Cats are curious. Their antics, drawn from that need to nose about, are what draw us to them and flood YouTube. We non-feline folk can be curious cats, too. We love a mystery, thrill to intellectual problems and delight in investigating, well, damn near anything that intrigues, infuriates and challenges.
Astrophysicist Mario Livio, in a new book entitled Why?, cites psychologist Daniel Berlyne’s contention that curiosity has two essential dimensions: perceptual (piqued by sensory anomaly) and epistemic (driven by intellectual pursuit). Without that framework, Berlyne says that curiosity can be specific or diversive, i.e. either raised by a nagging question (the former) or aimlessly exploratory (the latter).
Berlyne further suggests that curiosity can, in some instances, be infuriatingly unpleasant until the curiosity-inciting anomaly is resolved. But, as in purely intellectually-driven curiosity, it can also be rather enjoyable, rather as one might enjoy the chase of a treasure hunt while the game remains afoot.
A pair of profiles highlight his exploration of curiosity: sculptor-artist Leonardo di Vinci and theoretical physicist Richard Feynman (who once said, “Science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower.”). Both men cast their nets of curiosity wildly, almost willy-nilly (not to be confused with that beer commercial’s tag line “Dilly dilly”). Berlyne concludes that “a necessary condition for keen curiosity appears to be [a superior] information-processing ability.” As Walter Isaacson’s new biography of di Vinci notes, the artist famously wanted to know what a woodpecker’s tongue was like.
That, for me, embodies the essence of curiosity: Go wherever the inclination leads. One never quite knows what unintended consequences, what new and fertile field of exploration might be opened by this question, that hunch. It is almost certainly true that, for example, di Vinci’s interest in literally exposing the muscle and sinew of cadavers gave him the depth of knowledge and experience to paint the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile in such a manner that, to this day, we continue to debate just what the young woman was thinking.
Berlyne says that different areas of the brain provoke different sorts of curiosity, that folks will willingly endure physical pain (even die) to gain some sorts of new knowledge, that we’re more likely to investigate areas we know something about than entirely new areas, that curiosity decreases as we age, and that sometimes we prefer depth in one area over a more eclectic experience. (He’s obviously discounting ADD as a motivating force. But then he says that ADD is simply curiosity in overdrive.)
What is fundamentally interesting is that it was curiosity that drove evolution, from the mastery of fire to expanding the nutritional value of our food groups, which in turn led to bigger brains . . . and additional questions. Most intriguing is the historic interest of some in restricting curiosity and knowledge (various religious and political entities) and our pervasive and instinctual need to countervail those sources of repression. Asking “Why?” may be the single most innate aspect of our humanity. As the Irish novelist James Stephens says, “Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will.”
The final fact of the matter is this: Interesting people are interested people. Curiosity keeps us young and vital. What’s more fun than listening to a five-year-old’s questions? Why is the sky blue? Where do volcanos come from? Why do girls laugh at boys? A curious, cat-like mind is a youthful mind, so stay curious and stay young, my friends. Think. Ask seemingly frivolous questions. Explore. There’s an entire universe out there, under your feet and above your cranium, awaiting your queries and your explorations. Go for it. Dilly dilly!
©2018 Richard Paul Hinkle