January 16, 2020

So you're curious? Turns out there's just something "wrong" with you.

We’ve always thought of curiosity in a certain way that implies a rational process. But a recent study by a team at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research suggests that our curiosity comes from failures in that very rational process, what could be considered mental errors.

The Slot Machine

A study by a team at Inserm (French National Institute of Health and Medical Research) has shown that most of these choices are not motivated by curiosity but by errors caused by the brain mechanisms implicated in evaluating our options.

  • The Setup: around one hundred subjects played a slot machine-style game where they chose between two symbols representing uncertain rewards.
  • On the Left: The left-hand symbol won them money previously, so choosing this implies exploiting known options.
  • On the Right: The right-hand symbol hasn’t been tried recently and implies exploring uncertain options.

The researchers recorded the participants’ brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging. They found that the same brain regions that activated when the participants explored uncertain symbols were the same ones that activated when they committed errors of reasoning.

Why this is important

“This finding is important, because it implies that many choices in favor of the unknown are made unbeknownst to us, without our being aware of it—our participants have the impression of choosing the best symbol and not the most uncertain, but they do it on the basis of wrong information resulting from errors of reasoning,” team leader, Valentin Wyart said in a statement.

In other words, the results of this study lend at least some evidence against the more popular hypothesis that curiosity is a more rational process where we seek out stimuli that will help us weigh our options and make better choices. It potentially adds another theory as to why we’re curious which include:

  • Curiosity-drive theory: we desire coherence and when that’s disrupted, exploring and making sense of this undesirable certainty gives us back that coherence. For example, “I have to find out the truth about what happened.”
  • Optimal-arousal theory: this theory suggests that even without the presence of uncertainty, people are looking for the just the right amount of mental stimulation from simply exploring. For exampe, always trying new things.
  • Integration of the reward pathway into theory: this theory ties the desire and seeking of new information into our reward centers where we assign value to new information as reward. For example, “t his book could help me get ahead.”

The Takeaway

While the study does imply a lack of rational control over the curiosity that might lead us to some incredible discovery (history is replete with these kinds of accidents), it doesn’t explain the case for all of us.

After all, we’ve likely experienced curiosity due to some mechanism described by the other theories mentioned, and there is acknowledgment of different types of curiosity prevalent in different people and situations.

Regardless of how we decide to interpret the study, we could simply take it as a good thing: Even if it’s actually the result of a glitch in our brains, if we tend to willingly explore the unknown and that means there’s something “wrong with us” then it’s a fault we’ll embrace along with our many others.

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