Found Article: The Itch of Curiosity | Creative Brain

Fascinating short article about taking a brief but tantalizing glimpse into the brain when we’re in “curious” mode.  This would seem to have a lot to do with creativity, about which I’m passionate as a path to well-being.
By Jonah Lehrer

Article from WIRED.

~ Marsha

Curiosity is one of those personality traits that gets short scientific shrift. It strikes me as a really important mental habit – how many successful people are utterly incurious? – but it’s also extremely imprecise. What does it mean to be interested in seemingly irrelevant ideas? And how can we measure that interest? While we’ve analyzed raw intelligence to death – scientists are even beginning to unravel the anatomy of IQ – our curiosity about the world  remains mostly a mystery. (According to one review of the literature, the amount of research on curiosity peaked in the late 1940s.) Einstein would not be pleased: “I have no special talents,” he once declared. “I am only passionately curious.”

Nevertheless, progress is occurring; our curiosity about the brain is even leading us to understand curiosity. One of the most interesting recent papers comes from the lab of Colin Camerer at Caltech, and was led by Min Jeong Kang. The experiment itself was straightforward: Nineteen Caltech undergrads were asked 40 trivia questions while in a brain scanner. After reading each question, the subjects were told to silently guess the answer, and to indicate their curiosity about the correct answer. Then, they saw the question presented again, followed by the correct answer. That’s it.

The results of the fMRI experiment are an intriguing, if limited, glance at the neural processes underlying creativity. The first thing the scientists found is that curiosity obeys an inverted U-shaped curve, so that we’re most curious when we know a little about a subject (our curiosity has been piqued) but not too much (we’re still uncertain about the answer). This supports the information gap theory of curiosity, which was first developed by George Loewenstein of Carnegie-Mellon in the early 90s. According to Loewenstein, curiosity is rather simple: It comes when we feel a gap “between what we know and what we want to know”. This gap has emotional consequences: it feels like a mental itch, a mosquito bite on the brain. We seek out new knowledge because we that’s how we scratch the itch.

The fMRI data nicely extended this information gap model of curiosity. It turns out that, in the moments after the question was first asked, subjects showed a substantial increase in brain activity in three separate areas: the left caudate, the prefrontal cortex and the parahippocampal gyri. The most interesting finding is the activation of the caudate, which seems to sit at the intersection of new knowledge and positive emotions. (For instance, the caudate has been shown to be activated by various kinds of learning that involve feedback, while it’s also been closely linked to various parts of the dopamine reward pathway.) The lesson is that our desire for abstract information – this is the cause of curiosity – begins as a dopaminergic craving, rooted in the same primal pathway that also responds to sex, drugs and rock and roll. This reminds me of something Read Montague,  a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, told me a few years ago: “The guy who’s on hunger strike for some political cause is still relying on his midbrain dopamine neurons, just like a monkey getting a sweet treat,” he said. “His brain simply values the cause more than it values dinner…You don’t have to dig very far before it all comes back to your loins.”

Continue reading this excellent article on WIRED, HERE.


  1. says

    Interesting … especially in view of another article I recently encountered on Memo to the Mind: Don’t Wander, Be Happy, reporting on a study showing a propensity of people’s (or at least iPhone users’) minds to wander, and the negative association that such wandering has on happiness.

    In my mind, a certain amount of [mind] wanderlust is associated with curiosity … and I’m wondering how you might reconcile the positivity associated with curiosity with the negativity associated with wandering minds.

  2. Marsha Lucas, PhD says

    The mind wandering turned out to be nearly 50% of the time — maybe it’s a dose-dependent sort of thing. In other words, too little or too much mind-wandering might be less beneficial, but perhaps there’s a middle “sweet spot” where there’s room for curiosity?

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