Why? | Mario Livio

Summary of: Why?: What Makes Us Curious
By: Mario Livio


Embark on a fascinating journey through the world of curiosity with “Why?: What Makes Us Curious” by Mario Livio. The book unveils the mysteries of curiosity by investigating psychology, neuroscience, and several other disciplines. Delve into the two axes of curiosity discovered by psychologist Daniel Berlyne and wander through the curious lives of Leonardo da Vinci and Richard Feynman, who exhibited an insatiable thirst for knowledge. The book also explores the neural correlates of curiosity, revealing how it activates different regions of the brain and its significant role in cognitive development. Be prepared to discover the ways curiosity has unfolded across human history and the remarkable people who have let it guide their lives.

The Science of Curiosity

Investigating curiosity means exploring psychology, neuroscience, and other disciplines. Being surprised sparks the brain into action, causing physical symptoms and emotional reactions. There are two axes to curiosity: perceptual to epistemic and specific to diversive. Epistemic curiosity fuels quests for knowledge, while diversive curiosity avoids boredom.

A Curious Mind

Renaissance man Leonardo da Vinci’s insatiable curiosity inspired groundbreaking exploration and development across a tapestry of areas, from dissection to astronomy to complex machines and more, leaving a profound impact on history and science. This passion was exemplified in his 15,000 pages of elaborate drawings and notes, which he used to categorize and understand the intricate connections between natural phenomena.

Leonardo da Vinci was the epitome of curiosity, spanning across numerous fields, from art to botany to flight. The ability to learn from exploration and experience, coupled with restlessness and a desire for discovery, allowed him to leave an incredible legacy as a “Renaissance man.” He took a creative approach to dissecting bodies, attempting to understand the complexities of joints and muscles, which inspired his attempts to apply mathematical laws to natural phenomena. His mirror-written, coded notebooks, which contained thousands of pages of notes and drawings, were an example of how science, technology, and art can blend effortlessly. da Vinci’s all-encompassing nature in mastering multiple fields is defined by Csikszentmihalyi as a “multitude.” Leonardo da Vinci’s lifelong approach to learning underscores the importance of instilling an insatiable curiosity in everyone from an early age.

Unconventional Genius

Discover the life, work, and wisdom of the revolutionary physicist Richard Feynman, a man who believed that learning was key to unlocking the beauty of nature.

Richard Feynman, often referred to as the “Sherlock Holmes of physics,” was a genius who worked on the quantum theory of electromagnetism and was known for his originality of thought. Unlike typical scientists, he would delve into mysteries such as the brain’s “time sense” and believed that curiosity-driven knowledge adds to nature’s “awe” and “poetry.”

Feynman was a multi-faceted individual who had an unconventional approach to learning. He learned to draw from his friend Jerry Zorthian, in return, Feynman would try to teach him physics. Feynman’s revolutionary “Feynman diagram” showing the interactions of quantum particles exemplifies his original thinking. In addition, he felt that understanding a phenomena scientifically did not detract from their beauty, but instead added to it.

Feynman’s inquisitive mind was not limited to physics, he extensively studied biology, astrophysics, and psychology. He emphasized on the limits of human understanding and the importance of humility. His groundbreaking question during a talk in 1959 amazed listeners when he asked: “Would the 24-volume Encyclopedia Britannica fit on the head of a pin?” In 1985, graduate student Tom Newman proved him right with cutting-edge technology.

Feynman was a true believer in the value of knowledge. He believed that being perceptually curious was like being deprived, conflicted, or hungry. Feynman’s life and work embody the importance of creativity, curiosity, and the desire to constantly challenge yourself by learning.

The Science of Curiosity

Humans have a natural tendency to seek knowledge and avoid information gaps, but science lacks a comprehensive theory of curiosity. Cognitive psychology and neuroimaging are offering insights into the neural correlates of different types of curiosity. Some neuroscientists describe curiosity as a drive state for information and a craving to learn. Psychologist George Loewenstein’s information-gap theory suggests that people feel discomfort when encountering incompatibility gaps between existing knowledge and new information, leading to a conscious evaluation of their ability to close the gap. Factors affecting how different topics pique curiosity include novelty, complexity, uncertainty, and conflicts with existing biases. Leonardo da Vinci and Richard Feynman represent the rare high-end spectrum of curious individuals. Epistemic-specific curiosity drives the search for answers to big scientific questions, while diversive-perceptual curiosity fuels the search for gossip and Twitter updates.

The Science of Curiosity

Curiosity is a known unknown that can be explained by a relationship called an inverted U function. In 19th century psychology, increasing stimulus intensity leads to positive then negative arousal. Two conflicting systems drive curiosity, a reward system for exploration and an aversive system that decreases curiosity when stimulus becomes threatening. These findings suggest that there are underlying mechanisms driving curiosity.

The Dual Optimal Arousal Theory

The dual optimal arousal theory proposes that curiosity is self-motivating and triggers both pleasant and unpleasant feelings at moderate stimulus intensities. Anxiety and avoidance of exploration arise in response to intense or confusing stimuli. Research shows that people become more curious when they have some knowledge of a topic but feel that there is still a gap in their understanding. Differences in curiosity levels relate to people’s openness to experience. Epistemic curiosity, driven by the desire to understand choices and maximize knowledge, is intrinsically motivating according to game-play studies. Psychologist Jordan Litman posits the concept of “I-curiosity” arising from pleasurable interest and “D-curiosity” from feeling deprived of information.

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