On the internet, you can learn everything, so why do I learn stuff that I don’t want to know so often? I want to be drawn into posts on the political past of Europe while I’m browsing the internet, but I end up reading trivia like a menu from Alcatraz prison.
Why am I not curious about the things about which I want to be curious? Curious animals were more likely to live during evolutionary time because they learned about their environments; a forager that often missed a reliable feeding ground to explore could find an even better place to eat. To investigate the unknown, humans, too, will forgo a known payoff. Subjects were asked to select one of four images in one experiment, each with some chance of paying a cash prize. Images were replicated, so subjects learned to select the best-paying, but they chose it more frequently when a novel picture emerged than the odds dictated they could. The reason manufacturers regularly tweak food packaging is this preference for novelty.
But even if it doesn’t guarantee a reward right now, it’s good to know about your environment; information can be useless today but critical next week. Evolution has therefore left us with a brain that can reward itself; rewarding curiosity feels pleasurable, so even though you don’t anticipate any concrete payoff, you explore the world. Compared with common ones, infants tend to look at novel images.
What’s more, curiosity not only guarantees new learning opportunities; it improves learning itself. A brain state that amplifies learning is caused by curiosity.
A function of curiosity – to heighten memory – is the key to understanding why we’re curious about some things and not others. We feel most curious when exploration will yield the most learning.
No curiosity would be spurred by a query that you know the answer. But if you know little about the topic of the question, you would also feel little interest; if you knew the answer, you wouldn’t be able to relate it to other knowledge, so it would seem almost meaningless. When we believe that the world presents new knowledge in the correct proportion to supplement what we already know, we’re most interested.
Notice that what you might learn in the short term is determined by your brain. Your long-term goals are not a consideration. That’s why, if her brain determines that it will not add to her experience, a cardiac surgeon will nevertheless find a conference presentation on the topic boring. Conversely, her brain can determine that this will be a rich source of knowledge when she watches a documentary on type fonts.
It’s the disconnect between long and short-term interests that makes it so frustrating for frothy internet posts. The sense of curiosity guaranteed that you would learn something and, admittedly, you did, now that you know the favorite macaron flavor of French people, but you are disappointed because your new experience does not contribute to your long-term interests. You’ve been clickbaited by your own brain.
If disappointment results from pursuing interest, maybe it should not be allowed to take the lead. Why not actually look for subjects that you really want to think about? That sounds rational, but some searches can produce thousands of hits and no way of knowing which will sustain your interest by offering the right match to your current knowledge.
The opportunistic approach is really perfect if you want more serious reading while you surf the internet. You just need to have better foraging grounds regularly. On the front page, several websites that snare your time feature hundreds of stories, banking that one will hit the sweet spot of awareness of each reader. So, visit websites that use the same methodology but have richer content.
Albert Einstein famously advised a young student to “never lose a holy curiosity”. Given our evolutionary history, there’s little danger any of us will. The challenge is changing its focus from the momentary to something more enduring. So stop making your brain lazy and if you want to spur your curiosity more, check out more posts in my blog!
Check out my related post: Why are pockets rare in women’s clothing?