students raising their hands

Curiosity Redux

So many papers advancing our understanding of curiosity passed my desk recently that I felt obligated to share. Curiosity is one of those critical cognitive phenomena that we too often take for granted and don’t give nearly the attention in the human factors community that it merits.

My Take

Defining curiosity is the first challenge because so many experts from the fields of education, philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience define it differently. The simplest, and the one that I personally prefer, is the one used by Celeste Kidd and Benjamin Hayden at the U of Rochester “a drive state for information.” This is independent of any tangible reward. The information is the desired reward.

Philosopher Thomas Hobbes called it “the lust of the mind.” Former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt said it was “the most useful gift.” And, yes, we all know what killed the cat. But ask a group of scientists to define curiosity and you’ll get a rousing debate, and a lot of unanswered questions about its biology. No more, argue two University of Rochester researchers in a review of curiosity science published November 4 in Neuron. They propose that it’s time for researchers to organize and focus on curiosity’s function, evolution, mechanism, and development.

What makes curiosity so important is that it facilitates learning. And in a more powerful way than learning in expectation of tangible benefits. I can see this in my students – when they are more interested in the grade, which gets them a higher paying job, they don’t learn very well. They memorize, but not learn. But when they are interested in the information for its own sake – wow, look out.

A recent study in Neuron by this same pair of researchers looked at the neuroscience of curiosity, specifically looking at how curiosity is related to reward. By looking at fMRI they found that we are impatient to find out if gambles are winners or losers, even if the only tangible reward will come at a known and fixed but later time. The need to know goes beyond the reward. They also found that we are willing to give up some of the reward to find out sooner if the gamble is a winner or loser. The reward is even less important than the desire to know. They conclude that curiosity is a drive for a different kind of reward – the benefit of new information. And that reward can be just as valuable as the more extrinsic rewards offered in the gambles. Even infants, who are relatively immune to tangible rewards, are still highly motivated by information rewards. Monkeys too.

A recent article in Fast Company also has implications for both curiosity and education, although they focused on creativity and designers. The article cites a study by Rex Jung and colleagues at the University of Mexico that also took a neuroscience approach. They found that to be creative, designers need to inhibit the rule-based reasoning typical of frontal lobe processing. They found that the slower one’s process for recording ideas, the more creative they can be. They coin the phrase productive meandering to down-regulate the frontal lobe. This allows other brain areas to get active and add new components to whatever idea is trying to burst forward.

What it boils down to is that when you record an idea slowly, you break the automaticity of your note-taking process. This doesn’t monotonically add creativity, it fundamentally changes the process from automatic to stochastic. The note-taking user interaction, whether it is paper, electronic, or somewhere in between, can make all the difference. They prefer an electronic device with a direct manipulation analog input (such as a touchscreen) as a good combination. Designers of note-taking apps should focus on minimizing the germane load forced upon users so that they have more mental capacity available to process the idea as it emerges. Playful design elements can help too.

The implications to many human factors domains is hard to deny. There are some work activities where we want to minimize creativity because the most effective process is well known and described. There are also some where we want to maximize creativity and insight. And of course many in between. Either way, the more we know about it, the better.

Your Turn

I am not sure if you are as curious about curiosity, creativity, and neuroscience as I am. Do you agree with my conclusion about how important and relevant these are to our work? Does your domain rely on creativity and curiosity or do you try to wring it out of the system?

Image Credit: Amanda Mills

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