mentally active. With the help of brain scanners, researchers have also shown that learning new hobbies has positive effects on the mass in our heads. Because every time our thinking organ is stimulated to deal with an unfamiliar task, fresh connections sprout - even at the age of 60, 70 or 80 - between the nerve cells: i.e. those tiny contact points (synapses) through which neurons communicate with each other. In addition, existing synapses between neurons are strengthened. Many medical professionals therefore suspect that curiosity may be an important key to keeping people mentally alert into old age. The constant need to gain knowledge may delay the normal age-related decline, and in some people it may even reverse it. Of course there are also many inquisitive people who break down mentally; Of course, curiosity is not a sure guarantee that one will be spared dementia. But even if a mentally active person falls ill with Alzheimer's disease, the reserves that he has built up in his brain over the decades can apparently initially cushion the pathological breakdown of the nerve cells. Therefore, the disease sometimes only becomes noticeable many years later than in mentally lethargic people.

If you want to age with pleasure, you should cultivate curiosity

On top of that, studies show that curious people live longer overall than those who are less interested in the world. And: you are happier. Researchers have found out that those who are curious see life more as an exciting adventure than as a stressful burden, they feel challenged rather than overwhelmed. In addition, he builds intimate friendships more easily because he usually has real sympathy for other people. The conclusion from all these findings is obvious: if you want to age with pleasure, if you want to stay mentally fit, you would do well to be open-minded and inquisitive. He should cultivate his curiosity as it were. However, that seems easier said than done. Older people are often said to be - as an inevitable consequence of old age, so to speak - becoming more and more narrow-minded, retracted, stubborn and averse to anything new. And with some older people, the wrinkles seem to automatically lead to a tiredness with the world, a mental decline, a resigned “I already know everything” attitude. But does it inevitably have to happen that so many people lose their mental flexibility? What tricks can you use to keep your curiosity? And: can lost interest be revived?

Learning something new really makes us feel elated

Given all its merits, it seems almost paradoxical that curiosity actually has a rather bad reputation. Giving in to it too much is traditionally viewed as a vice. It is considered extremely impolite to curiously observe other people, to listen to their conversations. It is frowned upon to inspect a friend's apartment or to open someone else's drawer. Even a pure thirst for knowledge has long been negatively affected. As is well known, according to the Bible, curiosity drove people out of Paradise - because Adam could not resist to taste the apple from the tree of knowledge. "Wanting to know more than enough is part of excess," wrote the Roman philosopher Seneca in the first century AD. "Curiosity is nothing but vanity," noted the French philosopher Blaise Pascal around 1650. And we still use proverbs that warn against the thirst for knowledge. “Curiosity is the death of a cat,” they say. Indeed, curiosity carries risks; this may be one of the reasons it is distrusted. Those who explore new things can be richly rewarded, but they are also at risk of damage. For example, if a prehistoric person ate an unknown mushroom, he might find himself a source of food that could help him survive. Or else he fell ill, perhaps even died as a result of poisoning.

If we want to know something, the “reward center” is activated deep in our brain

Curiosity still often conjures up disaster. After all, it is the urge to want to know something unknown that leads many people to use drugs - they want to know what it feels like to be high. And nobody can be sure where the thirst for knowledge leads. The physicist Albert Einstein, for example, wondered how matter and energy in the universe are related to one another - but on the basis of the law he discovered, which he defined with the formula

E = mc², the most devastating weapon in human history was developed: the hydrogen bomb. It is precisely because of this uncertainty about which path curiosity leads us that, deep down in our being, two conflicting forces are constantly grappling with one another:

• On the one hand, the desire to explore, which drives us to discover the unfamiliar, to dare to do the unknown;

• On the other hand, the fear of what we might discover, the discomfort that makes us cringe, that makes us cling to what is familiar to us, what seems safe.

The balance between these two factors often shifts over the course of life. Small children are still - without any inhibitions - curious. An infant is attracted to every new sound, every colorful object has to be examined, every cupboard opened. As soon as children start to speak, they also satisfy their curiosity verbally. One researcher has counted that two-year-olds ask their parents an average of 107 questions every hour. Curiosity is the engine that helps us gradually understand the world around us, develop connections - and survive. This permanent research and desire to know ultimately forms the basis of all learning. Fulfilling one's curiosity is also a pleasurable process. Not just in childhood, but for a lifetime. Neurologists have established that if we want to know something, areas deep in our brain become active - even before we have found it out - that also start when we have a prospect of a chocolate bar or expect a profit. Scientists refer to all of these regions as the “reward center”. The nerve plexuses there produce the messenger substance dopamine, which fuels our desire.

Read the whole article in the new one

GEOkompakt No. 44 "Young in the head".

more on the subject

Back to the magazine page