Why Are We Curious?

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Why is curiosity a normal human experience?

A significant factor in humans development and our ability to succeed as a species is our curiosity – the way we crave to understand everything. However, curiosity can sometimes be dangerous, so why is it so integral to our lives?

Ingrained within us is this curiosity to accelerate learning and help survival. Many researchers are interested in the idea of curiosity in a variety of fields, however, there is no true definition of the phenomenon.

One of the earliest psychologists, William James, described curiosity as “the impulse towards a better cognition.”

Defining the term has been difficult for researchers throughout history. The University of Manchester’s language and communicative development lecturer Katherine Twomey says that “the general consensus is it’s some means of information gathering.”

Further, it is generally agreed that curiosity isn’t something that can be satisfied immediately – it is better described as a motivation for knowledge rather than a hunger for knowledge.

A single “curiosity gene” does not exist – to our knowledge – due to it’s spanning of countless behaviours that promote exploration and wonder. Despite this, researchers say that there is a gene component: both the environment and genes impact and shape individuals, steering their behaviours and therefore curiosity.

A study conducted on a songbird known for keen exploration revealed modifications of a specific gene that was more common in the bird. The gene, DRD4, has been linked to individuals inclined to seek curiosity.

To accomplish the difficult task of learning an abundance of knowledge in the short span of infancy and adolescence, it is believed that curiosity was evolved.

Twomey states, “if infants weren’t curious, they’d never learn anything and development wouldn’t happen.”

Studies have shown that infants preferred new stimuli – the longer they would see a complex visual pattern, the more bored they would become. Once familiar with a toy, they would find something new that piqued their interest.

This phenomenon is called perceptual curiosity, where infants (human and animal, even some adults) are motivated to seek new novelties before they become disinterested in their previous one.

One example of this is babbling, Twomey says, “the exploration hey do is systematic babbling.” The repetitive speech-like vowels made by infants is the way they learn to speak and is a great example of perceptual curiosity.

Infants will begin making these noises completely randomly, then they will continue to do it out of curiosity. “They’ll hit on something and think ‘that sounds like something my mum or dad would do’,” and continue.

Epistemic curiosity is another form that is distinct to humans. It involves eliminating curiosity by actively seeking answers and knowledge. Twomey explains that “epistemic curiosity emerges later in life and might require complex language.”

A professor at Princeton University, Agustin Fuentes, believes that this curiosity is what sets humans apart from other species and allowed us to create the world we now live in.

“Humans, in our distinctive lineage, went beyond simply tweaking nature to imagining and inventing whole new possibilities that emerge from that kind of curiosity.”

Despite the positives of curiosity, there are negatives.

Curiosity can lead to difficult situations – the desire to create something may not always work out the way an individuals wants. However, failure is an important part of learning.

For example, infants who begin crawling and walking often fall, but they continue to get back up and continue trying. Despite the significant number of times a toddler will fall when trying to walk, they try because walking is substantially faster than crawling.

Fuentes says that “curiosity probably led to the vast majority of human populations going extinct.” One example of this is the Inuit of the Arctic regions of Greenland, Canada and Alaska, he continues, where people “created incredible modes to deal with the challenges”, but “what we forget about are the probably tens of thousands of populations that tried and failed to make it.”

Those who passed curiosity onto their descendants contributed to the creation of our species, on that can’t help but wonder “what would happen if…”

Survival needs curiosity.