Curiosity matters to our society. When we look to improve our lives, curiosity compels us to overcome inertia and to seek something better. But the big question is: why are we curious at all?
Last week I spoke with Mario Livio, an astrophysicist who lives in the DC region. Recently, he immersed himself in learning about curiosity and just released a book on the topic.
Why would an astrophysicist study curiosity? Livio explained that by examining his life and interests more closely, he realized that he had come a long way from being a scientist involved in the Hubble Telescope project to being someone with an eclectic range of interests, including art and music.
As he looked at his diverse interests and the happiness he got from pursuing them, he found himself asking, “Wait a second, what do we actually know about curiosity?”
Through reading on his own and by talking with scientific experts, Livio learned that there are two main types of curiosity.
The first is perceptual curiosity. Perceptual curiosity causes a person to seek to learn something to solve an immediate problem, like finding food, combating bad breath or trying to remember the name of the wonderful actor in that otherwise awful horror movie. Perceptual curiosity is primal and exists on a continuum between fear and satisfaction. Broadly speaking, the fear of a negative outcome motivates us to act. This means that the role of fear in our behavior is double edged: one level of fear motivates us to be curious, but too much fear causes us to shut down.
Perceptual curiosity is also driven by novelty. This is true regardless of our age, although the bar for finding things that are novel gets higher as we get older.
These attributes of perceptual curiosity may explain why as people get older they tend to favor the status quo, why a boring job tends to wear people down and why we ask fewer questions when we are frightened.
The second type of curiosity is epistemic curiosity. This curiosity is much less driven by external events and emotion than is perceptual curiosity. It is based on the process of satisfying a curiosity for the pleasure that comes from mastery. Epistemic curiosity is the desire for knowledge in its own right. This is the curiosity that drives scientific discovery, philosophy and people asking big questions that shape the fabric of our society. It is a cooler, more rational curiosity, but one that is deeply rewarding and pleasurable for those who satisfy it.
Livio believes that these two types of curiosity are essential to our ability to have happy and productive lives. We need both, he adds, because “love of knowledge does create a reward for its own sake, but you want to feel results.”
His conclusion? “Curiosity is a human condition. Something that we cannot avoid.”
Implicit in all of this is an important thread: to satisfy curiosity you must have agency. Curiosity is thwarted without a way to apply it. Whether we are talking about a homeless person wondering where to find a meal, a futurist looking for a great science fiction novel in a book store, or a scientist pondering the origin of the universe, people are driven forward by the belief that their curiosity will be rewarded . Without a framework that rewords and encourages curiosity, we will lose the very trait that is essential to our future.
As I ended my conversation with Livio, I asked him if he had a final thought on the matter. He answered: “Curiosity is one of the purest forms of freedom.”
I couldn’t agree more.