Why Curiosity Can Be Both Painful and Pleasurable

An amusing anecdote involving Darwin epitomizes the power of curiosity in creative people. When Darwin arrived at Cambridge in 1828, he became an avid collector of beetles. Once, after stripping the bark from a dead tree, he found two ground beetles and caught one in each hand. At that point, he caught sight of a rare crucifix ground beetle. Not wanting to lose any of them, he popped one beetle in his mouth to free a hand for the rarer species. That particular adventure did not end well. The beetle in Darwin’s mouth released an irritating chemical and he was forced to spit it out, apparently losing all three beetles in the process. The disappointing result notwithstanding, the story does demonstrate curiosity’s irresistible appeal. But curiosity can also be an anxious and unpleasant experience. Do both states exist simultaneously in the brain?

Since the early 1990s, neuroscientists have added a powerful new tool to their research arsenal, one that literally enables them to image curiosity in action in the brain. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is a procedure that allows researchers to examine which regions of the brain are activated during particular mental processes. The technique relies on the fact that when a certain area of the brain is used intensively, the energy required for the neural activity results in an increase in the blood flow into that region. The working brain can therefore be mapped in detail by taking snapshots of the changes in the blood flow, using the blood-oxygen-level-dependent (BOLD) contrast—the fact that oxygenated blood has different magnetic properties from deoxygenated blood and that the relative difference can be imaged. When combined with supplementary cognitive research, fMRI offers a new dimension to the studies of curiosity. A few neuroscientific experiments have been particularly innovative and influential in advancing our understanding of the neurophysiological underpinnings of curiosity….[   ]

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