Knowledge@Wharton: What is it that really drives our curiosity?
Mario Livio: Curiosity has several kinds or flavors, and they are not driven by the same things. There is something that has been dubbed perceptual curiosity. That’s the curiosity we feel when something surprises us or when something doesn’t quite agree with what we know or think we know. That is felt as an unpleasant state, as an adversity state. It’s a bit like an itch that we need to scratch. That’s why we try to find out the information in order to relieve that type of curiosity.
On the other hand, there is something that has been dubbed epistemic curiosity, which is a pleasurable state associated with an anticipation of reward. That’s our level of knowledge. That’s what drives all scientific research. It drives many artworks. It drives education and things like that.
Knowledge@Wharton: There’s a basic difference between being unpleasant or unhappy and being happy. I would think many people feel both of those things pretty much every day of their lives, correct?
Livio: You’re absolutely right. You see something that you completely did not expect or is very ambiguous, and you feel somewhat unpleasant about this. On the other hand, you try to learn something new every day, and that is a very pleasurable state that gives you a reward. So yes, everybody feels both of these things almost every day.
Knowledge@Wharton: Is there an element of curiosity that is enhanced by living in the digital age?
Livio: There are some people who have the feeling that because we have information literally at our fingertips, maybe we’re becoming less curious. But that’s not true. There are two things to remember. One is that when we do scientific research, we try to find answers to questions where we don’t know the answers yet. Therefore, you cannot find those answers on the internet or Wikipedia.
The other thing is that what the internet allows us to do is to satisfy what has been dubbed specific curiosity, namely you want to know a very particular detail. Who wrote this or that book? What was the name of the actor in that film? The digital age allows you to find the answer very quickly. That’s actually good because you don’t want to spend all your time trying to answer a question like that. I don’t know how you feel, but I sometimes can be really obsessed by not knowing the answer to something very, very simple like that.
Knowledge@Wharton: That’s almost a natural component of who we are. There are times when we become obsessed with wanting to know what that information is.
Livio: That’s right. In that sense, the digital age helps us because we can find that information, and that may drive us to look for something else about this. And that would drive perhaps epistemic curiosity, which is this love of knowledge and wanting to learn new things.
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Mario Livio is an Israeli-American astrophysicist and an author of works that popularize science and mathematics