The human craving to know and understand is the driving force behind our development as individuals and even our success as a species. But curiosity can also be dangerous, leading to stumbles or even downfalls, so why does this impulse so often compel us throughout life?
Put another way, why are humans so curious? And given curiosity’s complexity, do scientists even have a definition for this innate drive?
Curiosity is so ingrained, it helps us learn as babies and survive as adults. As for the definition, there isn’t one set in stone. Researchers across many disciplines are interested in curiosity, so it’s no surprise there isn’t a widely accepted definition of the term. William James, one of the first modern psychologists, called it “the impulse towards better cognition.” Ivan Pavlov wrote that dogs (of course it was dogs) are curious about novel stimuli through the “what-is-it?” reflex that causes them to focus spontaneously on something new that comes into their environment.
While pinning down a definition has proven tricky, “the general consensus is it’s some means of information gathering,” Katherine Twomey, a lecturer in language and communicative development at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, told Live Science.
Psychologists also agree that curiosity isn’t about satisfying an immediate need, like hunger or thirst; rather, it’s intrinsically motivated.
Making our way in the world
Curiosity encompasses such a large set of behaviors, there probably isn’t any single “curiosity gene” that makes humans wonder about the world and explore their environment. That said, curiosity does have a genetic component. Genes and the environment interact in many complex ways to shape individuals and guide their behavior, including their curiosity.
Researchers did identify changes to a specific gene type that is more common in individual songbirds that are especially keen on exploring their environment, according to a 2007 study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Biological Science. In humans, mutations in this gene, known as DRD4, have been associated with a person’s propensity to seek novelty.
Regardless of their genetic makeup, infants have to learn an incredible amount of information in a short window of time, and curiosity is one of the tools humans have found to accomplish that gargantuan task.
“If infants weren’t curious, they’d never learn anything and development wouldn’t happen, Twomey said.