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Mindful : June 2016
Curiosity killed the cat. Or did it? Research suggests it keeps us—and other animals—sharp. Is actor Kirk Douglas alive or dead? When did Tom Cruise and Nicole Kid- man get divorced? What’s U2 front- man Bono’s real name? Unless you’re a close personal friend of any of these celebrities, knowing the answer has no meaningful effect on your life—yet if you’re anything like the office full of people I tried this on you’re at least a little itchy to whip out your phone or dash over to your computer for answers. There’s even a website (or two... or three... ) devoted entirely to informing you which famous people have shuffled off this mortal coil. Curiosity. It has “its own reason for existing,” physicist Albert Einstein wrote, and is, according to 18th-cen- tury English writer Samuel Johnson, “the first passion and the last.” We all know what killed the cat, so perhaps 17th-centur y philosopher Thomas Hobbes was right when he called curiosity “the lust of the mind”—since in a lustful state we (and perhaps felines?) toss self-preservation to the winds. But considering how common curiosity is, scientists who study the mind are only beginning to fathom where it comes from, what it’s good for, and what happens when we have a lot or not much of it. Why So Curious? Although there are tantalizing hints to all these questions, definitive answers remain elusive, which is... curious. “Curiosity is a basic compo- nent of human nature,” said Benjamin Hayden, an assistant professor of brain and cog nitive sciences at the University of Rochester. “Just think of how much time we spend browsing the Internet, reading, or just gossip- ing. Nature seems to have endowed us with a desire for information that’s so strong it operates even when it doesn’t help us go out and hunt down a woolly mammoth.” This need to know propels chil- dren to look under rocks and behind curtains, dogs to sniff a stranger, busy people to look up answers to trivia → Sharon Begley is senior science writer with The Boston Globe Media Group, author of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, and coauthor with Richard Davidson of The Emotional Life of Your Brain. 20 mindful June 2016 brain science Illustration by Sébastien Thibault