Novelty, as we often remind ourselves at the Age Well Project, is fuel for the brain. Our brains thrive on things that are new, whether that’s meeting a new person, starting a new course, looking at a new landscape. Sadly the COVID-19 pandemic wiped away many of our usual opportunities for novelty. Thank goodness these are now returning. Because, after months of lockdown, many of us feel our memories are more threadbare, our energy levels stagnating, our minds a little sluggish. This is the brain on lockdown.
Here’s the good news: the brain rebuilds itself throughout life, regardless of our age.
And now’s the time to provide our brains with a bit of much-needed fuel. But it isn’t all about finding novelty. Because novelty has a twin – curiosity, or the urge to discover, to investigate, to know more. And many psychologists believe preserving, nurturing and expanding our sense of curiosity is as important as seeking out novelty. Of course, the two often go hand in hand. But studies suggest that as we age, we typically become less curious.
For those of you that read our first book, The Age-Well Project, you may remember the extraordinary nonagenarians we interviewed. One of them, Helen Holder (page 302), is currently planning her 100th birthday, and although she can’t move so easily now, her mind is as wide-ranging as ever. Because one of Helen’s distinguishing traits is her deep and genuine curiosity.
Hearing about Helen (who ensures she has a different visitor every day, each of whom is gently questioned and actively listened to – a process that makes many people want to visit her) encouraged me to start digging into the science of curiosity. Can a strong sense of curiosity really help us age well or live longer? Can it be cultivated? How do we prevent ourselves becoming incurious and dull?
It’s crucially important that we don’t become incurious. Because several studies have linked curiosity with good health and with happy ageing. A 1996 study confirmed that curiosity helped maintain the health of our central nervous system. Researchers investigated over a thousand men (average age of 65) and found that those with the most enquiring minds lived longest. Indeed, they were 30% more likely to live beyond the 5-year study than men with merely average curiosity.
The researchers repeated the experiment with a thousand women (average age of 68) and found even more marked results. The most curious women were those most likely to survive. The researchers concluded that curiosity played a significant part in ‘the longevity of older adults.’
A 2018 report came to a similar conclusion, adding that curiosity also protects against physical decline, as well as supporting our emotional wellbeing. In the words of this report, ‘curiosity, although it declines with age, plays an important role in maintaining cognitive function, mental health and physical health in older adults.’
Meanwhile other reports have linked greater curiosity to a lower chance of developing high blood pressure and diabetes. Author of the book Curious, Professor Todd Kashdan, maintains that ‘curiosity is one of the most reliable and overlooked keys to happiness,’ acting as a buffer against everyday stress as well as strengthening our relationships.
So how do we preserve or improve our innate sense of curiosity? It might surprise you to know that what we eat plays an unexpected role…
An intriguing 2015 study suggests that the more fruit and vegetables we eat, the more curious we are/become. According to the researchers who carried out this study, on the days when participants ate more fruit and vegetables they also reported greater levels of curiosity and creativity. The effects didn’t carry over to days of eating less fruit and veg.
Is it really this simple? We eat more fruit and vegetables and we feel more curious? Well, a report out last week linked the MIND diet with an improved ability to think, and with less chance of developing Alzheimer’s. MIND stands for ‘Mediterranean-DASH diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay’ and it was developed by nutritional epidemiologists at Rush University. It’s remarkably simple: two vegetables a day – one of which must be green and leafy, berries, nuts, olive oil, whole grains and fish. And a daily glass of wine. We wrote about the MIND diet a few years ago, but this latest study is interesting because it confirms earlier findings, namely that eating a vegetable-rich diet leads to better brain health. Even those of us already in possession of the plaques and tangles associated with dementia are less likely to show signs of cognitive decline if we’ve followed a MIND-style diet. As one researcher said:
“Some people [on the MIND diet] have enough plaques and tangles in their brains to have a post-mortem diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, but they do not develop clinical dementia in their lifetime.”
So, yes, it’s quite possible that the additional nutrients and biochemicals consumed with lots of fruit and vegetables feed and enhance – either directly or indirectly – our sense of curiosity.
But is this enough? I’m not sure it is. I suspect that maintaining an enquiring mind may be more art than science. So here are a few tips I’ve picked up while reading around the subject of curiosity:
Maintain an open mind and suspend judgement. Being open is a prerequisite to being curious: it’s worth remembering that a genuinely enquiring mind knows that it doesn’t always know what it wants to know.
Browse a bookshop or library. Don’t let Amazon’s algorithms (or Google’s for that matter) guide you down a rabbit hole of its own choosing. See where your curiosity takes you.
Read, read, read. Follow any subject that interests you. Chances are it’ll lead you to something else that piques your curiosity.
Get lost. Turn off Google Maps and regularly take a walk in which you follow any street or footpath you fancy. Spend time looking around you, and asking how and why the landscape is the way it is.
Ask questions. Always. Of yourself and others. And never worry that your question might be considered stupid. Your secret weapons are …. who, what, why, when, where and how.
Listen, listen, listen. To others, but also to podcasts, audio books, and anything else that appeals. Try swapping the daily news for a podcast like the curiosity daily podcast.
Ponder mysteries as well as puzzles. Puzzles have solutions and endings. Mysteries don’t. Black holes, miracles, the absence of baby pigeons, astrology, whatever happened to Amelia Earhart – the world is full of mysterious things we don’t quite understand.
Lean on the curiosity of others. And then write yourself a list of curiosity avenues you want to follow. To inspire you, here’s a To Do list found in one of Leonardo de Vinci’s notebooks:
- Calculate the measurement of Milan and its suburbs
- Find a book that treats of Milan its churches, which is to be had at the stationer’s on the way to Cordusio.
- Discover the measurement of the Corte Vecchio [courtyard of the duke’s palace].
- Get the Master of Arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle.
- Ask Bendetto Portinari [a Florentine merchant] by what means they go on ice at Flanders?
- Draw Milan.
- Ask Maestro Antonio how mortars are positioned on bastions by day or night.
- Examine the crossbow of Maestro Gianetto.
- Find a Master of Hydraulics and get him to tell you how to repair a lock, canal and mill, in the Lombard manner.
- Ask about the measurement of the sun, promised me by Maestro Giovanni Francese
Incidentally, earlier this year Dutch researchers discovered a new circuit buried deep in the brains of mice. They’ve called it the curiosity circuit (although its medical name is the Zona Incerta), and their studies showed that when mice thought deeply about something the entire circuit lit up. Shallow thinking (we might refer to this as skimming or scanning) didn’t have the same effect. We’re not mice, of course. But what if we too have a curiosity circuit? And what if ours too only ignites with deep thought?
I’ll leave you to ponder that mystery, safe in the knowledge that a bit of deep pondering is exceptionally good for you… And if anyone’s near Cheltenham, I’ll be speaking about my endless curiosity for walking and the walking women lost to history at the Cheltenham Literary Festival at 7pm on Wednesday 13th October, alongside Professor Matthew Beaumont. Details and tickets here.
If anyone has any tips for maintaining our sense of curiosity, please share them in the comments box. We’d love to hear them. I’ve signed up (rather ambitiously I fear) for a course on astronomy, which has recently piqued my curiosity. Whether it’ll help or hinder my brain remains to be seen!