What Makes Us Curious

Book - 2017
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Astrophysicist and author Mario Livio investigates perhaps the most human of all our characteristics--curiosity--as he explores our innate desire to know why .

Experiments demonstrate that people are more distracted when they overhear a phone conversation--where they can know only one side of the dialogue--than when they overhear two people talking and know both sides. Why does half a conversation make us more curious than a whole conversation?

In the ever-fascinating Why? Mario Livio interviewed scientists in several fields to explore the nature of curiosity. He examined the lives of two of history's most curious geniuses, Leonardo da Vinci and Richard Feynman. He also talked to people with boundless curiosity: a superstar rock guitarist who is also an astrophysicist; an astronaut with degrees in computer science, biology, literature, and medicine. What drives these people to be curious about so many subjects?

Curiosity is at the heart of mystery and suspense novels. It is essential to other forms of art, from painting to sculpture to music. It is the principal driver of basic scientific research. Even so, there is still no definitive scientific consensus about why we humans are so curious, or about the mechanisms in our brain that are responsible for curiosity.

Mario Livio--an astrophysicist who has written about mathematics, biology, and now psychology and neuroscience--explores this irresistible subject in a lucid, entertaining way that will captivate anyone who is curious about curiosity.
Publisher: New York : Simon & Schuster, 2017.
Edition: First Simon & Schuster hardcover edition.
ISBN: 9781476792095
Branch Call Number: 155.232 LIV
Characteristics: xiii, 252 pages : illustrations


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Sep 19, 2017

Being curious about a book which poses to unlock the secrets to one of our great motivating drives to learn, I realized how little we have ventured into the psychology of this phenomenon and, hence, how few in the related scientific fields even wish to study this mental state, much less demonstrate their own curiosity towards, well, curiosity. While Livio chunks the material into three sections: first on the areas both Da Vinci and Feynman, the western world's most famous polymaths, had spent their lives studying; second on the psychological and neurological findings to-date on what occurs when we are curious; and finally a section in which he 'interviews' people famous for their accomplishments, and, their purported curious minds. The lack of data and insights into the intellectual act of being curious is certainly the fault of today's scientists, but the rest of what's reported in this book is that of the authour.
Be ready to wade through some serious neglect in editing: reading through the interviews was as if I was listening to an over-excited friend who hadn't framed their retelling of the moment before blurting it out to me, wherein at many points there are actual sidetracks where Livio just goes off on a conversational tangent with the interviewee... and decided this was interesting enough for the reader to include ad verbatim. Descriptions of psychological/neurological concepts are either over- or under-explained to the layperson, or even seemingly randomly inserted. This was my favourite - BTW this was the entire paragraph:
"The human brain has two hemispheres, which are covered by a deeply wrinkled gray tissue, the cerebral cortex (Figure 18 - *MY NOTE: found in another chapter without a page reference*). Each bulging area on the surface is a gyrus, and each infold is a sulcus. The important point for our purposes is that part of the neurons in the cerebral cortex are responsible for everything we associate with the concept of intelligence."
Given that this is a book meant for the layperson to wrap their head around how science can explain our brains' activity during curiosity, having a book with such a disjointed flow and breezy editing made the endeavour feel all the more plodding and pedantic. If anything, I really have become more curious about whether an authour like Livio, who has four favourably reviewed books about mathematics and astronomy already, has fared more admirably in explanatory prowess in his other attempts.
Nonetheless I felt satisfied after reading this book that I have attained the current updates on what we know of the brain's processing while enacting the cognitive act of curiosity, and if I were your guide in tackling this text, I would tell you to jump to only Chapters 4 through 6, wherein these studies are described, but feel free to read on beyond those bounds if you have the niggling curiosity of whether my criticisms of Livio's prose ring true.

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