The science of curiosity


Know naught but for naught but knowing.

I came up with this phrase when writing Agony’s Fire. Apart from its pleasing symmetry, I felt a strong connection to its message. Knowing for the sake of knowledge’s sake, is the very definition of curiosity. But where does curiosity come from? Almost everything has an obvious evolutionary imperative, a reason why it has come to exist in us. For those without an obvious reason, it has either lost its usefulness and has yet to evolve out (e.g. appendix, wisdom teeth), or exists because it can (provided no significant disadvantage to our ancestors), or both. But curiosity is not useless or indifferent, it gets people killed just as often as it saves their lives. Why then would we have evolved to have it?

I posit that curiosity is the feeling that compels us to solve problems with the ultimate goal of controlling our environment. The only way for us to have control over our environment is to learn about it. A baby explores the world by touching and tasting everything, for that is the tried and tested method of knowing if something is good or bad for you. If it tastes good, it is probably edible, and if it doesn’t burn or sting you, it is probably safe to handle. Other senses are not so discerning, but all have evolved to help you learn about your environment and solve problems. Curiosity helped our ancestors do more than decide which food was good to eat, it helped us discover medicines, and drove us to strike rocks and sticks together to make tools, fire, and even music. It gave us power to dispel darkness, to shelter us for the elements, and to hunt and ward off predators.

Like the possibility of a predator in the darkness, uncertainty will keep us up at night, make us sick, cause depression, and age us beyond our years if we don’t answer the question that plagues us. This physiological response to uncertainty occurs when the stress hormone, cortisol, is elevated for long periods of time. Acutely, this hormone will improve pain tolerance, tissue repair, and stimulate cognition to help overcome problems during a fight or flight situation, but the body cannot be sustained at that level for long without consequence. Endorphins are also released during stress to counteract its effects. Endorphins are partly responsible for making you relaxed and feel-good after stress (runner’s high), reduce your sense of pain, and improve your mood. This is the bodies reward for solving a problem. Interestingly, the problem doesn’t necessarily have to be solved in order to have this effect, the individual just has to believe that it is. The placebo effect is thought to be caused by endorphins, making a patient feel like their aliment is being remedied when they are in fact taking a sugar pill. Even more interesting is the fact that many people do see improvements in their health. That is the power of the mind.

I believe this is partly why we enjoy reading. Not only are we attaining knowledge, true or not, we are receiving the benefits of problem solving while in the comfort and safety of home. Curiosity is what keeps us reading from the start of the conflict to the resolution, much as it compels us to resolve conflict in our own lives. This is perhaps why most story arcs look the same and why deviations from the standard ‘shape’ do not perform well. Giving a reader too much conflict and too little resolution will prevent them from feeling the physiological benefits of problem solving. This is perhaps why cliff-hangers, which fail to bring the major conflict to an end, will leave the reader unsatisfied. On the other hand, having too little conflict will keep their stress from rising in the first place and have the same unsatisfying effect. If you fail to heighten the conflict much at all, they may not even experience enough curiosity to keep them reading.

As writers, we must capitalize on the emotional turmoil of our reader, enough to make them invested in the outcome of our story. We must stimulate their curiosity, but not so much that they are chronically or unduly stressed. We should help them learn about the world, and exercise their problem solving skills through the adventures of our characters. In the end, we can hope they will be flooded with endorphins and feel a reader’s high.

2 thoughts on “The science of curiosity

  1. I’m just reading through some of your older blogs, after reading your blog post on CC, and really like how you’ve explained the way that increasing and decreasing the tension in a novel impacts the reader. I am not a scientist but I love learning about the science behind things. Particularly things that impact my goals. For me create tension for the reader is to vague. But, what you said had me go ah, now I get the why and that will help give me a way to analyze my work to ensure that it achieves that effect.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m happy it was of some use to you. Understanding how something works definitely helps us gain control over it in some way. I think that’s why scientists and writers both do a lot of research. Sure there is an ultimate goal in mind, but understanding also gives us confidence and relief. It’s good to know that whatever the world throws at us, we will be ready for it… even if the problem is fictional.


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