For years I’ve been urging clients to replace self-condemnation with curiosity and self-compassion. Compassion simply feels better and it relaxes you (as opposed to being harsh with yourself which generates bodily tension), even if it may initially cause discomfort because you’re not used to being nice to yourself. And now it seems that curiosity also serves a vital function in promoting mental health.

“Curiosity made you read this, but will you remember it?” (Meeri Kim, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 10/21/14, 20E) tells us that there is “brain activation between a state of curiosity and the anticipation of rewards” and that “being on a ‘curiosity high’ can facilitate learning.” Here’s how: “Things that you’re interested in, you learn better.” This is why therapists encourage you to be curious about your behavior and why lecturing you about change doesn’t work. Being curious about behavior activates your brain in a different way than pressuring yourself to do something because you believe you should. This is another reason to use words like want/prefer/desire/would like/wish rather than should/must/need to/ought to/am supposed to/have to. Nothing squelches curiosity and joy of learning new behavior like bullying yourself into doing it.

The article goes on to make two other interesting points. The first is that “’Curiosity seems to place a stamp of importance on certain pieces of information that fly by, and the brain later stores them away for safekeeping.’” Anticipating new learning actually “’causes a spike of activity in brain areas linked to motivation, reward and dopamine,’” which is released in the midbrain whenever you think or anticipate you will get a reward.” This is why troubled eaters can’t stop thinking about eating “forbidden” foods, then gobble them down and barely enjoy them: the high comes from the anticipation.

The second point is that “‘Curiosity is sort of like a cognitive reward, and these [study] results seem to suggest that cognitive reward also activates dopamine.’” So, for our purposes, if you’re trying to learn to eat more mindfully, being curious is just the ticket. Curiosity about your eating practices (rather than fear of failure or annoyance that you “must” eat differently) will actually make pre-eating and eating experiences more palatable both physically and emotionally. You can’t go wrong cultivating curiosity. Next time you’re learning something new, note how you’re feeling; if it’s anything but curiosity, shift to being curious. Forget judgments or outcomes. Just focus on the experience of having a new experience and how that in itself will bring you pleasure because it is a wonderful reward.