Imagine walking across a grassy meadow; when you look back, you can see the faint path you’ve left behind. A similar pathway is laid down in your brain every time you have a novel thought or attempt a new and complex movement. And just like an imprint on fresh grass, if you never take that route again, it simply disappears.
Now imagine that you walk on this path every day, maybe multiple times a day. You will create an unmistakable pathway. It’s likely so obvious that anyone else who crosses this meadow will follow that route themselves.
The same thing happens in our brains when we repeat the same thoughts about ourselves and the world, and then follow those up with reinforcing news or images. And once a pathway has been trampled into place, a different experience — even if it’s completely unrelated — can direct us to follow it again.
This often happens with negative thoughts, which can create entrenched negativity and even depression when they become a pattern.
Still, we’re not helpless in this scenario. Once we’re aware of what we’re doing, we can choose to resist familiar paths of negativity. If we can resist them long enough, we will notice how they eventually disappear — leaving us space and energy to create more positive pathways.
The best tool for helping us redirect our thoughts is not something rare or abstract — we all have access to it. It’s called curiosity.
A New Path
In the world of mental health, we view the mind as a spectrum. Our thoughts and emotions range from rigidity to chaos, but we don’t want to live at either extreme. A healthy approach means spending as much time as possible somewhere in the middle.
In cognitive behavioral therapy, we often see that a rigid, fixed pattern of thinking is linked with depression. We might feel a need for the world to be black and white, for things to be either right or wrong. Curiosity helps us escape the either-or thinking that characterizes our negative thoughts. It helps us lubricate stuck mental gears and become open to more flexible ways of thinking and feeling.
Two Dimensions of Curiosity
Still, we want to be thoughtful in our pursuit of curiosity, which has two dimensions based on how it’s generated: either externally or internally. It’s important to cultivate — and strike a balance between — both.
The external dimension essentially relies on our environment to entertain us. Being open to and interested in the world is nourishing, but it can be overdone when we start compulsively seeking novelty — especially if we’re seeking distraction or escape.
This can lead to a kind of perpetual discontent that feels a little like depression; it can be a sign of an unsettled mind and push us toward the chaotic end of the spectrum.
The internal dimension of curiosity can help us find balance: We want to spark curiosity from within ourselves. We want to recognize new or uncomfortable experiences for what they might teach us, and approach them with an open mind and a broader perspective. We want to be genuinely interested in what happens.
Instead of thinking that we already know how an experience is going to go or fearing how it might turn out, we let go of expectation and become curious about what we might learn. This approach to life becomes a training ground for being in the moment.
That’s where the learning — and change — happens. When we become curious about something that makes us uncomfortable, we might notice things we didn’t see before. This can cause us to shift our thinking.
We might realize that we don’t know what we thought we knew. Or that a person or situation is completely different from what we assumed. Or that we still don’t understand someone or something, but at least we know we don’t understand, and we accept it.
This broader perspective might feel uncomfortable at first, but it’s that very discomfort that can create new neurological connections. Think of this as trampling a new path through unbroken snow instead of grass. It’s hard work, but it makes a big difference in the landscape. The effort might raise your stress level temporarily, but it’s a good stress. That stress gets quickly resolved and the new pathway can start to be reinforced.
Pretty soon, you can walk that way with ease — and your mind can go places you never knew it could.