Curiosity Depends on What You Already Know
From an evolutionary perspective, there’s good reason to keep looking, to be curious. Information helps us make better choices and adapt to a changing environment.
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Curiosity doesn’t seem to be tied to any specific reward.
It makes sense for organisms to seek food, water, sex, shelter, rest, wealth, or any of the other myriad nourishing and pleasant things in life. But what is the good of deducing the nature of gravity, or of going to the moon?
A simple answer is that we never know if what we learn today might come in handy tomorrow.
Scientists who study the mechanics of curiosity are finding that it is, at its core, a kind of probability algorithm—our brain’s continuous calculation of which path or action is likely to gain us the most knowledge in the least amount of time. Like the links on a Wikipedia page, curiosity builds upon itself, every question leading to the next. And as with a journey down the Wikipedia wormhole, where you start dictates where you might end up.
Curiosity is less about what you don’t know than about what you already do.
The old view is that curiosity and boredom are opposite ends of the same continuum.
The new view: bored is not to curious as hungry is to full or thirsty is slaked. Rather, boredom is a signal that you’re not making good use of a part of the brain. And there are antidotes to boredom besides curiosity.
In a 1994 paper, Loewenstein theorized that curiosity’s direction is determined by the “information gap,” the sudden awareness of what you don’t know and the immediate desire to fill that gap.
But for the information gap to set its hook, though, it can’t be too big or too small - Curiosity peaks when subjects have a good guess about the answers, but aren’t quite sure.
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Children are extremely curious. They keep asking, "why?" and explore new things just because they want to know.
But research shows that during the schooling years, curiosity steadily declines, and as adults, we fall into fixed and convenient thought patterns.
Research around curiosity found that children at age 5 scored 98% on a creativity test. When the same children took the test at age 10, only 30% scored well on the test. By age 15, only 12% of the same children did well. Less than 2% of adults are defined as creative based on their answer to this standardised test.
Science suggests this decrease in curiosity could be caused when we feel there's no gap between what we know and what we want to know, so we just stop being curious.
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It drives us to engage in activities that we find more meaningful than those at hand. Without it, we’d be perpetually excited by everything.
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When we’re consciously doing things we’re using the “executive attention network, ” the parts of the brain that control and inhibit our attention. The attention network makes it possible for us to relate directly to the world presently around us.
By contrast, when our minds wander, we activate the brain’s “default mode network, ” which is the brain “at rest”; not focused on an external, goal-oriented task. In this mode, we still tap about 95% of the energy we use when our brains are engaged in focused thinking.
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