Curiosity is the Mother of Invention George may be curious, but he still can’t design



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  1. Curiosity is the Mother of Invention

George may be curious, but he still can’t design
Curious George was a monkey who found himself in all sorts of calamities owing to his curiosity. Of course, George could do all sorts of things that monkeys could not do, actions that we would only associate with children’s books and children’s imagination. Yet, the most ‘curious’ part of George is both that he is curious at all1 and that his curiosity galvanizes ‘inventive’ behaviors that make use of novel objects and situations to invent new objects and situations because this behavior has not (yet) been recorded2.

In what is perhaps the most comprehensive study of curiosity in animals3, zoo animals were given novel objects in their cages. The animals included 207 from the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Illinois, and 35 primates from the Bronx Zoon in New York. The novel objects were two blocks of wood, two steel chains, two wooden dowels, two pieces of rubber tubing, and a piece of crumpled paper. The primates were the most ‘curious’ in terms of the number of responses to the novel objects, orienting themselves or contacting the objects more often and for a longer duration of time than the other animals. Yet, none of their interactions with the objects could be considered ‘inventive’. Most curious interactions were rather similar to the sort of behaviors associated with the consumption and manipulation of food. The most ‘interactive’ responses were by the baboons and the macaque monkeys who physically manipulated the object by rubbing or stretching it, possibly to investigate the material potentials of the objects. Presumably, these materials were not useful enough since none of the primates spontaneously used the materials to construct a nest4. The study authors conclude that both habitat and brain development are predictors of curious behavior, suggesting that the type of stimulation available to an animal and the available brain processes are integral to curiosity driven behavior. In summary, in addition to habitat, “the main contributions of a complex brain will be to increase the variety of things than at an animal does with an object, or to extract novelty from situations that would not be apparent to a less complicated organism”5.

This is a finding that is entirely consistent with the research on the sources of creativity in humans. For animals, it is their habitat; for humans, it is the cultural vitality of their community6. The incontrovertible evidence is that humans tends to be more creative in societies that have a preference for novelty, or what Richard Florida characterizes as tolerance7, and where the cultural stimulation is high.

If we abstract away the basic ‘needs’ for survival and economics as drivers for the proliferation of designed artifacts, curiosity remains as the key resource sine qua non for innovative behaviors.

The reason for curiosity’s essentialism originates in how the brain processes sensation toward conception, which has its origins in other animals as we described previously. In Chapter 5, we discussed the ‘plumbing’ in the brain that allows the brain to construct alternative conceptions from the same sensation, such as your ability to read the same page of text repeatedly, and yet derive a new interpretation of the text each time. While the brain may already be plumbed with the capacity to derive new associations between auditory, visual, and conceptual representations, the existence of the neural pathways in and of itself is not a sufficient explanation why the mind would ‘want’ to conceive of sensory input and prior conceptual representations in new ways. Curiosity must be the mainspring of creative behaviors.

The desire to invent something, perhaps something that the world has not witnessed before, an invention that is likely to be judged by society as ‘novel to the whole of human history’ or what Margarget Boden termed H-creativity, encapsulates a motivation to invent. But, we need to think of curiosity in two ways: first, as the instigator of action and second as a computational mechanism. As a motivator, curiosity can activate actions in the brain to form associative transformations of sensory input and prior conceptual representations as new conceptions. As a computational mechanism, curiosity is a way for the brain to evaluate perceptions, for instance of its own actions or of the ambient reality encountered, to achieve particular goals. We will take each of these functions in turn.



Curiosity as Instigator

The drive towards voluntary action is essential to behavior. The will to act, or volition, consists of a series of decisions regarding whether one should act, what action to perform, and when to perform the action. Curiosity, the desire for novelty, provides us with a reason or value to choose one action over another, that is, to generate the internal signals to perform the action.

The neurological evidence for brain signals associated with a drive for novel behavior has been found in rats8. In one experiment, rats were placed in an opaque Plexiglass box and allowed to explore the box for a period of time, undisturbed, presumably to allow them to learn their surroundings. The box was fitted with nosepoke holes so that the rat could smell the fresh popcorn (food) that would be introduced to the box. At the same time, non-food items were also placed into the box. The scientists found that the specific firing behavior of certain neurons associated with novelty-related stimuli could not be reduced to the motor activity of nosepoking alone, and had to be attributed to the exploration of novelty-related stimuli, in this case, the consumption of novel food.

Curiosity as Motivator
The Evolutionary Value of Curiosity

What would have been the evolutionary value of curiosity? Curiosity may, in fact, waste mental processing time. Once I have figured out how to make the ‘optimal’ house that suits the local environment, why should I expend further mental energy to design another type of domicile? Sexual selection is likely to have been one key reason.

When it comes to the biological act of reproduction, females, unfortunately, have been given the burden of work. Females expend much more energy, i.e., a much higher calorie intake, for reproduction than males. Female mammals have a limited supply of eggs that is determined at the time of birth. Male mammals have nearly unlimited supply of sperm that is limited only by how much food they are able to intake. For this reason, in terms of biology, females must be more prudent in their selection of which males to copulate with if their aim is to increase the likelihood of their offspring surviving to pass on the female’s genetic material.

One way for males to make themselves more attractive, then, physical features aside, would have been, at least, to try to demonstrate superior cognitive abilities over other males, and most definitely over other females. At least two studies have shown how the drive to display superior cognitive abilities would have been a factor in sexual selection.

The first comes from the archaeological evidence of handaxes. Marek Kohn and Steve Mithen studied the archaeological evidence for handaxes9. The handaxe is a particularly apt designed artifact to discuss since, like the domicile example proposed earlier, one could also make the case that once I have designed the perfect handaxe for specific needs, what possible motivation could there be to make other types of handaxes? This is exactly what Kohn and Smith commented. “Greater time and effort were invested in handaxe manufacture than appears necessary for the adequate accomplishment of utilitarian tasks such as animal butchery, because handaxes also functioned in the social domain as indicators of health and and intelligence and as aesthetic displays”10. The design and manufacture of handaxes is not a trivial task. One could have imagined as well that many unusable and ultimately discarded prototypes would have also developed along the way to the ones that have been found in the archaeological evidence.

The arguments that have been forwarded to explain the variety of handaxe design vary from the development (evolutionary) of cognitive ability and motor control to culture. Kohn and Mithen propose their own explanation, which I quote for emphasis: “handaxes were products of sexual selection and as such were integral to the processes of mate choice within socially complex and competitive groups”11. Their ‘sexy handaxe theory’ as it is commonly cited, suggests that the handaxes were reliable indicators (for females) of the male’s fitness along the dimensions of knowing where to find good quality raw resources, deep planning ability (which we’ll cover in a later chapter), good health, and the ability to monitor and maintain good social relations while the male was engrossed in making a handaxe and thus unable to engage in other activities crucial for survival.

For the male, having a heightened sense of curiosity on the potential design space of handaxes would thus have been a valued trait. The more curious the male was, the more the male would have been attuned to novelty, as the computational studies in curiosity previously discussed affirms. This, combined with the males’ emerging theory of mind, meant that the males could copy handaxe designs from others and be driven to have an even more heightened curiosity drive and preference for novel handaxes because males would have known that the other males were producing ever more novel handaxes as a way to woo females and not just as a ‘hobby’.

Curiosity was directed toward language as well. Bradley Franks and Kate Rigby12 studied humans’ ability to draw property relations between unusual noun-noun combinations. Noun-noun combinations are frequently found in language in phrases such as disk drive, stone cottage, microwave oven, and book worm. While these phrases are familiar to us, when presented with an unusual noun-noun combination, say ship nut, we will try to interpret the combination in one of two ways. The first way is known as a relational mapping. In relational mapping, we try to ascertain a plausible relation between the head noun and the original modifier (ship) and head noun (nut). One possible relational mapping between ship and nut would be that a “ship nut” is a person who is ‘nuts’ about ships. In the second way, property mapping, we try to infer plausible additional characteristics of the head noun that are not directly indicated by the modifier. Cognitive scientists believe that it is easier to infer a plausible relation between ship and nut than it is to create a property similarity between them. A property of a ship might be that they are shaped like a smile. A property of a specific type of nut, the cashew, is that it too is shaped like a smile. Therefore, a “ship nut” might be a slang to describe a cashew. A heightened ability for property mapping is likely to be associated with a display of creative thought and is a skill that might have been evolutionarily conserved. The display of creative property-mapping interpretations of noun-noun pairs, Franks and Rigby believe, may be linked to sexual display for the evolutionary purposes of picking a smarter mate.

They formulated an experiment to test this assertion. The participants in their study were presented with unusual noun-noun combinations and asked to produce a definition for them. The participants provided explanations for each of the noun-noun combinations presented to them. The definitions were then categorized as either being a property mapping or a relation mapping. The intriguing twist to this study was that they changed the experimental condition by changing the people conducting the experiment. The experimenters were either attractive young females or attractive young males. They believed that the presence of the attractive experiments would motivate the participants to display creative language use, particularly for males in the presence of attractive female experimenters. They compared the difference in performance to the baseline condition of participants and experimenters of the same sex. They found that males produced significantly more property relations than females in the presence of experimenters of opposite sex, which they believe arose as a consequence of the males’ motivation to display linguistic creativity in the face of the attractive, female experimenters. That is, they found a sex-based difference in the creativity of language use. However, based on the empirical studies of creative societies, this sex-based difference would only be true if females preferred novel displays of property mappings, that is had a higher preference for novelty because of her own heightened curiosity. Then, she would reward males for their display of novel property relations and their curiosity-driven capacity to come up with novel property mappings. Otherwise, if she actually disliked novelty, and had no curiosity, she might have found the novel explanations for noun-noun combinations off-putting. The males would have needed to think that the females had this preference for novelty; again, the theory of mind is operating. That is, the males would have known that the females are curious beings as they are.

The Creativity of Positive Thinking

{Panksepp, 2006 #446}



1 Primate research shows that monkeys do exhibit curious behaviors, such as investigating novel objects {Mayeaux, 1998 #941} and are more curious about animate objects than inanimate objects {Jaenicke, 1982 #942}.

2 Innovation in animals is understood in a slightly different way than commonly understood. Innovation in animals is observed when they respond to environmental stressors or ecological challenges by inventing a new behavior or using existing behaviors in a novel context. This is known as behavioral flexibility. For an in-depth treatment of animal innovation see {Reader, 2003 #944}. However, there is no evidence to suggest that curiosity toward an object motivates the invention of new behaviors associated with that object and directed toward an innovative activity, not to mention using the novel object to make another new object or objects. These are the types of curious behaviors associated with design comptence.

3 This summary comes from the study of curiosity by Glickman and Sroges {Glickman, 1966 #943}.

4 See also Chapter 1 and the discussion of the research by Bernstein on the construction of nests by chimpanzees, {Bernstein, 1962 #674}.

5 {Glickman, 1966 #943, p. 182}

6 For a comprehensive study on the effect of cultural vitality on communities, see the Urban Institute’s study {Jackson, 2006 #496}. Richard Florida {, 2002 #355} provides a socio-economic treatment on the drivers of the ‘creative class’.

7 {Florida, 2002 #355}

8 {Lee, 1998 #923}

9 {Kohn, 1999 #914}

10 {Kohn, 1999 #914, p. 524}

11 {Kohn, 1999 #914, p. 519}

12 {Franks, 2005 #650}


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