George Loewenstein literally wrote the (academic) book on the science of curiosity, and categorized it as “a cognitive induced deprivation that arises from the perception of a gap in knowledge and understanding.” In other words, curiosity is a “drive state” that motivates learning in the exact same way as the hunger drive motivates eating, and the thirst drive motivates drinking. And that’s not just a metaphor: psychologists believe that once you’ve learned enough to satisfy your temporary curious state, you feel sated, the same as when you’ve had a full meal.
Interestingly, studies show the hunger for curiosity is greater in people who know just a little bit about a subject. For example, subjects shown trivia questions have a u-shaped graph of their curiosity based on how sure they are of the answer: if they’re absolutely certain they’re wrong or certain they’re right, they have little curiosity about the real answer. But if they’re kinda sure? Then people really want to know. Related studies also show that curiosity helps to optimize your learning, making you want to focus on filling the gaps in your existing knowledge.
Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), which highlights oxygen use in the brain, scientists have also recently figured out where in your brain curiosity originates: a region called the posterior cingulate cortex, deep inside the cerebrum. Those experiments also show that once you’ve satisfied your curiosity, the reward sections of the brain activate, creating a powerful incentive to learn. FMRI studies also show not only that you learn better when you’re curious about something, but that the more curios you are, the more you learn! When they were really curious about an answer (as opposed to just slightly curious), people were 15% more likely to remember the answer.
Curiosity may also have significant effects on creativity: in a 2019 study, neuroscientists who prepped participants to be curious about a famous Harry Houdini trick came up with creative ideas about how it was performed 60% of the time, while “uncurious” people in the control condition imagined creative solutions only 36% of the time. That’s a serious bump.
Finally, curiosity is a lifetime pursuit: not surprisingly, research shows that infants and small children benefit from increased curiosity. Among other things, children prefer to play with toys that they don’t understand the workings of; psychologists speculate that trying to understand how the toys function gives kids a curiosity reward which makes play more enjoyable. Studies have also shown the importance of curiosity to older adults, with proven benefits in maintaining cognitive function and both mental and physical health. So stay sharp, stay well, and stay curious!