The Curious Thing About Curiosity

The Curious Thing About Curiosity

We exasperate our parents with an endless series of WHYs beginning around two years of age. Non-human animals do not appear to have a need to wonder why things are as they are. Studies put Chimpanzees’ intelligence between that of a 2 - 5-year-old human depending on the study.

 But chimpanzees show no evidence of wondering why something occurs; they lack a curiosity about cause and effect and focus only on the “what” or “how”. A chimp witnesses an older chimp retrieving termites from a hole in the ground with a stick and mimics the behavior but doesn’t consider why it works.

By contrast, children quickly understand that effects are inextricably linked to causes. A child is disciplined and mentally replays the events leading up to the punishment to understand what caused the unpleasant consequence. Or a child may crawl around wondering what it would be like to be a puppy. Human curiosity reaches beyond that necessary to effectively function in the environment.

The answer is found by studying the subject of curiosity. The academic research into curiosity is surprisingly complicated and requires extensive brain imaging, cognitive experiments, and an understanding of the effect of chemical processes on human behavior. I will skip the technical details and risk oversimplifying the answer by summarizing the two pertinent categories of curiosity at issue. Epistemic curiosity (EC) is motivated by the sheer enjoyment of exploring new physical and mental territories. Perceptual curiosity (PC) motivates us to avoid distress and potential harm that threatens our ability to survive and reproduce. Humans experience both types of curiosity while non-human animals experience only PC. It is EC that compels us to ask why and to explore abstract ideas, engage in creative endeavors, and undertake scientific research. Unlike, PC, we pursue EC as a rewarding activity. Some researchers claim it is an essential component of our survival as a species, like eating and sex.

Perceptual Curiosity. 

When we are startled by an unexpected threat or an unresolved ambiguity, we are driven to learn to recognize under what circumstances we might again encounter such an event. If a food source causes illness or an unpleasant sensation animals including humans avoid it in the future. Curiosity causes animals to identify predictors of distress and punishments, or alert them to unexpected things that might be harmful, or are not understood. Evolution has weeded out creatures that lack PC so it is no surprise that all cognizant animals have some variant of it.

Functional MRI (fMRI)
Studies using fMRI with humans reveals that when something puzzling happens, when danger suddenly appears, or when there is sudden unresolved ambiguity, different portions of the brain become active in sequence. First, the incident activates portions of the brain that react to conflict and provokes intense awareness. Next as surprise and confusion resolve, there is a sense of relief and the reward processing part of the brain activates. Finally, a portion of the brain locks in memory of the event.

The PC response increases the likelihood that the individual, and therefore the species, can survive and reproduce. While lower forms of life (worms, insects, reptiles, etc.) don’t have brains organized in the same manner as humans, they do have mechanisms that cause the organism to avoid fatalities. Indeed, successful evolution could not have occurred without it.

Epistemic Curiosity.

Derived from the word epistemology (the theory of knowledge), epistemic curiosity (EC) engages different portions of the human brain driving humans to understand cause and effect, and to explore the unknown. In short, this is the source of humans’ thirst for knowledge. We can thank EC for our understanding of science, our appreciation of the arts, the present state of technology, the satisfaction we get from exploring all the “whys” we encounter throughout our lives (this explains why I muse about the random array of subjects that make up this blog and the much larger list subjects that don’t get posted).

The technologies that allow exploration of chemical and brain activities (fMRI, tracing chemical activity in our bodies, cleverly designed cognitive experiments, etc.) reveal how EC differs from PC and why it is unique to humans.

Unlike PC, EC reaches beyond information required for survival and reproduction. We each accumulate knowledge in particular areas of interest. When we find gaps or disparities in our knowledge, we are compelled to learn more, not because we are distressed by ambiguity, but because we anticipate an emotional and psychological reward from filling the void. As you might guess, the parts of the brain that respond to rewards are quite different than those that respond to distress. In particular, dopamine is released by certain neurons to facilitate transmitting signals to other neurons. Specific dopamine pathways specialize in motivating reward oriented behavior. Dopamine drives EC.

Why Is EC Uniquely Human?

Humans differ from non-human animals in several ways that likely account for the evolution of EC: 1) We have many more neurons in the cerebral cortex (three times that of an orangutan, for example); 2) Human neurons are much more compact than in other species because we need to carry them around while walking upright; 3) We use much more energy to power our brains than do other animals. These physiological advantages give us more powerful and more effective information processors that are capable of engaging in EC.

Scientists speculate that these unique characteristics have evolutionary roots.
     There is a physiological trade-off between a large body and a large brain; we can’t have both for many reasons (e.g., efficiently walking upright requires a slim torso that cannot safely give birth to an infant with a large head). Thus we had to seek food sources that have high caloric efficiency. EC motivated us to explore a variety of food sources in a variety of locations.
     A diet rich in meat has high energy content; cooking with fire reduced calories spent chewing; shortened intestines increased the efficiency of digestion.
     Walking upright reduced the energy needed to acquire food compared to moving about using knees and knuckles.
     Our EC likely was enhanced by the rewards of exploring new food sources, opportunistic uses of tools by walking upright, imagining shelters where there were no caves, traveling longer distances using fewer calories by walking uptight.

Whether EC eventually will be a curse or a blessing remains to be seen. Perhaps we should frequently remind ourselves to devote more time imagining and creating a more peaceful world -- let us hope nature’s course is not beyond the authority invested in its most advanced creatures.

Word of the day: teleology

The word teleology has two Greek roots, telos (purpose) and logos (explanation). As the roots of the word imply, teleology explains phenomena in terms of ends rather than means or causes. For example, rather than explain the world as  a purposeless collection of phenomena randomly caused by the laws of physics, teleology would explain things as a cohesive system having a purpose-designed by an omnipotent intelligence, or) as an inevitable progression from a “Big Bang” towards a “Big Freeze” or a “Big Crunch”, or as  simply an orchestra of living creatures whose destiny is governed by the laws of nature with no other objective than to harmonize and hopefully enjoy the performance.

Fantasy Land (not the Disneyland version)

We Are Programmed To Fantasize

As I use the term here, fantasy is "imagination unrestricted by reality. Thus, fantasies are not restricted to deliberate creations of our imagination but include unfounded assumptions and unwarranted beliefs whether consciously created or lurking in our subconscious.

Fantasies are prevalent throughout all known cultures, ancient and modern. They are deeply embedded in human nature; they cannot be disentangled from our sensory experiences and our sensory experiences cannot be disentangled from our fantasies. A personality without fantasies would be as interesting as a movie without a plot. Fantasies explain what we can't understand, add spice to dull moments in our lives, and motivate us to change behaviors.

The evolutionary process engineered humans to fantasize. The human mind and body automatically react appropriately to those things that affect our ability to survive as a species. Our natural reactions to threats are mostly involuntary-- our heart beats faster, our muscles prepare for flight or fight, and our senses become selectively focused. When we, as a species, encounter a potential mate we, like many other species, are sexually aroused and our mental and physical reproductive mechanisms engage.

Fantasies trigger similar responses. Fiction in the form of books and movies offer packaged fantasies. Romantic novels, horror movies, and role-playing stimulate hormonal responses that mimic those experienced in real-life versions of like situations.

This musing started after a house party where I met a number of strangers from a variety of cultures. I was surprised by how frequently my first impressions of my new acquaintances turned out to be incorrect. Prior to this epiphany, I hadn’t fully recognized how durable were my first impressions woven as much from fantasy as from verified observations.

As I began researching the subject the first thing I learned is how difficult it is to use search engines to find answers to my query. A full 90% of the search results from entering fantasies or fantasize into Google’s search engine returns salacious descriptions of sexual fantasies and virtually no information about how pervasive human fantasies are and how they affect our daily behavior. It took a lot of modifiers and Internet search restrictions to dig out information about the prevalence and role of fantasies in the spectrum of human behavior. Here is what I found.

What We Fantasize

Fantasies can be indistinguishable from what we normally consider to be real. If one is raised to believe things that have no verifiable basis in our direct experience, they can become as much a part of “reality” as sensory experiences. Examples are dogmatic religious beliefs; a self-image that has no basis in actual abilities or accomplishments; believing all of an identifiable category of people (men, women, people in uniform, people of a specific ethnicity) behave stereotypically, and so forth.

I was fathered by a pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) church. As a child I had no doubt that: Catholics changed the biblically-mandated day of worship from Saturday to Sunday and therefore don’t believe in the bible; only 144,000 people, all SDA members, would go to heaven; dancing and wearing jewelry were sins on par with lying and stealing (I should mention that these were things I believed growing up, not necessarily the current doctrine of the SDA church). To me, these “truths” were as real as dogs and cats and I was genuinely afraid of the consequences of behaving otherwise. I was entering my teenage years when I was able to clearly separate these childhood fantasies from reality.

Aboriginal Story Of Creation
Fantasies are evident everywhere in our personal environment. Our family room surrounds us with aboriginal art and artifacts purchased in tiny villages in the Australian outback, each telling a story or a legend related to an aboriginal tribe or its cultural history. Four bark paintings tell a story of creation: two Wagalak sisters who followed the morning star to Arnhem Land and populated Australia with indigenous aboriginals.

Waiting By The River

We speak of our deceased pets "waiting by the river" based on a Mesoamerican myth that tells of a land where deceased pet dogs play waiting to take their loving owners across a river to live happily ever after. It is a fantasy, albeit one that is comforting and masks some of the grief. 

A recent study examined the flow of neural activity while imagining an activity compared to seeing a video of the same activity. They discovered that seeing an activity involved predominant signal flows from a “lower” level of the neocortex (the occipital lobe) to a “higher” level (the parietal lobe). Imagining the same activity revealed the reverse flow from the higher lobe to the lower. This suggests fantasies are created higher in the hierarchy of lobes and affect the lower levels while the reverse is true with sensory experiences. I speculate that there are similar “top-down” flows of signals all the way from the neocortex down through the most primitive "reptilian brain", allowing fantasies to impact one’s emotions and physical responses in the same manner as do our senses.

Why We Fantasize

Escape: We fantasize to escape, enhance, or change reality. We fantasize about winning the lottery, finding something valuable, or otherwise stumbling upon good fortune and living a more privileged life. Most often these fantasies are unproductive but entertaining fictions, but they also can help us to explore alternatives to reach higher realistic goals. Fantasies can help escape pain; Helen and I both can tolerate pain by mentally drifting into a serene memory, thanks to an uncle who was adept at using hypnosis and self-hypnosis while performing dental procedures.

Motivation: We motivate ourselves by watching travel shows, listening to motivational speakers, reading a novel that inspires us to do something productive or enjoyable. Violent video games or movies can motivate harmful or destructive behaviors. The recently reported school shootings surely had their roots in fantasies.

Creative inspiration: Works of art and literature arise from fantasies. Creativity is not bound by the laws of physics or the rules of logic. Human imagination is a place we can go to be and do anything we choose for good or for evil. Of course, we get in trouble when we fail to distinguish between fantasy and the sensory world that insists we abide by physical and social laws; even pigs know they can’t fly, but a few humans (unaided by wings) have tried and failed.

Self Improvement: We mentally revisit problems and imagine alternative actions and decisions to do better in the future. When good things happen, we fantasize about behaviors that might lead to more good fortune. We mentally try out behaviors before experiencing the social consequences of our actions. Being an objective third-party witness to one’s own behavior can be good counsel.

Aphrodisiac: It is no accident that such a high percentage of Internet searches on fantasy mostly return sexual fantasies. Sex is strongly linked with hormones, and given the “top-down” flow of neuron signals caused by fantasies, it is not surprising that fantasies can enhance the physical and mental pleasures of sexual activity.

So dream on and get the most out of life, plus a bit more, thanks to the gift of fantasy.