Mind & Body

Your Brain Treats Hunger for Knowledge Like Hunger for Food

Curiosity is a double-edged sword. It can lead us to amazing intellectual achievement — Albert Einstein said his only "special talent" was being "passionately curious" — but it can also kill proverbial cats (R.I.P.). So ... how exactly does this complex force work? In a new study, researchers from the UK and Japan found that curiosity works a lot like hunger. It's basically the hunger for knowledge — and like hunger, it's hard to ignore. Curiosity can make us risk physical pain, even when we're curious about something pretty trivial.

Related Video: The Power of Curiosity

A Shocking Risk

The researchers assessed this with an experiment that mixed magic, food, and gambling. (Science is fun, kids!) To start, participants saw either a short video of a magic trick or a picture of food. After they rated their curiosity about the trick or their desire for the food on a seven-point scale, the researchers asked them if they were enticed enough to gamble for it.

Before making their decision, they got to see a "Wheel of Fortune"–style wheel that visually displayed their probability of winning. (The exact layouts varied — participants' chances of winning ranged from 17 to 83 percent.) If the researcher's spin of the wheel ended on a winning region, the participant could find out how the trick worked, or eat the food they'd seen pictured. If the wheel landed on a losing region, though, the participant was told they'd receive an electric shock (they didn't actually — the researchers figured the fear of the shock was enough).

The researchers found that people were more likely to accept the lottery if they were more likely to win (obviously), but they were also more likely to accept it if they had a higher curiosity or hunger score. In other words, curiosity and hunger were both powerful enough to make people willingly risk discomfort.

Your Brain on Curiosity

How similar are curiosity and hunger really, though? Sure, they both trigger risk-taking behavior, but that doesn't mean they have the same root cause. To investigate the roots of curiosity, researchers did the experiment over again — but this time, they scanned participants' brains in an fMRI machine. They wanted to see what sort of activity happened in the brains of people who chose to spin the wheel. Did gambling based on hunger trigger different parts of the brain than gambling based on curiosity?

Short answer: no. Whether subjects were seeking food or information, gambling lit up the same area of their brains: the striatum. This is where "incentive salience," or wanting, comes from. Researchers describe this specific strain of wanting as a "hot" motivational feeling, one that makes us impulsive.

In the final portion of the study, the researchers found that the striatum was also activated when people gambled for the answer to a trivia question. This means that it's the source of not just "perceptual curiosity" — which we feel when we see a visual magic trick — but also "epistemic curiosity," which we feel about more abstract unknowns, like trivia. (Like, why do late buses cluster in threes, anyway?)

Curiosity and "wanting to know" are synonymous, so it's not particularly shocking that curiosity originates in the "wanting" region of the brain. When you take a step back, though, these results are striking. We want to gain knowledge in much the same we want to eat to stay alive. We're basically hard-wired to yearn for information. It's no wonder we're living in an information age — or that you're reading a website called Curiosity.

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Is the information age making us more or less curious? in "Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It," author Ian Leslie argues it's the latter. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Mae Rice January 7, 2019

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