Science of Curiosity
Around 500,000 years ago, our early ancestors learned how to use fire. Paleontologists assume it all began when a lightning storm sparked a wild re. The results? Cooked food from a cleared, and easily forageable landscape. Early humans unexpectedly realized in a rudimentary way that food cooked with re was more palatable and nutritious than raw food, and so set out to harness flames. It was because they were curious and driven, and had a problem to solve, that life on Earth would never be the same.
But where does that curiosity, that drive, come from? We know we ARE curious, but WHY are we curious? What causes the spark that can change the world?
Scientists have been trying to answer that question for quite some time, but haven’t been able to nail down the specific mechanism responsible for all the brain’s wonderings and musings. They have been able to determine a few things, but as it happens, those answers just led to more questions.
What has been determined, however, is that there are essentially two types of curiosity: perceptual curiosity and epistemic curiosity. Perceptual curiosity is what happens when something doesn’t jive with what you know to be factual or accurate. If you walked outside and the sky was green, your perceptual curiosity would be piqued since you “know” it’s not supposed to be. Epistemic curiosity on the other hand, is the type of curiosity associated with discovery and creation. Say you hear a new piece of music that moves you and you try to discover the composer or you see a sunset and are inspired to recreate it in pastels, that’s epistemic curiosity. One is based on unpleasant responses within the brain (the green sky is confusing and troubling), while the other is based on pleasant responses within the brain (creating something, the painting, or learning something new, finding new music you love).
Our brains have a reward system that gives us a xwhen we answer a question, solve a problem, scratchan intellectual or creative itch. Dopamine is released within the brain when we’re exposed to any positive stimuli, and creation, discovery, and problem solving are all positive stimuli. Getting the right answer, learning something new, making something from nothing, trigger our dopamine response. We’re wired to WANT to learn and it’s that drive to learn new things, to gather and store information, that allows us to create and to solve problems. It makes sense that curiosity is vital to critical thinking. Without our innate curiosity, we would not have the ability to look at problems from different angles or maintain the objectivity that’s necessary for thinking around problems and coming up with new and creative solutions.
If not for this innate curiosity, this desire to know more, people like Da Vinci or Tesla or Curie or Crick would never have been revolutionary. Where would we be as a culture, as a civilization, without men and women with curious natures? If Larry Page had never wondered about the algorithms that made the early world wide web work, if Da Vinci had never imagined helicopters or wondered why blood is red or how it moved within the body, where would we be?
The great thinkers, creators, and imaginers of the past left a legacy of curiosity and wonder, but can we see the world as they saw it? We can embrace their legacy in our day to day lives. We can see the world through the same lens if we remember to question everything. Ask questions, try new things, be open to surprise, and don’t take anything at face value. Pull back the curtain. Take the red pill.
We are curious by nature. It’s hardwired into our brain, coded into our system to wonder and to muse and innovate. Our curiosity is our super-power, it differentiates us from other animals and allows us to change everything about everything. In the modern age, it seems like we only have to dream things up for them to become real, self-driving cars and drone delivery services, smart- and automated-everything. We can have our clothes picked out for us and delivered to our door, our laundry detergent and dog food set up on subscription services, it’s like we almost don’t even have to...think.
Is it better? Does removing the mundane from our lives free up bandwidth in our brains for more eccentric thought? Some people surmise that the ability to scratch every intellectual itch immediately, does just that. That we can say “Hey Google who is that actor in that thing?” or “Alexa, who sang that song that’s in that show?” and have those questions answered immediately, leaves room for us to wonder about questions that are more complex, more nuanced than anything we can just Google.
But are we doing that? Are we using technology togive us space or are we filling every available nook and cranny, every wrinkle and fold in our brain with whatever is brightest and loudest and ashiest at the moment. Are we filling up on the Kardashians and not leaving room for the cosmos? Is The Bachelor so loud that we’ve forgotten to ponder spirals? Is our curiosity getting lazy?
In this brave new world of automation and noise, we must not forget to wonder. We must not forget to muse. Our unique ability, our super-power, is the thing that made us what we are today, our curiosity created us. But if we stall here, if we don’t give ourselves time and space to wonder, to ask “What next?” and “If, then?”, if we stay glued to our phones and our social networks consuming, being spoon-fed other people’s lives and information, if we don’t look up and we don’t look down, we’ll never move forward.
Did You Know?
1.2 million: # of interactions on Twitter and Facebook in response to "The Bachelor" 2017 season finale. (source)
"This is your last chance. After this there is no turning back. You take the blue pill: the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill: you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes." - Morpheus, The Matrix
8.2 million: Estimated number of people who own an Amazon Echo. (source)
1.6 million: Estimated number of Amazon Echos sold to date. (source)
Wanna Dig Deeper?
Knowledge@Wharton Podcast Episode #91: The ‘Why’ Behind Asking Why: The Science of Curiosity
Book: Why?: What Makes Us Curious by Mario Livio
Book: Critical Thinking: An Exploration of Theory and Practice by Jennifer Moon
Background, Context & Reference
American Counsel on Science and Health: How And When Did Humans Discover Fire? by Alex Berezow
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The Nomadic Families of the United States by Kristin Hanes
The "So Don't Throw it Out" Project by Brette Sember