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Our Fascination with the Unknown

Découvrir les sciences de la vie

  • Off the Bench
  • Inspirer la science
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Curiosity helps children understand the world. Later in life, it is essential for successful learning. In the fields of science and economics, it drives innovation.

Albert Einstein explained the secret of his success thus: “I have no special talent. I am just passionately curious.” The very trait that the Physics Nobel Laureate praised as “the wellspring of all technological achievements” had been proclaimed a sin for centuries prior. The Roman philosopher Augustine counted curiosity among the major vices; in the biblical story of Genesis, Eve’s curiosity surrounding the forbidden fruit led to humans being banished from paradise.

A peek through the keyhole

No question – curiosity carries risks. How quickly one discovers the forbidden when peering through the keyhole in secret! Children don’t mind – their curiosity is inherent. They are magically attracted to new places, people and things. “Babies learn more during their first three months of life than students do in four years”, writes Alison Gopnik, Professor of Psychology at the University of California Berkeley in her renowned work “The Scientist in the Crib“. The things that two year-old children are already capable of sensing, perceiving and anticipating show the surprising precision that the marvel of biology, our brain, utilizes to conquer the world. Parents whose child has just asked for the hundredth time: “Why?” may take solace in the fact that only those who ask are going to learn.

Whereas childlike curiosity tapers off over time, many facts speak in favor of continuing to encourage the thirst for knowledge in adolescents. Curiosity, after all, endows a person with many advantages in our knowledge-based society. A meta-analysis by psychologists from the UK and Switzerland demonstrates that curiosity, as well as conscientiousness, are just as important for the success of students as intelligence. As such, even with a lower IQ, young people who described themselves as being curious achieved good marks that were comparable to those of their higher-ranked fellow students. “Teachers have a great opportunity to inspire curiosity in their students, to make them engaged and independent learners. That is very important”, concludes curiosity researcher Sophie von Stumm of the University of York.

A sense of achievement

The neuropsychologist Michael Gruber, too, confirms that curiosity assists in the learning process. He presented his test subjects at the University of California® Davis with test questions. While they were searching for answers, a functional magnetic resonance tomograph recorded their brain activities. The result: the more intent and curious the participants were with respect to a certain answer, the better they remembered it later. “Satisfied curiosity provides the brain with a sense of achievement”, concludes Gruber. At the end of the day, curiosity makes us smarter: in a state of curiosity, the test subjects’ brains were also better at retaining information that was only casually obtained.

Recruiters pay special attention to curiosity

ven one’s career is bound to benefit from a cosmopolitan outlook and a thirst for knowledge. After all, the curiosity of its team members determines a company’s ability to innovate. Among the most valued characteristics that firms look for in their employees, curiosity ranks fifth – according to the employer-branding specialists Universum, based in Stockholm. For this reason, psychologist von Stumm advises recruiters to pay special attention to a candidate’s curiosity.

They are not that easy to find. While every person is born with a certain degree of curiosity, this trait is not at all evenly distributed. How come? Twin studies provide some clues: evidently, genes are responsible for roughly 60 to 70 percent of a person’s curiosity.

Making room for new ideas

With all this in mind, the question remains: how is curiosity best awakened in a person? The American psychologist Daniel E. Berlyne defined four aspects that inspire fascination with the unknown: novelty, complexity, surprise and conflict. In his study entitled “Curiosity Management – Fuel for Innovation” Carl Naughton describes how curiosity may be encouraged in one’s fellow humans. His tips: asking inspiring questions, making room for the development of ideas and allowing for the possibility of mistakes. “Inquiring, researching and discovering will become a part of the company culture”, says Naughton.

Pandora’s Box

In order to discover new things, humans regularly surpass their limitations. The temptation of the forbidden seems simply overpowering. It appears that the legend of the beautiful Pandora, who opened the mysterious box belonging to the father of the gods, Zeus, instead of keeping it securely closed and passing it down to the humans – thus unleashing unprecedented calamity upon the world – has been all but forgotten.

In their study entitled “The Pandora effect – The Power and Peril of Curiosity”, the American scientists Christopher K. Hsee and Bowen Ruan demonstrated that humans are willing to research new things, even if they can expect negative consequences. To give an example, test subjects voluntarily subjected themselves to electric shocks in order to satisfy their curiosity. “This research reveals the potential perverse side of curiosity, and is particularly relevant to the current epoch, the epoch of information, and to the scientific community, a community with high curiosity“, emphasize the authors.

Indeed, many scientific questions that stir curiosity and which promise groundbreaking, forward-thinking knowledge are highly controversial. The results are often unpredictable, and there is a likelihood that experiments may run out of control. Progress in the field of brain research, for example, evokes the hope for a cure for a number of hereditary diseases. With the help of the so-called gene scissors (CRISPR-Cas9), for example, perfect designer babies have become a distinct possibility. This constitutes a classic dilemma for science, as research almost always walks a tightrope between insatiable curiosity and the ethical boundaries of society.

Curiosity on Mars

Despite all disagreement and contradiction, curiosity is now considered to be the driving force behind human development. There is a reason that the suggestion, brought forth by a student, to name NASA® ’s Mars Rover “Curiosity” was received with such overwhelming enthusiasm. In a PR-video for the Mars mission, American cosmologist Neil deGrasse Tyson says with justifiable pathos: “We didn‘t just send a robot to Mars. We sent the most essential, the most valuable, the most human piece of ourselves: We sent our curiosity!”


Vice or virtue?

Curiosity killed the cat – such reads an old English proverb from the 16th century. And those who are not careful might just explode with curiosity. That being said, the thirst for knowledge was not always considered a vice. Plato considered “amazement” to be the beginning of all philosophy.

According to his pupil, Aristotle, curiosity is innate. “All humans, by their very nature, strive for knowledge”, he wrote. The world changer Galileo Galilei was convinced: “Curiosity lies at the root of all problems that have a desire to be solved.” Today, curiosity is synonymous with the ability to innovate as well as creativity.