Everyone knows curiosity killed the cat, but why was the cat so curious in the first place? While curiosity is a well-known, basic element of our cognition, the function and biological underpinnings remain poorly understood. Though scientists have debated curiosity and its unanswered questions for many years, a pair of researchers from the University of Rochester say we’ve been focusing on the wrong questions. In a review of curiosity science published in Neuron, they say it’s time to focus on curiosity’s evolution, mechanism, and function, rather than its precise definition.

An Uncertain Concept

“Curiosity is a long-standing problem that is fascinating but has been difficult to approach scientifically,” said co-author Benjamin Hayden, an assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences, in a press release. “But we felt that the field has recently managed to develop new formal and quantifiable techniques for studying curiosity and that it’s worth getting the word out. There are several people, working in several different disciplines, who may not be aware of each other’s work, but who should be.”

Neuroscientists often research subjects for which there are no agreed upon definitions — attention, self-control, and reward, for example.

“Fighting over the proper definition is a big part of figuring out how they work,” said co-author Celeste Kidd of the Rochester baby Lab and Rochester Kid Lab. “We have to be comfortable with that kind of uncertainty.”

Curiosity has been a subject of study since the early 19th century. Researchers were drawn toward both human and animal curiosity, with some asking mothers about which new experiences their children were drawn to, and some (including the famous Ivan Pavlov) looked at “what-is-it?” as a basic, reflexive drive in animals. Some claim curiosity is entirely intrinsically motivated rather than a more complicated process (such as information-seeking or risk-taking). This view is problematic, though, when one tries to determine the intrinsic motivation of babies, primates, and other organisms that cannot communicate or explain their inner world.

The authors use a working definition of curiosity as “a drive state for information,” which can be observed in creatures as simple as worms.

“When the information seeking becomes active, it’s reasonable to start talking about it as a minimal form of curiosity,” Hayden said. “This definition, and the idea that roundworms may be curious, will be hard for some people to swallow. But by looking at it from an evolutionary perspective — the benefits of information-seeking in general — scientists can make rapid progress; but by sitting around and arguing about what is and is not curiosity, progress will be much slower.”

Looking Toward The Future

An example of one question that goes beyond curiosity’s definition is that of its benefits. Some education literature totes curiosity as beneficial in that it facilitates learning, and thus success increases along with the degree of one’s curiosity. Though more information does allow for better choices, curiosity can lead to the pursuit of stimuli that aren’t necessarily useful.

“Everything in life involves trade-offs,” Kidd said. “If we spend time watching a TV show because we’re curious about what happened, then we spend less time working on our jobs. So there is definitely a balance, and too much curiosity can be harmful.”

The authors also bring up the connection between studying curiosity and studying ADHD and other attentional disorders. Though most of us focus our curiosity on things that are directly relevant to us (ex: Who are my ancestors?) those with these disorders suffer from impaired attention in a way that could prompt interest in non-ideal information.

Hayden and Kidd hope the future will bring further research into how curiosity can be controlled, along with an understanding of how curiosity is affected by disease, and how it differs between childhood and adulthood. The authors were also interested in the link between curiosity and learning, and are optimistic that scientists will eventually agree on a suitable classification for curiosity.

Source: Kidd C, Hayden B. The Psychology and Neuroscience of Curiosity. Neuron. 2015.