Ever wondered why?

What makes us inquisitive? Astrophysicist Mario Livio has the answer

Published 7 years ago on Sep 16, 2017 3 minutes Read

To put it differently, according to Litman’s conjecture, curiosity may be both a reduction of an aversive state and an induction of an intrinsically motivated enjoyable state. Which one dominates will depend on the type of stimulus and perhaps on individual differences. For instance, the beating of the human heart, which triggered a torrent of epistemic curiosity (the drive to explore) in Leonardo and caused him to fill innumerable pages with notes, hardly even registered with many of his contemporaries. Similarly, not remembering the names of the students who sat next to them in high school may drive some people crazy and leave others totally indifferent. Or seeing an unfamiliar animal in a zoo may evoke perceptual curiosity in some visitors (they will look for the placard identifying the animal) and epistemic curiosity in a few others (they will extensively read about it at home).

This general idea of curiosity comprising a family of mechanisms rather than representing a single process has been further examined by a team of researchers led by Jacqueline Gottlieb of Columbia University, Celeste Kidd of the University of Rochester, and Pierre-Yves Oudeyer of the French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation. They suggest that the weight we assign to the different components and forms of curiosity depends on both the stimulating event or topic and the individuals themselves (in terms of their knowledge base, biases, and cognitive characteristics). As we shall see in chapter 6, recent results from neuroscience support a scenario in which different kinds of curiosity involve distinct brain regions.

As I have pointed out, individual differences in curiosity can be enormous. Whereas Leonardo and Feynman, for instance, were curious about almost everything, some people have very few interests outside their work. These differences have traditionally been studied largely in the context of a general trait labeled “openness to experience,” considered one of the “Big Five” dimensions of human personality. In psychology, those Big Five personality attributes are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (forming the acronym OCEAN). Of these five characteristics, openness to experience is the one that is assumed to encompass intellectual curiosity and preference for novelty and exploration, even though the precise definition of openness is somewhat controversial. Broadly speaking, people with high openness are not only more curious but also more appreciative of such things as complex forms of art. They have a higher capacity to think in abstract terms.

Even if we accept the very reasonable idea that curiosity (in all of its different manifestations) involves both a deprivation induced by uncertainty and an anticipation of reward stimulated by an intrinsic striving for knowledge, many things remain unknown. How exactly does the brain put value on knowledge and on its acquisition? What is the mental strategy (if there is one) that underlies information seeking and exploration? We know, for instance, that the white noise on a TV screen when there is no transmission contains a vast amount of information. Yet I am not aware of anybody who is riveted by those flickering points of light and accompanying hissing noises. What is the process in which the human mind sifts through all the information that bombards us and decides what to be curious about?

Cognitive scientists are trying to understand whether curiosity-induced behavior has any strategic plan or ultimate goals. 

This is an extract from Mario Livio's Why published by Simon & Schuster