The Hungry Mind and the Educated Mind

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka” but “That’s funny…” 

—Isaac Asimov (1920–1992)  
Babies Learn from Surprises. Stahl and Feigenson.

One of the common threads Joshua Eyler identified while researching How Humans Learn is curiosity. Most every reader intuitively grasps the meaning of curiosity, but scholars have leveled varying definitions.

Eyler cites Bardo, Donohew, and Harrington, who call it the “inherent biological need for novelty.” Piaget called it “the search for the new.”

How you define curiosity may depend on your field and your point-of-view, but one theme that emerges again and again is, in the words of behavioral economist George Loewenstein, an information gap, the metaphorical void between what one knows and what one would like to know.

But to call it simply a gap would be incomplete. Curiosity is like the electric potential that traverses a circuit or the wind produced by a pressure gradient in the atmosphere. It’s an innate urge to resolve a disparity.

Gruber, Gelman, and Ranganath document the association between higher curiosity and improved learning and memory. The underlying mechanism appears to be dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in motivation and reward.

“There is a clear empirical link between the hungry mind and the educated mind.”

Susan Engel, The Hungry Mind
Susan Engel on how to avoid stifling curiosity in the classroom.

The greater the disparity, the greater the curiosity. Stahl and Feigenson’s study of infants showed how, from the earliest age, unexpected observations heighten curiosity.

For example, babies who witnessed a toy seemingly defying physics used play to study the toy’s behavior. For example, a ball made to look like it was hovering would have its gravitation tested later when an infant sought the ball and dropped it.

Eyler adduces other studies to show how children are inherently curious, and that this curiosity fades over time.

Although it fades, it never disappears, a feature Konrad Lorenz called a neoteny: a childhood trait that has been preserved through adulthood.

Vibrant scientific discussion continues to investigate the evolutionary underpinnings of curiosity and the human brain’s other defining characteristics, but it remains ripe for the picking.

The mind, therefore, seems wired with the potential for lifelong exploration; by presenting what’s unexpected we can provoke the curiosity that catalyses learning.

Eyler muses:

“What if we already know how to educate ourselves?  What if the process is a natural one that simply requires our attention, cultivation,  and guidance to be fully utilized?”

Joshua Eyler. How Humans Learn. (2018)


Bardo, M. T., Donohew, R. L., & Harrington, N. G. (1996). Psychobiology of novelty seeking and drug seeking behavior. Behavioural brain research77(1-2), 23-43.

Engel, S. (2015). The hungry mind : The origins of curiosity in childhood. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Gruber, M. J., Gelman, B. D., & Ranganath, C. (2014). States of curiosity modulate hippocampus-dependent learning via the dopaminergic circuit. Neuron84(2), 486-496.

Loewenstein, G. (1994). The psychology of curiosity: A review and reinterpretation. Psychological Bulletin, 116(1), 75–98.

Piaget, J. (1953). The origin of intelligence in the child. Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Stahl, A. E., & Feigenson, L. (2015). Observing the unexpected enhances infants’ learning and exploration. Science348(6230), 91-94.

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