Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Value of Curiosity

Astrophysicist Mario Livio has recently published a book titled WHY? WHAT MAKES US CURIOUS. He maintains that curiosity is "the most human characteristic":

Why We're Curious

Livio identifies two types of curiosity, which differ in their observed effect on the brain. Encountering something "novel or bizarre" can activate the part of the brain associated with conflict. By driving us to investigate the strange thing, thereby relieving the mental conflict, "curiosity might be our way of reducing unpleasant feelings." The other category springs from being "motivated by the love of knowledge for its own sake." In that case, the satisfaction of curiosity activates the brain's reward center. Of course, what we know about evolution suggests that we wouldn't have developed a love for knowledge unless learning new things gave us an advantage.

Some interesting points brought out in the interview with Livio: How can curiosity be a "defining characteristic" of humanity, when many animals are curious, too? What about "Curiosity killed the cat"? He says animals aren't curious about the "how" or "why." He cites an experiment contrasting the responses of chimps and human four-year-olds to an odd phenomenon. Also: Curiosity is at least partly genetic (studies suggest about 50 percent inherited). Curiosity in the sense of "novelty-seeking" declines with age (after all, so much of the world is new to children, so they have to question almost everything), but the "thirst for knowledge" can be a lifelong pursuit. Curiosity is a necessary but not sufficient condition for creativity (to create, you also need "drive and persistence and talent").

Most memorable line: "Curiosity is the best remedy for fear."

If it's one of the most important traits making us human—setting us apart from other animals—could we use the presence of curious behavior in an alien species to determine that they are sapient? Would we ever expect to meet intelligent aliens who aren't curious? That seems unlikely, because the drive to investigate and learn about the environment should be a necessary survival feature for an intelligent being.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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