The Curiosity Cure

When you feel irritable, leverage curiosity’s effect on the brain to feel good instead.

Emily PG Erickson

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A handy metaphor for dealing with tense feelings by the author, Emily P.G. Erickson

My six-year-old is in that phase where he loves magic tricks. He learned one of his favorites from a Netflix show called Brainchild. It’s purportedly a physics lesson, but I think it’s also a fantastic psychology lesson in disguise.

The trick goes like this. My son has me stack my fists, one on top of the other. Then he tells me to try to stop him from pulling them apart. So I press tight. If my son tries to pull my fists up and down, using vertical force, I press harder. My vertical force is too much for him to overcome, so he can’t do it. But if he pushes my fists sideways, using horizontal force, he easily succeeds, and my hands come apart in a flash.

This, of course, is a neat way to demonstrate the power of leverage. It’s also a handy metaphor for how to skillfully respond to feelings characterized by tension, such as irritability.

Irritability is like those fists. You may even experience it as clenching in your jaw, throat, and chest. This feels awful, and it’s only natural to want it to go away.

Your first move might be to force it. You might criticize yourself. Why can’t I stop acting this way? Why am I like this? What’s wrong with me? It’s an instinctive response, but it’s not particularly effective. You’ll end up feeling more closed-off and constricted.

The problem is you’re trying to get rid of tension by applying more of the same kind of tension. If you take some of that impulse but approach from an alternative angle, you’ll have a much easier time gaining traction.

You can ask yourself a different set of questions, ones grounded in curiosity, like What do I feel? What is it like in my body right now? and What sensations do I notice? With curiosity, you’ll find your tension starting to dissolve. You may even feel a warm, open sensation spreading from your core.

This isn’t magic; it’s science. Curiosity has this capacity because it’s an intrinsically rewarding state for humans. One research group out of the University of California at Davis used fMRI to show that the brain’s reward pathways light up during states of curiosity. Activating these reward pathways…

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Emily PG Erickson

Former mental health researcher sharing insights about psychology and parenting. www.emilypgerickson.com