An astrophysicist asks, “what are the underlying mechanisms of curiosity and exploration?”
Whether it was Leonardo da Vinci filling volumes with speculations, the millions of readers addicted to mystery novels, or the army of scammers teasing us to click on their tempting links, curiosity fills our lives. No one understands it, but it’s not for want of trying, and bestselling author Livio (Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein—Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists that Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe, 2013, etc.) delivers a lively, expert, and definitely not dumbed-down account of why we’re curious and what scientists have discovered. Some psychologists advocate the “information-gap theory.” Encountering something incompatible with our beliefs generates a “gap” in our knowledge, an unpleasant “uncertainty—a perceived disparity between the existing and the desired informational condition…the chief cause of curiosity.” Another school of thought maintains that an incompatible fact produces anxiety, leading to a thirst for knowledge, another word for curiosity and a pleasant sensation. These and other ideas are testable. Psychology experiments indicate that we generally enjoy learning, but only if the process isn’t too easy or too hard. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, neuroscientists have discovered that brain regions specializing in learning, reward, and memory are active when subjects are curious. Although exciting, these findings are not, the author admits, terribly revealing. After delivering the latest theories and research by Page 120, Livio then veers off to describe the evolution of the human brain, cultural, political, and literary attitudes to curiosity, and opinions of living geniuses who are happy to explain their motivations.
The concept of curiosity is a tough nut to crack. Livio is not shy about admitting its difficulties, and he makes an admirable effort to explain complex and still-not-well-understood ideas.