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Scientists have been studying curiosity since the 19th century, but combining techniques from several fields now makes it possible for the first time to study it with full scientific rigor, according to the authors of a new paper.

Benjamin Hayden and Celeste Kidd, researchers in brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, are proposing that scientists utilize these techniques to focus on curiosity’s function, evolution, mechanism, and development, rather than on what it is and what it isn’t.

“Curiosity is a long-standing problem that is fascinating, but has been difficult to approach scientifically,” said Hayden, an assistant professor and co-author of a “Perspective” article published today in Neuron.

“Researchers have developed formal and quantifiable techniques for studying curiosity, and we think it’s worth getting the word out,” said Hayden. “There are people working in a number of disciplines who may not be aware of each other’s work, but who should be.”

The authors also noted that the study of curiosity overlaps with ADHD and other attentional disorders. For most of us, curiosity helps us to learn things with personal relevance. But these disorders could impair attention in a way that prompts interest in unimportant information.

“Everything in life involves trade-offs,” said co-author Kidd, assistant professor and co-director of the Rochester Baby Lab and Rochester Kid Lab. “If we spend time watching a TV show because we are curious about what happened, then we spend less time working on our jobs. So there is definitely a balance, and too much curiosity can be harmful.”

Hayden and Kidd hope that in addition to the understanding of how curiosity is affected by disease, future research will bring new information about how curiosity is controlled, how it differs between childhood and adulthood, and the link between curiosity and learning.

19th century psychologists used biographies from mothers to study how children were drawn toward new objects or experiences. Animal curiosity also became a fascination for well-known researchers like Ivan Pavlov and Harry Harlow, who saw curiosity as a basic drive.

Scientists have tried to describe curiosity by saying it is entirely instinctive—as opposed to information-seeking and risk-seeking. But this type of definition runs into problems when we try to determine the motivation of babies, primates, and other organisms that cannot communicate verbally. Hayden and Kidd use a working definition of curiosity “as a drive state for information,” which can be observed in organisms as simple as nematode worms.

“When information-seeking occurs, it’s reasonable to start talking about it as a minimal form of curiosity,” Hayden said. “This definition, and the idea that roundworms may be curious, will be hard for some people to swallow. But by looking at it from an evolutionary perspective—and the benefits of information-seeking in general—scientists can make rapid progress. But by sitting around and arguing about what is and is not curiosity, progress will be much slower.”

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