Random finds (2016, week 9) — On curiosity and novelty (but not too much)

Mark Storm
6 min readMar 4, 2016

Every Friday, I run through my tweets to select a few observations and insights that have kept me thinking over the last week.

We seek novelty, but not too much

“Humans have a drive to eat. We have a drive to drink. We have a drive to reproduce. Curiosity is no different,” says George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. “Our insatiable drive to learn — to invent, explore, and study ceaselessly — ‘deserves to have the same status as those other drives’.”

But while it makes perfect sense to seek food, water, sex, shelter, rest, wealth, or any of the other myriad nourishing and pleasant things in life, curiosity confers no extrinsic benefit. But according to Sreekanth Chalasani, a neurobiologist at the Salk Institute of Biological Sciences in California, there is good ‘evolutionary’ reason for our curiosity as new information helps us to make better choices and adapt to a changing environment. You will never know when things might come in handy. “Maybe someday we’ll need a moon base,” Zach St. George writes in Curiosity Depends on What You Already Know.

“Curiosity is not just wanderlust, though. We’re curious about specific things, and different people are interested in different specific things. […] This divergence of interests tells us that something beyond a tendency to roam must be guiding each of our unique obsessions.”

Curiosity is less about what you don’t know than about what you already do.

Curiosity builds upon itself with every question leading to the next. And like a journey on the Internet, where you start dictates where you might end up. But what kindles curiosity?

‘Warding off boredom,’ says the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. But boredom alone can’t fully explain curiosity as it “strikes even when we’re not bored. In fact, we will readily give up things we want or enjoy in order to learn something new.” Brain studies suggest that the additional weight we give to new options — the so called ‘novelty bonus’ — stems at least in part from the euphoric feeling it gives us.

For instance, a 2007 study found that the part of our brain that processes rewards like love and sweets activates when we expect to find something new, even if that expectation doesn’t play out. These findings, the researchers conclude, “raise the possibility that novelty itself is processed akin to a reward.”

But this still doesn’t explain why our curiosity beckons us this way, and not that?

In a 1994 paper, Lowenstein theorized that curiosity’s direction is determined by the ‘information gap,’ the sudden awareness of what you don’t know and the immediate desire to fill that gap. For this information gap to set its hook, though, it can’t be too big or too small. According to further research done by Loewenstein, people are least curious about answers they thought they knew. But they are also also uninterested in questions about which they hadn’t a clue. Instead, curiosity peaked when subjects had a good guess about the answer but weren’t quite sure.

The sweet spot for curiosity seemed to be a Goldilocksian level of information — not too much nor too little.

To learn, you have to have something to grab onto. The next handhold can’t be too far from the last — you might never reach it. So as your brain pushes you to gather information as quickly as possible, it instinctively steers you away from gaps that are too small, or too large. It’s like going to a bookstore. You don’t want to pick a book you have already read. But neither one you won’t be able to penetrate at all — a Russian textbook on astrophysics for example.

To predict or even control curiosity would be to teach more efficiently. But the very difficulty of studying curiosity suggests its boundlessness, the near impossibility of truly directing it. For now, there are only more questions.

More on curiosity

A bit more…

I have mentioned Nilofer Merchant already in Random finds, 2016 week 6 — On diversity, the future of work, and questions, but here she is again in an interview with Lisa Gansky. Nilofer talks about onlyness, a term she coined as a way to describe how value creation happens today. By her own definition, it is the polar opposite of being a cog in the machine.

Sometimes, we as individuals can be blind to our onlyness. Nilofer compares it to a red light over your head, shining outwards. While you see the red light of your onlyness everywhere you go, others only see the red when you enter the room. Your onlyness might not always be well received — the people in that room may be colorblind, or they may hate the color red — but their reaction cannot devalue your contribution. Diversity and disorder are very good friends when it comes to building innovation and strategy.

Listen here: http://www.instigating.co/interview-nilofer-merchant.


On MindMedley a beautiful post, called The Perpetual Process of Becoming.

“Amidst of the storm of transience, the vortex of ‘transitoriness’, it seems like there’s one thing that doesn’t seem to change. At least in the Western culture. There seems to be an ‘I’ — the observer — that is witnessing all this movement. Some people call this a self, others call this our ‘soul’.”

“The person in the mirror is, like all matters of the universe, in constant flux. It always was, and will always be, changing. Buckminster Fuller described this feeling, this sense of perpetual ‘process’ poetically, “I live on the Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing — a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process — an integral function of Universe.” Heraclitus seemed to have pointed out this feeling of impermanence: “We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not”.”

Read here: http://www.mindmedley.com/blog/the-perpetual-process-of-becoming.


The New York Times published Don’t Turn Away From the Art of Life on the diminishing importance of the Humanities in today’s educational institutions, by Arnold Weinstein, a professor of comparative literature at Brown University and the author, most recently, of Morning, Noon and Night: Finding the Meaning of Life’s Stages.

“When and how do you take your own measure? And what are you measuring? Both Oedipus and Lear could initially subscribe to Shakespeare’s notation, ‘every inch a king,’ but by play’s end, something different, varied and terrifying has come to light: for one, an unknown history of parricide and incest, for the other, an opening into a moral vision of such force that it wrecks all prior frames, leading to madness, as Lear suffers his kinship with all ‘bare, fork’d animal[s].’ Life’s actual hurdy-gurdy often explodes our labels and preconceptions.”

“We enter the bookstore, see the many volumes arrayed there, and think: so much to read, so little time. But books do not take time; they give time, they expand our resources of both heart and mind. […] They take our measure. And we are never through discovering who we are.”

Read here: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/24/opinion/dont-turn-away-from-the-art-of-life.html?_r=0.


And finally, on MindShift an article by George Hicks, Unpacking the Science: How Playing Music Changes the Learning Brain (2014), on the tremendous practical importance of music education, and how music neuroscience helps to answer fundamental questions about the deepest workings of the human brain.

“We could show that musically trained children and professional adult musicians have better executive functioning skills compared to their peers who do not play a musical instrument.”

Read here: http://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2014/07/22/unpacking-the-science-how-playing-music-changes-the-learning-brain.

“When possible, refer all matters to committees, for ‘further study and consideration.’ Attempt to make the committee as large as possible — never less than five.” — CIA’s Simple Sabotage Field Manual



Mark Storm

Helping people in leadership positions flourish — with wisdom and clarity of thought