Curiosity increases the brain's ability to learn and memorize information. Mr Exen/Shutterstock

Curiosity may be the driving force behind mankind’s never-ending quest for knowledge, though surprisingly little is known about where this sense of wonder actually comes from or what purpose it serves.

Part of the reason for this, according to a new paper published in the journal Neuron, resides in the fact that we can’t even agree on what curiosity is. To get around this, the authors of the study insist that we should all adopt the broadest possible definition of the term, classifying it simply as a “drive state for information,” and that by doing so we can begin to decipher the origins, function and mechanisms behind our inquisitiveness.

By looking at the subject through this “rough-and-ready” lens, the scientists behind the paper conclude that the purpose of curiosity is to “motivate the acquisition of knowledge and learning.” The means by which this occurs are complex, although previous studies have indicated that curiosity may increase our ability to absorb and memorize information. For instance, one study revealed how, when curiosity is piqued, the brain enters a state of increased motivation to learn, involving the activation of dopamine reward circuits as well as parts of the hippocampus that are associated with memory formation.

Furthermore, by adopting such a wide-ranging classification of curiosity, it becomes possible to observe the same “drive state” in other animals, thereby enabling us to learn more about the evolutionary benefits of our impulse for info. For instance, under this definition, even the lowly roundworm can be said to be a curious creature, since it displays a tendency to explore its environment before beginning its hunt for food. In doing so, it is able to absorb information about the reward it seeks – in this case food – as well as the reward itself, thereby providing greater long-term payoffs.

The authors claim that curiosity may serve an evolutionary purpose since it “can tentatively be said to improve performance, yielding fitness benefits to organisms with it.” In other words, the more information we have, the better decisions we are able to make.

At the same time, however, it is acknowledged that this drive for knowledge can also have some negative consequences. For instance, our nosiness and desire to solve mysteries can sometimes get us into dangerous situations, hence curiosity’s reputation as a serial cat-killer.

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