Over the years, one of my biggest struggles has been how to balance the curious love of learning new things with the anxious need to consume more and more information that often came with it. I had no idea how to make sense of my love for learning with this anxious, contracted feeling that I just needed to read one more book or one more article and only then would I have enough information. The more I seemed to learn, the less satisfied my mind was with the information I had. Any thought that came into my mind about getting some new information needed to be acted upon immediately. I always felt I needed to scratch the itch of getting the new information because the information itself seemed like it was necessary to go on living. It always felt like the next book or the next article had some key wisdom that had been hidden in everything I had previously read or learned. Even after realizing this anxious information searching was a problem, I had no idea how and if it was possible to turn learning into something curious and fun and not this tight, contracted NEED for knowledge.
I always had this inner wisdom that I didn’t really need more information and that I felt horrible when I searched online for hours, but I couldn’t resist. To work with this anxious need to know I tried going cold turkey on information gathering for a while, but that didn’t seem to be a long term solution. Due to a love of learning, at some point I would start consuming information again in a gradual way. Every time, however, things just went back to the way they were before and the contracted need to know returned.
What I now understand is that there are different types of curiosity. One type is the anxious need to know that I was feeling that comes from a lack of information. The mind wants to fill a void. I was afraid that I might be missing something and needed to gather the missing information. Once I gathered it, my mind would just come up with another piece of information I was missing. This created neverending habit loops where I would search online for hours and hours. I often stayed up the entire night searching online. Not fun, but the habit loops were so ingrained that I was just on autopilot. I felt horrible, but I was living in my mind and getting subtle rewards, so I continued the loops.
These unpleasant habit loops are in contrast to a more open curiosity. This is the curiosity of a child playing outside. The child’s senses are drawn to whatever seems interesting. There is no attachment involved. There is no need to do one thing over another. The child is simply happy exploring the environment for the sake of exploring. There is a love of learning and discovery that’s motivating the child’s curiosity. There is not the same overlay of the mind making all these rules about what the child needs to know intellectually. The body feels open and free. In this type of curiosity we seek out information from a place of genuine interest. It’s about the learning journey and not about trying to get all the information at once so we can fill a void and check a box.
Brown addiction psychiatrist Dr. Jud Brewer, who I reference on this blog a lot, talks about these two different types of curiosity as interest and deprivation curiosity. In this post I’ll look at these two types of curiosity and how they fit into the habit loop model of trigger→ behavior→ reward.
WIth deprivation curiosity, a thought comes into the mind that’s associated with an anxious feeling of needing to know(Trigger). There is a contraction in the body. It doesn’t feel good. The only way to feel better is to release the tension and go get the information(behavior). This behavior is often consuming the information or mentally going over all of the different pieces of information that we need to consume so we don’t miss any in future searches. This brings about a reward of feeling a little bit better. However, the behavior does nothing to solve the problem of lack because there is endless information in the world. The trigger of more unknown information is always present. The mind sends more triggers and we have to do more searching to feel better. We are caught in an endless cycle.
Like all habit loops, what inevitably happens with deprivation curiosity is that the behavior of gathering more information creates a reward which lays down a memory. My brain remembered how to get a reward and it would send me more and more thoughts of things I may want to look up. Now one simple deprivation curiosity check turned into hours on the internet. I would search for information online until I felt so horrible and so sad that it was blatantly obvious that the rewards were now so unrewarding that I just had to stop. It wasn’t like I was really aware of what was happening, it was that the sadness and repulsion presented itself so strongly to me that I was mentally and physically unable to continue. Looking back on it, it’s interesting how unaware and automatic my need to know habits became that it took literally physical and emotional exhaustion to get me to stop.
The habit loop model from Dr. Jud Brewer that I have presented on this blog offers some ways out of the dilemma of deprivation curiosity. First, it offered me an ability to understand after so many years what was actually happening to me. I could map my own information seeking habit loops and understand my mind. Second, it offered me the opportunity to ask myself “What am I getting from this?” with regards to these deprivation habit loops. Third, it has helped me realize that when I really pay attention I can see how much more rewarding mindfulness actually is. It really feels so much better than this anxious excitement of deprivation curiosity. Changing such an ingrained behavior, I am now seeing, is ONLY possible when we clearly and unequivocally see that there is something much, much better on offer. I have been comparing the rewards in my own experience from what happens when I search for answers to when I live in mindful awareness. As I do this I become less enchanted with information and more enchanted with living in being mode. Simply because I know it feels better, I have become more interested in learning for myself from my own lived experience than from getting answers outside myself.
The biggest changes started to happen when I started to ask myself what I was getting from all the searching. When I completed these need to know habit loops, what was I actually getting from them? How did this actually make me feel? Was I truly living better with this newfound important knowledge and information? When I started to investigate, I realized that 100% of the time I actually felt worse. I didn’t actually really read the information, I just skimmed it. I wasn’t really interested. I just wanted to satisfy the fear of missing out on the information. I never learned what I was trying to learn and I was still always deprived of information. I felt this strong anxiety that would get worse and worse the more I searched. The temporary relief of any searching behavior would be almost immediately replaced with the next thing I didn’t know which would create more anxious contraction. Eventually the behaviors all just came one after another, just endlessly searching and feeling worse and worse.
In order to recognize all of this, however, I had to pay attention with mindfulness. The point of habit loops is that our brain can put things in automatic mode. For decades I was doing these habit loops in this mode without truly seeing the rewards. After a couple of weeks of really trying to pay attention to the rewards, I began to see that it wasn’t worth it. This contracted search for information did nothing to improve my life and actually made me feel worse in the moment. So what if I learned something that may help my life in the future. When I searched from deprivation, I often felt horrible even hours later. This anxious feeling colored my whole day. This all had to all be taken into account. Emotional eating or not sleeping were often actually byproducts of a search for information earlier in the day.
So what’s the alternative? How can we actually go about learning new things while also avoiding the dark pit of deprivation curiosity. This is where interest curiosity comes in. Interest curiosity is that mindful, attentive wonder. It feels open and comes from a place of interest. It’s really more about asking questions and living into the answers whether they come today or tomorrow or in ten years. There is no need to get anything right now because this moment already has what we need.
To help determine if we are seeking information out of interest or deprivation we can ask the questions “Is this interest or deprivation curiosity? How does it feel in my body right now?” For me, an open interest helps me discern that I may be dealing with interest curiosity. If I can wait to look up the information, it’s probably interest curiosity I am dealing with. On the other hand, if there is this anxious contraction of mind and body of needing to know the information NOW, then it’s probably deprivation curiosity and it’s in my best interest (because I have investigated in my own experience) to let the information go for a while.
Here is an example from the last few days of my explorations with these topics:
Recently, I have been curious about contemplative and mystical strands within different religions, especially within Christianity. This was a curiosity that grew with time over many months. A couple of days ago I listened to a talk by Elaine Pagels on the teachings in the Gnostic Gospels. I was able to just listen to the talk mindfully and get curious about it. My mind wasn’t jumping all over the place trying to get new information. It was able to just rest in the learning. I actually listened to the talk in three of four different sittings and it didn’t bother me in the least. This was the perfect example of interest curiosity.
Contrast this with another time when I was curious about learning about parapsychology. This was a curiosity that felt like interest curiosity so I went to look to see if there were any podcasts about the broad topic. What started as curious interest turned into deprivation curiosity as my mind wanted me to go down the podcasts list and read about all the podcast episodes to see if there might be one that was “better” or make sure I wasn’t missing out on one. My mind wanted to understand all of the possible titles and topics in the podcast feed BEFORE I could then go back and listen to any specific one. Instead of the open curiosity of interest curiosity, I could feel the anxiety and sadness building in my face. There started to be a real pull to keep searching. The more I searched the more I felt horrible.
This all happened in a couple of minutes. When I recognized what had happened and returned to the top of the podcast feed and to the original podcasts that I thought were interesting, I was now no longer in a place where I could listen with open curiosity. I was all anxious and contracted. So instead of listening from this place, I put the podcast down and took a break.
Interest Curiosity feels good. Deprivation curiosity doesn’t . It’s only when we are able to compare how the two feel in our bodies that we are able to better discern amongst them and then choose to consume information from the place of interest curiosity, and use deprivation curiosity as a barometer for when we are getting lost in doing mode that doesn’t feel good.
The way out of these contracted deprivation curiosity habit loops is to really appreciate the alternatives of rewards that feel better like mindfulness and compassion. Here is another example from my own life:
Just last night I was lying in bed. I had chosen to not follow the thoughts in my mind to check information before bed to find something I might be deprived of. I simply noticed how my body felt lying on the bed and I realized , “Wow this feels really good.” There was an openness and a relaxation that would not have been present had I fed the search for answers minutes before. I let this feeling soak in . Mindfulness actually feels good. It feels so much better than knowledge and the craving for knowledge. Over time as I continue to practice there will be less anxiety around deprivation curiosity thoughts and sensations because I will know from my own understanding how rewarding they truly are compared to the pleasures of mindful awareness.
I encourage you to pay attention in your own life to the need to search for more information and the point at which interest curiosity could turn into deprivation curiosity. Feel free to comment on what comes up in your own exploration!