Curiosity and Neoteny

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Why are we so curious?

Evolution made us the ultimate learning machines, and the ultimate learning machines need to be oiled by curiosity.

Our curiosity has us doing utterly unproductive things like reading news about people we will never meet, learning topics we will never have use for, or exploring places we will never come back to.

We humans have a deeply curious nature, and more often than not it is about the minor tittle-tattle in our lives. Our curiosity has us doing utterly unproductive things like reading news about people we will never meet, learning topics we will never have use for, or exploring places we will never come back to. We just love to know the answers to things, even if there’s no obvious benefit.

Child’s play
The roots of our peculiar curiosity can be linked to a trait of the human species call neoteny. This is a term from evolutionary theory that means the “retention of juvenile characteristics”. It means that as a species we are more child-like than other mammals. Being relatively hairless is one physical example. A large brain relative to body size is another. Our lifelong curiosity and playfulness is a behavioural characteristic of neoteny.

Neoteny is a short-cut taken by evolution – a route that brings about a whole bundle of changes in one go, rather than selecting for them one by one. Evolution, by making us a more juvenile species, has made us weaker than our primate cousins, but it has also given us our child’s curiosity, our capacity to learn and our deep sense of attachment to each other.

And of course the lifelong capacity to learn is the reason why neoteny has worked so well for our species. Our extended childhood means we can absorb so much more from our environment, including our shared culture. Even in adulthood we can pick up new ways of doing things and new ways of thinking, allowing us to adapt to new circumstances.

Or, as Kurt Vonnegut said, “We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.”

Exploration bonus
The implication for the evolution of our own brain is clear. Curiosity is nature’s built-in exploration bonus. We’re evolved to leave the beaten track, to try things out, to get distracted and generally look like we’re wasting time. Maybe we are wasting time today, but the learning algorithms in our brain know that something we learnt by chance today will come in useful tomorrow.

Obviously it would be best if we knew what we needed to know, and just concentrated on that. Fortunately, in a complex world it is impossible to know what might be useful in the future. And thank goodness – otherwise we would have evolved to be a deadly-boring species which never wanted to get lost, never tried things to just see what happened or did things for the hell of it.

BBC – Future | Why are we so curious?

The problem with I

Read this on the September 2011 issue of Psychology Today:

The use of “I” is a big indicator of the speaker’s psychological state.

“I think there’s more to life than fashion, and I don’t want to be stuck in that bubble of ‘This is what I do.’ …I’m still Alexander McQueen after I shut the [office] door. I’ve got to go home with myself.” —
Alexander McQueen

Chronic sadness brings with it an inward focus that translates to high “I,” “me,” and “my” usage. In fact, the poet who overuses the word “I” in his poetry is at higher risk of suicide, Pennebaker says.

psychologytoday

This reminds me of this poem I’ve posted previously. A poem written by one of the four NYU undergraduate students who jumped to their death in campus in 2004.

Went to do some research and found the Dec 2011 article by Pennebaker from Harvard Business Review.

Pennebaker: When we began analyzing people’s writing and speech, we didn’t expect results like this. For instance, when we analyzed poems by writers who committed suicide versus poems by those who didn’t, we thought we’d find more dark and negative content words in the suicides’ poetry. We didn’t—but we did discover significant differences in the frequency of words like “I.” In study after study, we kept finding the same thing. When we analyzed military transcripts, we could tell people’s relative ranks based on their speech patterns—and again, it was the pronouns, articles, conjunctions, and other function words that made a difference, not the content words.

HBR: Why are function words so important?

In English there are about 500 function words, and about 150 are really common. Content words—nouns, verbs, adjectives, and most adverbs—convey the guts of communication. They’re how we express ideas. Function words help shape and shortcut language. People require social skills to use and understand function words, and they’re processed in the brain differently. They are the key to understanding relationships between speakers, objects, and other people. When we analyze people’s use of function words, we can get a sense of their emotional state and personality, and their age and social class.

Here’s a simple, pronoun-heavy sentence: I don’t think I buy it.

The “I think” may seem insignificant, but it’s quite meaningful. It shows you’re more focused on yourself.

Ooh. You just revealed something about yourself in that statement. Why did you say “I don’t think I buy it” instead of “I don’t buy it” or even “That’s ridiculous”? Pronouns tell us where people focus their attention. If someone uses the pronoun “I,” it’s a sign of self-focus. Say someone asks “What’s the weather outside?” You could answer “It’s hot” or “I think it’s hot.” The “I think” may seem insignificant, but it’s quite meaningful. It shows you’re more focused on yourself. Depressed people use the word “I” much more often than emotionally stable people. People who are lower in status use “I” much more frequently.

Can you tell if someone’s lying by their use of function words?

Yes. A person who’s lying tends to use “we” more or use sentences without a first-person pronoun at all. Instead of saying “I didn’t take your book,” a liar might say “That’s not the kind of thing that anyone with integrity would do.” People who are honest use exclusive words like “but” and “without” and negations such as “no,” “none,” and “never” much more frequently. We’ve analyzed transcripts of court testimony, and the differences in speech patterns are really clear.

I find this interesting because I like to analyse how people use words during online chat and FB status updates. Some of my friends find me strange to say that this-and-this must be feeling down just by the way they reply a message or the way they type a singular “ok”. Maybe I’m being too sensitive, but if this over-over-sensitivity urges me to send a quick “hello-how-are-you” to someone who I think might be having some problem, then I don’t mind being called a drama queen then.

James Pennebaker’s Wikipedia entry
The Secret Life of Pronouns, by James W. Pennebaker