As I watch my cats explore any new package that enters the house, or inspect visitors before approaching them, I realize that curiosity and careful scrutiny is their method of analyzing new situations. Ever curious and hopeful for attention, novelty or food, they approach new situations by exploring. Eventually this natural inquisitiveness is rewarded — and their curiosity is satisfied.
Animals and humans alike seek to reduce uncertainty. Curiosity is a natural trait and a useful tool for learning. It is a means of anticipating effects of the environment. So why is it not advocated more strongly as a method of staying mentally sharp?
An accepted method
Staying mentally sharp is accepted as a method of keeping the mind active as we grow older. The popular advice is to do crossword puzzles, play Sudoku, and keep up with world events. In the postworksavvy lifestyle these techniques do work and are associated with maintaining brain health. But developing and maintaining a sense of curiosity is not broadly advocated by advisors on aging successfully. It should be.
Aging experts make little mention of the importance of curiosity despite research evidence that indicates a strong association between curiosity and health of the nervous system. Curiosity and novelty-seeking behaviour reduce sadness, frustration, apathy, and depression. Experts believe that maintaining curiosity a positive trait for successful aging.
Does curiosity decline with age?
Some gerontologists believe that older people become less curious. New experiences may cause fearfulness and apprehension in older adults. Older people may become reluctant to try new things — even with the gift of time and the opportunity to experience the world differently than was possible when younger. Hiding behind comments like “I’m too old for that…………..” is a common avoidance tactic.
Older people may also have less frequent exposure to novelty as they try to make life predictable. Opportunities to try new things may be limited. This may be especially true for someone who is limited by poor health, poverty, institutionalization or mobility issues. More likely, lack of frequent exposure to new situations links with a reluctance to expose oneself to new situations — resulting in a self-reinforcing cycle.
Just as my cats are cautious about approaching strangers, older people sometimes hesitate to explore new environments for fear that they won’t be able to cope. After reaching age 85, as my mother’s sight became compromised, she stopped going out at night. This was a good safety measure given the danger of falling when walking into and out of her house in darkness. But it also compromised her social life and meant that she stopped playing cards and stopped attending social events that happened only in the evening. Her world got smaller as her sight diminished and, her overall behaviour became more tentative.
Lack of curiosity as we grow older may also be related to diminished self-esteem. With aging there may come a reluctance to learn new things. This is often linked with worry about looking ‘stupid’ or inept. New opportunities are rejected in favour of staying in a comfortable place to protect fragile self-esteem.
The rejection of opportunities to gain new knowledge means entrapment in established ruts. Some risk-taking creates novelty which stimulates curiosity. Quality of life is improved. Perked up mental activity will be the bonus!
How can you stay curious as you grow older?
The need to maintain curiosity is essential to staying mentally sharp as we grow older. But why limit yourself to the common prescriptions of crossword puzzles and Sudoku? Here are a few techniques that can help.
- Appreciate knowledge and keep learning new things. In September I posted about the opportunities for continuing education through nearby universities, colleges and other educational institutions. You don’t have to take courses to continue learning. Travel, reading, attending artistic performances, visiting galleries and museums, playing a musical instrument, playing bridge or other card games and surfing the internet to explore topics of interest can be methods of staying mentally sharp through natural curiosity.
- Asking questions about the world and how things work. Organizational development specialists use appreciative inquiry as a method of involving people in change tactics by beginning with positive assumptions and conveying interest in their ideas. It simply means using a positive approach. Becoming expert at asking questions will keep you curious about your own learning — and, make you a better conversationalist which will enhance social skills. Not a bad payoff!
- Playing. Whatever you do to have fun — keep doing it! Play keeps you mentally sharp — especially strategy games like bridge or physical games that make you use your mind as well as your body. It’s much more fun to play a game of golf or tennis than spend the day watching sports on TV. Hobbies count as play as long as they are hobbies that create passion and provide rich personal rewards. Playing will stimulate and will cut your level of stress.
- Seek novelty. Many people swear that travel is the best novelty-seeking behaviour for the retirees. Travel exposes you to new environments and new aspects of culture. It allows you to explore and admire different parts of the world. If your budget doesn’t allow for travel to exotic locations, how about the novelty of going to lunch in a different part of town, trying ethnic dishes, or exploring some nearby park that you don’t usually visit? Novelty is easy to incorporate into your life; it’s stimulating and essential to staying mentally sharp.