Curiosity did not kill the cat

Once upon a time, a wise king received a cloche every evening right before dinner. The king would then head to the royal chambers for dinner and send out the empty plate and the cloche.

This went on for years and now, his trusted servant, having exhausted his patience, tiptoed towards the royal chambers. It was only right for him to know what this secret delicacy was. He made it past the royal guards and entered the chamber. The silver cloche glistened under the moonlight. It almost beckoned to him to know its secret. The servant rushed towards it and picked up the cloche.
What he saw was a…

A Case for Curiosity

Curiosity is an essential ingredient in a good story and this excerpt from Grimms’ Fairy Tales is no exception. Animals, especially humans, are lured immediately into the trap of curiosity and often go to extreme lengths to satiate it. It is often said, ‘Curiosity killed the cat’, indicating that this intrusive need might get us into trouble. The truth, however, is far from it.

Foragers, curiosity, and survival

Animals that inhabit the natural world spent a considerable amount of time exploring and understanding their surroundings. Curiosity,
therefore, helped forager humans not only to explore their environs but also gave them an edge over others, making survival easier. The brain is designed to be curious and that makes us curious to know more about the brain. Curiosity has not killed the cat. Rather, it has played a significant role in its survival.

The Brain and a chemical game

One can imagine life as a video game with multiple levels and obstacles and the points and goodies in the game to be pieces of information. Curiosity, then, leads a player to grab all those points and goodies to progress further. Whether these points or information hold relevance is another matter. A good player nonetheless makes sure to grab as much as he can in the hope of making it to the next round. It is, therefore, essential for us to understand the neuroscience behind curiosity.

Monkeys take a gamble

To understand the neuroscience behind curiosity, scientists gave rhesus macaques a trade-off task. The choice was simple. Two gambles would appear on a computer screen. The monkeys had to choose one by gazing at it. Now came the fun part. On selecting an option, the macaques would receive a reward (in this case a squirt of juice, 2.25 seconds after making a choice.) The option they selected had no impact on the reward, namely, the juice. To make things interesting, they were also presented with an “info option” that gave easy resolution. To put it in simpler terms, this option would help them find out if they had won the reward before the juice squirting began. And not surprisingly, macaques chose the “info option”, wanting to know this extra bit, even though it made no difference in the timing or nature of their reward. Macaques, in other words, are
good and curious game players.

Neuroanatomy of curiosity

1) Reward: Neuroimaging supports the idea that curiosity elicits a reward response from the brain. Dopaminergic midbrain, striatum, and ventral orbital surface reward the brain for going after extra info, pushing a player to grab goodies and points in the game. In the case of the macaques who chose the “info option”, the response on receiving the reward was the same as receiving the info about the reward. That is, the act of seeking reward information beforehand and the act of receiving the actual reward had “the same currency”, that is, a neural network concerning dopamine.

2) Learning: Responses in the OFC (orbitofrontal cortex) help us to evaluate the worth of information received and its relevance. The hippocampus and the associated parahippocampal gyrus were activated which helps in memory. Thus, when one gives an incorrect answer to a high-curiosity question and then learns the correct answer, the correct answer can be remembered better.

3) Control: Another mechanism at play in the neural circuits is the ability to control. Since curiosity involves seeking extra information, control is necessary to evaluate the trade-off and manage it, thus ensuring the best possible outcome. This is where the dorsal cingulate cortex plays an important role. It is a classic control centre that imparts “executive control” to make a well-informed decision.

Source: The Whole Brain Atlas (Harvard University)

Having explored the inner workings of the brain to support our need to gather data, one can now appreciate the choices the macaques made and also perhaps, why Alice fell down the rabbit hole.
In case you were still wondering what the servant found under the cloche in the fairy tale, it was a white snake that gave him the ability to converse with animals. This ability helped him to win quests and solve mysteries. He lived happily ever after. The servant was rewarded for his curiosity, chemically and otherwise.

References:

1) Systems neuroscience of curiosity                                              Roberto Lopez Cervera, Maya Zhe Wang and Benjamin Y Hayden https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2020.06.011 

2) The Psychology and Neuroscience of Curiosity
Celeste Kidd and Benjamin Y. Hayden
http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2015.09.010

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Writer

Maitreyee Upadhye

Maitreyee is a student of Pharmacy at AISSMS and aims to pursue research in Molecular Biology. She
hopes to combine her love for languages and Science to reach out to those who are less
privileged. Being an ardent Oprah devotee, her goal is to evolve to be the best version of herself.
She’s usually found around bookshelves and dogs.

 

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Anushree Krishnamurthy

Co-founder and Director of Website Development and Logistics at The Science Paradox


 

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