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The Itch of Curiosity

By Wired

August 3, 2010

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Curiosity is one of those personality traits that gets short scientific shrift. It strikes me as a really important mental habit—how many successful people are utterly incurious?—but it’s also extremely imprecise. What does it mean to be interested in seemingly irrelevant ideas? And how can we measure that interest? While we've analyzed raw intelligence to death—scientists are even beginning to unravel the anatomy of IQ–our curiosity about the world remains mostly a mystery. (According to one review of the literature, the amount of research on curiosity peaked in the late 1940s.) Einstein would not be pleased: "I have no special talents," he once declared. "I am only passionately curious."

Nevertheless, progress is occurring; our curiosity about the brain is even leading us to understand curiosity. One of the most interesting recent papers comes from the lab of Colin Camerer at Caltech, and was led by Min Jeong Kang. The experiment itself was straightforward: Nineteen Caltech undergrads were asked 40 trivia questions while in a brain scanner. After reading each question, the subjects were told to silently guess the answer, and to indicate their curiosity about the correct answer. Then, they saw the question presented again, followed by the correct answer. That's it.

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