Various studies regarding the curiosity in humans show that it is a driving force towards the advancement of human intellect, in fact even as early as learning as a child.
“I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”
This famous quote by Albert Einstein sums up the curious nature of humans in just nine words.
But what he may not have not realized is the importance of that unbridled curiosity that leads to the advancement of the human intellect.
Have you ever wondered the mind always wants to know more? When you’re the only one who has been trusted with a secret by your best friend, don’t you feel a strange sense of satisfaction?
This immense feeling of curiosity is mirrored in so many of our myths, as though having a seductive nature.
Take Eve for example. She just had to know what secrets the Tree of Knowledge held. Or Orpheus when he tried to rescue Eurydice. He had come all the way to the Underworld. There surely wasn’t a way he could resist taking one look, could he?
Neither could Pandora, despite all the strict warnings she received. She just had to know what was in the box!
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Curiosity – an innate part of the human nature
Now although these myths make it look like being curious could be one of the worst traits a person could have, scientific research suggests otherwise. It is in fact a fundamental part of human nature supporting a number of various intellectual behaviors which range from early learning in children to scientific discoveries.
After all, Newton wouldn’t have discovered gravity if he hadn’t been allowed to be curious.
A meta-analysis has shown that intellectual curiosity predicts academic performance over and above intelligence, along with supporting studies that show there are benefits of curiosity in enhancing long-term consolidation of learning and memory. In fact empirical literature has shown that there a lot of positive outcomes associated with curiosity.(Source)
So what is it that drives us to know more and more?
Well, it looks like our brain looks for knowledge the same way the stomach looks at food.
The brain does get hungry
Imagine you’re in your last lecture of the day. And the hunger pangs have reached their highest level. The bell rings and the first thing you do as you rush out is remove the chocolate bar you had been craving and take bite.
You know what I’m talking about. As the sugar kicks in you feel an innate sense of pleasure, and that feeling is mirrored when your brain receives any new information!
Well, let’s try and find out how that happens.
Despite there being a variety of theories on the construct and origin of curiosity, there seems to be a rising consensus that like food and other extrinsic rewards, curiosity can be seen as a reward-learning process for acquiring knowledge. Which basically translates to people being enthusiastic about knowing things because the acquisition of that knowledge serves as a reward.
It has been observed that both animals and humans are willing to risk small amounts to satisfy their curiosity about a future reward despite knowing that the outcome will remain unchanged. For instance, paying money to a fortune teller to know whether you’ll win the lottery will make no changes in the actual lottery results.
In one such brain-imaging study revolving around curiosity and reward, Mr. Johnny King Lau and his colleagues found that curiosity appears to be driven by the same neurobiological process as hunger.
In a simple behavioural experiment, the subjects were first shown magic tricks or pictures of tempting food followed by a lottery wheel (the wheel was a visual representation of the odds of a gamble which were variable).
If they won they had the increased chance of eating the food or learning the trick; and if they lost they would suffer a mild electric shock. Similar to a game of roulette, wouldn’t you say?
The study showed that the volunteers’ decision making skills were biased by the thought of food or learning about the new trick. And gambled despite the risk of receiving an electric shock. Another study was set up by Mr. Lau and this time, the volunteers’ brains were scanned.
The results of this study showed that influenced by hunger or curiosity, whenever the subjects decided to take a gamble, there was greater activity in a region of the brain called the striatum (associated with motivation and reward).
How does dopamine affect the knowledge seeking process?
Another interesting thing that our brain does when it has been given new information is release dopamine (the pleasure-inducing chemical), making seeking information much like eating; another pleasurable activity.
Other researchers have found out that along with the reward system, regions in the prefrontal cortex of the brain (dedicated to working memory), allow us to distinguish between new and previously experienced stimuli which plays a role in generating curiosity. According to these researchers, the dentate gyrus (a part of the hippocampus), is the most responsible center for curiosity.
In fact, in 2009, researchers found that increasing the expression of a dopamine-interacting protein in the dentate gyrus significantly increased the curiosity in animals reiterating the correlation between curiosity and dopamine. However, how exactly does dopamine play a role and other aspects of curiosity still remain a mystery.
But considering how curiosity itself is considered to be the driving force of human intellect including scientific curiosity, it’s safe to say that curiosity itself will help uncover curiosity.
And remember even though the idiom says, “Curiosity killed the cat….”, it ends with ….satisfaction brought it back”.