Curiosity: The “Secret Sauce” of GMAT Reading Comprehension Success

Understand the power of this underappreciated approach to RC!

Cognitive vs. Affective

Most discussions of preparing for the GMAT focus overwhelmingly on cognitive skills: learning, understanding, remembering, thinking strategically, deducing, etc.  Most GMAT strategies and skills are cognitive in nature.  While affective considerations are clearly less important, they merit some attention.  Human beings are profoundly emotional beings, and as logical as we may strive to be, emotions essentially inform our all of thoughts and actions.

Consider two people who walk into the GMAT with roughly the same intelligence and roughly the same level of preparedness.  Suppose person A feels optimistic, confident, buoyant, and simply relishing the opportunity to take on the invigorating challenge of the GMAT.  Suppose person B walks in feeling depressed, pessimistic, anxious, and simply dreading the oppressive onus that the GMAT represents.  Even though these two people start from roughly the same cognitive levels, the vast affective difference between them might be enough to cause a score difference of a couple hundred points.  Self-fulfilling prophecies have been documented in psychological research for years, so the person whose emotions are all “tuned in” to success will have an enormous advantage to the person whose emotional outlook is bleak and unpromising.


Reading Comprehension and Your Emotions

In many ways, one’s affective orientation is an overall concern on the GMAT, important but not specific to any part of the test.  Confidence and optimism will help you more than anxiety and self-doubt, and that’s true more or less irrespective of individual question type.

The one GMAT question where the focus of your emotional energy is a crucial consideration is Reading Comprehension.   On GMAT RC, you are going to have to read short (200-250 word) and long (300-450 word) passages, difficult academic passages, and you are going to have to answer sophisticated questions about the content.   You need to get as much as possible out of the passage you read.  When do you get the most out of what you read?  When you are interested in what you are reading.

“Great,” you may think, “you want me to be passionately enthused about deathly dull topics like, say, the problems of archeology as a discipline, or the cardiovascular system of snakes!”  Well, consider this.  First of all, each passage of GMAT RC comes from an actual academic source, so believe it or not, for each passage, someone out there is genuinely passionate about that seemingly dry subject.  Furthermore, we all have had the experience of a gifted teacher or lecturer turning us on to a topic that previously we considered with little interest.  It turns out, whether you find a topic interesting has little to do with the actual cognitive content of the material; it has more to do with presentation, and it has a great deal to do with how emotionally engaged you are — or how emotionally engaged you allow yourself to be.


Turning On

Albert Einstein said: “There are two ways to live: as if nothing is a miracle, and as if everything is a miracle.”  For those who know anything about Einstein’s biography, clearly he himself lived very much in the latter mode.  The word “miracle” is an awfully strong word, so we could paraphrase the “two ways” — “as if nothing is interesting, or as if everything is interesting.”  It turns out, the difference between those two has very little to do with our external circumstance and very much to do with our fundamental emotional orientation.

Neurobiologists talk about “top-down” and “bottom-up” circuitry in the brain; “top-down” goes from the higher cognitive centers to the lower perceptual centers, and “bottom-up” goes from the perceptual centers to the cognitive centers.  When we are looking closely at our surroundings, trying to figure out what we’re seeing, we are using bottom-up circuits.  When what we are seeing is deeply familiar and known, already mapped, we tend to use top-down circuits.  Top-down circuit match stimulus to past patterns, and the emphasis is on what has already been experienced.  Bottom-up circuits tune into the cutting edge of the present moment.  Infants and young kids, trying to figure out everything, are almost constantly in their bottom-up circuitry, and that creates a great deal of the magic and wonder of early childhood.  Adults, especially unexcited jaded adults, are almost exclusively in top-down circuits.  Top-down circuits are useful and efficient, because you don’t want to have to refigure out everything each new time you see it, but the price of overdoing this efficiency is that the world can become weary, stale, flat and emotionally unprofitable.

The demands of the adult world cause us to lean heavily on our top-down circuitry, and many people simply default to it 100% of the time, but that’s not the only choice.  Through practice, we can train ourselves to exercise regularly our bottom-up circuitry.  This is exactly what mindfulness practice does.  Zen Buddhism is also about getting out of one’s head, one’s preconceptions, and focusing more on one’s unmediated perceptions, with the consequence of shifting us to a predominance of bottom-up circuitry.  When we start to notice what is new, even ephemeral, in our familiar environments, we start to feel interested and excited again.  As Hopkins says, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”  Once we become consistent in mindfulness practice, such that it informs the majority our day, then we are in bottom-up circuitry most of the time, and the world can become exciting, magical, and full of wonder.  This adds some genuine neurobiological depth to the words of the ancient Chinese sage Mengzi: “The great person retains connection with her or his child’s heart.”


Practicing Curiosity

As always with the brain, we need to practice to get good at something.  If you want expand your access to your innate bottom-up circuitry, you have to practice curiosity.  Sometimes, curiosity involves actually doing a little research and finding out, but more often, it just is a doorway to imagination and open-ended wonder.  Top-down processes are aligned with those parts of the brain that want to get clear answer and leave no questions hanging.  Bottom-up circuits are all about the messy open-endedness of ongoing life as we experience it. Curiosity involves toning down the inner skeptic and allowing one’s self to be surprised by one’s immediate experience.  The more one practices, the more vital and interesting the entire world becomes.

If you practice curiosity consistently, you will have a powerful skill on which to draw when you read GMAT Reading Comprehension.  If you read with genuinely curiosity and wonder, you will get far more out of Reading Comprehension, and be far more successful on those questions, even if you haven’t learned any additional RC strategies.  Yes, those strategies are also useful, but even the best RC strategies are not going to make up for the profound edge genuine curiosity gives.

The consistent practice of curiosity, and the consistent practice of experience the world in a bottom-up mode, will help you immeasurably on GMAT RC.  In fact, it will give you a GMAT experience much more like Person A than Person B of the second paragraph.  It will also make you happier and more satisfied pretty much across the board in life. Not bad, for a Reading Comprehension strategy!

I have no special talents.  I am only passionately curious.”  — Albert Einstein

Let this GMAT RC passage stimulate your imagination and interest, and then answer the practice question:


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  • Mike MᶜGarry

    Mike served as a GMAT Expert at Magoosh, helping create hundreds of lesson videos and practice questions to help guide GMAT students to success. He was also featured as "member of the month" for over two years at GMAT Club. Mike holds an A.B. in Physics (graduating magna cum laude) and an M.T.S. in Religions of the World, both from Harvard. Beyond standardized testing, Mike has over 20 years of both private and public high school teaching experience specializing in math and physics. In his free time, Mike likes smashing foosballs into orbit, and despite having no obvious cranial deficiency, he insists on rooting for the NY Mets. Learn more about the GMAT through Mike's Youtube video explanations and resources like What is a Good GMAT Score? and the GMAT Diagnostic Test.