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"Curious" redirects here. For other uses, see Curious (disambiguation) and Curiosity (disambiguation). For the Mars rover, see Curiosity (rover).
Curious children gather around photographer Toni Frissell, looking at her camera

Curiosity (from Latin curiosus "careful, diligent, curious," akin to cura "care") is a quality related to inquisitive thinking such as exploration, investigation, and learning, evident by observation in human and many animal species.[1][2] The term can also be used to denote the behavior itself being caused by the emotion of curiosity. As this emotion represents a thirst for knowledge, curiosity is a major driving force behind scientific research and other disciplines of human study.


Children peer over shoulders to see what their friends are reading.

Although many living beings have an innate capability of curiosity, it should not be categorized as an instinct because it is not a fixed action pattern; rather it is an innate basic emotion because, while curiosity can be expressed in many ways, the expression of an instinct is typically more fixed and less flexible. Curiosity is common to human beings at all ages from infancy[3] through adulthood,[1] and is easy to observe in many other animal species. These include apes, cats, and rodents.[2]


Although the phenomenon of curiosity is widely regarded, its neural correlates still remain relatively unknown. However, recent studies have provided insight into the neurological mechanisms that may be associated with curiosity, such as learning, memory, and motivation. Such research aims to transition the study of curiosity from a speculative realm to one of more scientific credibility. Various theories have been proposed in order to elucidate the mechanism of curiosity:

Curiosity-drive model[edit]

The curiosity-drive model states that experiences that are novel and complex create a sensation of uncertainty in the brain, a sensation perceived to be unpleasant. Curiosity acts as a means in which to dispel this uncertainty. By exhibiting curious and exploratory behavior, organisms are able to learn more about the novel stimulus and thus reduce the state of uncertainty in the brain. However, this model does not account for the observation that organisms display curiosity even in the absence of exciting and new stimuli.[4] This type of exploratory behavior is common in many species. Take the example of a human toddler who, if bored in his current situation devoid of arousing stimuli, will walk about until something interesting is found. The observation of curiosity even in the absence of novel stimuli pinpoints one of the major shortcomings in the curiosity-drive model.

Optimal arousal model[edit]

The optimal-arousal model of curiosity posits that the brain aims to maintain an optimal level of arousal. If the stimulus is too intensely arousing, a “back-away” type behavior is engaged. In contrast, if the environment is boring and lacks exciting stimuli, exploratory behavior will be engaged until something optimally arousing is encountered. In essence, the brain is searching for the perfect balance of arousal states.[4] This model aptly addresses the observation that organisms display curiosity even in the absence of novel and exciting stimuli. While this theory addresses some discrepancies in the curiosity-drive theory, it is not without fault. If there is an ideal state of curiosity that should be maintained in the brain, then gaining new knowledge to eliminate that state of curiosity would be considered counter-productive.

Integration of reward pathway[edit]

Taking into account the shortcomings of both curiosity-drive and optimal-arousal models, there have been attempts to integrate the neurological aspects of reward, wanting, and liking into a more comprehensive theory for curiosity, one that is explained by biological processes. The act of wanting new information involves mesolimbic dopamine activation, which assigns an intrinsic value to that new information that the brain then interprets as a reward.[5][6] This is the neurobiology that motivates exploratory behavior. In addition, opioid activity in the nucleus accumbens evaluates stimuli and attaches an immediate value to the novel object, a sensation known as "liking". This liking stimulates pleasure. The chemical processes of both wanting and liking play a role in activating the reward system of the brain, and perhaps in curious tendencies as well.[4]

Neurological aspects[edit]

Due to the complexity of the subject, focusing on specific neural processes within curiosity can help in better understanding the phenomenon of curiosity as a whole. The following neural aspects can be thought of as essential sub-functions of curiosity:


Attention is the cognitive process by which one can selectively focus and concentrate on particular stimuli in the surrounding environment. There may be many stimuli in the surrounding area, but as there are limited cognitive and sensory resources, attention allows the brain to better focus on what it perceives to be the most important or relevant of these stimuli. Scientists can measure the amount of attention an individual devotes to a stimulus by tracking eye movements. Organisms focus their eyes on stimuli that are particularly stimulating or engaging; the more attention a stimulus garners, the more frequent the eye will be directed towards that stimulus. Normal individuals will look at new stimuli at least two to three times more often than familiar or repetitive stimuli. Exciting or novel stimuli demand more attention than stimuli perceived as boring.[7]

Motivation and reward[edit]

Dopamine Pathway in the Brain

The drive to learn new information or perform some action is often initiated by the anticipation of reward (an emotional sensation of relief and happiness). In this way, the concepts of motivation and reward are intrinsically tied to the phenomenon of curiosity.

Reward can be defined as an effect of some action that positively reinforces that behavior. Feelings of pleasure and satisfaction are often associated with happiness. There are many areas in the brain used to process reward, such as the nucleus accumbens, the substantia nigra, the striata and the ventral tegmental area (VTA). These structures together form the reward pathway. There are many prominent neurotransmitters released in the activation of the reward pathway, the most relevant of which include dopamine, serotonin and opioid-derived chemicals. Recent studies have shown that dopamine may be important for the process of curiosity, most particularly in assigning and retaining reward values for information gained. Midbrain dopamine neurons in monkeys are activated when determining the value of stimuli. There is some level of dopamine neuron activation when the reward of a familiar stimulus is already known, but perhaps more interestingly, there is a higher dopamine release when the reward is unknown and the stimulus is novel. Blocking the dopamine transporter (DAT) with GBR-12909 (i.e. Vanoxerine) and thereby increasing extracelluar dopamine levels is shown to increase the selection of novel choice options, despite uncertainty about their reward value.[5] Additionally, reward values were better retained (a function of both reward and memory) in monkeys that exhibited more curious behavior.[8] Such studies further implicate the reward pathway in curious behavior.

Memory and learning[edit]

Memory is the process by which the brain can store and access information. While there is still much to be understood about both memory and curiosity, the two neurological processes seemed to be linked. Curiosity can be defined as the urge to seek out novel stimuli. In order to determine if the stimulus is novel, an individual must remember if he has encountered the stimulus before or not. Thus, memory plays an integral role in dictating the level of novelty, and as such the level of curiosity. While one side of the coin dictates that memory affects curiosity, we can also flip the coin to project the converse relationship: curiosity affects memory. As previously mentioned, stimuli that are novel tend to capture more of our attention. Additionally, novel stimuli usually have a reward value associated with them, the anticipated reward of what learning that new information may bring. With stronger associations and more attention devoted to a stimulus, it is probable that the memory formed from that stimulus will be longer lasting and easier to recall, both of which facilitate better learning.

Important structures[edit]

Important brain structures for curiosity:Hippocampus, caudate nucleus, amygdala

While the neuroscience concerning curiosity is still relatively unknown, certain neuronal structures have been implicated in various aspects of curiosity:

Impact from disease[edit]

Left: normal brain. Right: AD afflicted brain. Severe degeneration of areas implicated in curiosity

Different neurodegenerative diseases can affect curiosity levels. Alzheimer's disease (AD) is a neurodegenerative disease that affects memory capability. Curiosity for novel stimuli might also be used as a potential predictor for the disease.[7]

Morbid curiosity[edit]

"Morbid curiosity" redirects here. For the magazine, see Morbid Curiosity (magazine).
A crowd mills around the site of a car accident in Czechoslovakia in 1980.

A morbid curiosity exemplifies addictive curiosity. It has as its object death, violence, or any other event that may cause harm physically or emotionally, the addictive emotion being explainable by meta-emotions exercising pressure on the spontaneous curiosity itself.[19] According to Aristotle in his Poetics we even "enjoy contemplating the most precise images of things whose sight is painful to us".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Berlyne DE. (1954). "A theory of human curiosity.". Br J Psychol. 45 (3): 180–91. PMID 13190171. 
  2. ^ a b c Berlyne DE. (1955). "The arousal and satiation of perceptual curiosity in the rat.". J Comp Physiol Psychol. 48 (4): 238–46. PMID 13252149. 
  3. ^ Ofer G, Durban J. (1999). "Curiosity: reflections on its nature and functions.". Am J Psychother. 53 (1): 35–51. PMID 10207585. 
  4. ^ a b c Litman, J. A. (2005). Curiosity and the pleasures of learning: Wanting and liking new information. Cognition & Emotion, 19(6), 793-814. doi:10.1080/02699930541000101
  5. ^ a b Costa, Vincent D.; Tran, Valery L.; Turchi, Janita; Averbeck, Bruno B. (2014). "Dopamine modulates novelty seeking behavior during decision making". Behavioral Neuroscience 128 (4): 1–11. PMID 24911320. 
  6. ^ Kakade, Sham; Dayan, Peter (2002). "Dopamine: Generalization and bonuses". Neural Networks 15 (4-6): 549–559. PMID 12371511. 
  7. ^ a b Stuart, Z., Cecelia, M., Allan, L., & James, L. (2011). Predicting the onset of Alzheimer's disease with a behavioral task. Alzheimer's & Dementia: The Journal Of The Alzheimer's Association, 7(Supplement), S549. doi:10.1016/j.jalz.2011.05.1549
  8. ^ C.D., F. (2011). Cognitive, Behavioral, and Systems Neuroscience: Transient activation of midbrain dopamine neurons by reward risk. Neuroscience, 197162-171. doi:10.1016/j.neuroscience.2011.09.037
  9. ^ Jepma, M., Verdonschot, R., van Steenbergen, H., Rombouts, S., & Nieuwenhuis, S. (2012). Neural mechanisms underlying the induction and relief of perceptual curiosity. Frontiers In Behavioral Neuroscience, 6
  10. ^ a b Saab BJ, Georgiou J, Nath A, Lee FJ, Wang M, Michalon A, Liu F, Mansuy IM, Roder JC. (2009). "NCS-1 in the dentate gyrus promotes exploration, synaptic plasticity, and rapid acquisition of spatial memory.". Neuron 63 (5): 643–56. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2009.08.014. PMID 19755107. 
  11. ^ McDermott M. (Sep 19, 2009). "Researchers discover the first-ever link between intelligence and curiosity.". PhyzOrg. 
  12. ^ Sahay A, Scobie KN, Hill AS, O'Carroll CM, Kheirbek MA, Burghardt NS, Fenton AA, Dranovsky A, Hen R. (2011). "Increasing adult hippocampal neurogenesis is sufficient to improve pattern separation.". Nature 472 (7344): 466–70. doi:10.1038/nature09817. PMID 21460835. 
  13. ^ Leussis MP, Berry-Scott EM, Saito M, Jhuang H, de Haan G, Alkan O, Luce CJ, Madison JM, Sklar P, Serre T, Root DE, Petryshen TL. (2013). "The ANK3 Bipolar Disorder Gene Regulates Psychiatric-Related Behaviors That Are Modulated by Lithium and Stress.". Biological Psychiatry 73 (7): 683–90. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2012.10.016. PMID 23237312. 
  14. ^ a b Min Jeong, K., Ming, H., Krajbich, I. M., Loewenstein, G., McClure, S. M., Wang, J., & Camerer, C. F. (2009). The Wick in the Candle of Learning: Epistemic Curiosity Activates Reward Circuitry and Enhances Memory. Psychological Science (Wiley-Blackwell), 20(8), 963-973. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02402.x
  15. ^ MONTGOMERY, K. (1955). THE RELATION BETWEEN FEAR INDUCED BY NOVEL STIMULATION AND EXPLORATORY BEHAVIOR. Journal Of Comparative And Physiological Psychology, 48(4), 254-260.
  16. ^ Karen J., P., Kimberly L., R., Christine L., B., Alan F., S., Steven E., L., & David M., L. (2007). Early life stress and novelty seeking behavior in adolescent monkeys. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 32785-792. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2007.05.008
  17. ^ D.L., R., D.L., Z., K.J., S., & L.P., S. (2011). Cognitive, Behavioral, and Systems Neuroscience: Fast dopamine release events in the nucleus accumbens of early adolescent rats. Neuroscience, 176296-307.
  18. ^ Kimberley A., P., Francys, S., & Chet C., S. (2012). Curious monkeys have increased gray matter density in the precuneus. Neuroscience Letters, 518172-175. doi:10.1016/j.neulet.2012.05.004
  19. ^ Zuckerman, Marvin; Patrick Litle (1986). "Personality and Curiosity About Morbid and Sexual Events". Personality and Individual Differences 7 (1): 49–56. doi:10.1016/0191-8869(86)90107-8. 

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