The Science of Curiosity
‘Why are we curious? How does curiosity work in the brain? If there’s one thing that stimulates our curiosity most, it’s a complex topic shrouded in mystery. So where do we start?
One way to begin exploring curiosity is to understand information seeking. This behavior is observable across the entire animal kingdom – from apes and dolphins all the way down to crabs and tiny nematode worms. Information seeking means that every animal seeks information about their environment. This is so they know how to navigate it. In fact, it’s why sensory organs exist – to supply the brain with information that helps you understand your environment and make better choices.
But when does information seeking qualify as curiosity? The difference, we now believe, is in the motivation. If you’re seeking knowledge because of external motivation, like school or work, then it does not qualify as curiosity. But if you’re seeking knowledge because you’re internally motivated – because you just want to know the answer – that’s curiosity. Think about the early human, 35,000 years ago, who made the first flute. They were not driven by a need to stay warm or eat food; instead, they were internally motivated to make an instrument that could make a beautiful sound.’
Curious for more?
There is also a test on the Britannica webpage to discover your curiosity type. Have you tried it? We got Explorer and Scientist.
A very important man that you probably never heard of
In a 1948 blockbuster paper called A mathematical theory of communication, Claude Shannon introduced the notion of a bit and laid the foundation for the information age. His ideas ripple through nearly every aspect of modern life, influencing such diverse fields as communication, computing, cryptography, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, cosmology, linguistics, and genetics.
He was a private man and rarely gave interviews unless it was about his passion for toys and games. When interviewed in the 1980s, Shannon was more interested in showing off the gadgets he’d constructed — juggling robots, a Rubik’s Cube solving machine, a wearable computer to win at roulette, a unicycle without pedals, a flame-throwing trumpet — than rehashing the past.
Claude Shannon answered a question that no one else was even asking and in doing so, he changed the world forever. Learning things, discovering things, he never lost that child-like curiosity and delight. He wanted to understand. In the cruelest of ironies, the man who gave us the Information Age lost the last years of his life to Alzheimer’s. He died in 2001.
A video essay by Adam Westbrook (an artist, journalist and Emmy-nominated filmmaker) about Claude Shannon, the father of information theory.
If you want to find out more about Claude Shannon, there is also a 2019 documentary called The Bit Player, directed by Mark A. Levinson, and a 2017 biography A Mind at Play, written by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman.
The Business Case for Curiosity
‘Most of the breakthrough discoveries and remarkable inventions throughout history, from flints for starting a fire to self-driving cars, have something in common: they are the result of curiosity. New research points to three important insights about curiosity as it relates to business. First, curiosity is much more important to an enterprise’s performance than was previously thought. That’s because cultivating it at all levels helps leaders and their employees adapt to uncertain market conditions and external pressures.
Second, by making small changes to the design of their organizations and the ways they manage their employees, leaders can encourage curiosity—and improve their companies. This is true in every industry and for creative and routine work alike.
Third, although leaders might say they treasure inquisitive minds, in fact most stifle curiosity, fearing it will increase risk and inefficiency.’
In this Harvard Business Review article Francesca Gino, an Italian-American behavioural scientist, details the benefits of and common barriers to curiosity in the workplace and then offers five strategies that can help leaders get high returns on investments in employees’ curiosity and in their own.
*The original form of the proverb ‘Curiosity killed the cat’, now little used, was ‘Care killed the cat’. In this instance, ‘care’ was defined as ‘worry’ or ‘sorrow’ for others. The origin of the modern variation is unknown.