Any outsider who visited our psychobiology laboratory in the Autonomous University of Barcelona I’d be particularly curious to see various colorful Lego pieces scattered around the boxes of some experimental modules. You would be intrigued, and you might even think that we use our scientific facilities as a nursery where we can take our little ones when we have nowhere to leave them. Nothing could be further from reality, since what happens is that the professor’s research team Margalida Coll use Lego pieces as eye-catching objects to study recognition memory in rats. Like the visitors to our laboratory, that is, like people, rodents are also curious and want to know even what does not concern them or is not their concern. When rats observe something new in their normal environment, they thoroughly explore it, sniffing and touching it, but they barely pay attention to the old objects they already know.
In the human realm, curiosity is part of people’s lives. It is looking through the curtain of the window to see who is passing by, taking a sideways glance at the mobile of the person sitting next to us on the bus, wanting to know what other people think and do, what their house is like, with whom They go out, what do they vote in elections, what do kings, politicians or celebrities do in their private lives, etc., although all this has very little to do with who snoops it. There are magazines and television programs, by the way very successful, that satisfy more than anyone that type of curiosity of people that popular language describes in various ways, such as snooping, rummaging, scrutinizing, peeking or simply gossiping.
It is difficult to find someone who is not curious, but not all people are to the same extent. There are little curious and to those who are too curious we apply the qualifier, generally pejorative, of gossip or cheating. This being the case, another type of curiosity, this time the scientific one, makes us wonder why we are curious. Do they teach us to be? Are we because of the type of education we receive or do we carry something in our genes and our biological inheritance that encourages us to try to know even what does not concern us? Undoubtedly, education and the environment in which we grow up can contribute to our being curious, but there may be something more and neuroscience has lent itself to investigating it with some success in laboratory mice.
Mehran Ahmadlou, from University College London, and a large group of researchers have used the microscopy imaging system that measures calcium in cells and discovered a group of neurons in an essential area of the diencephalon of mice (subthalamic uncertain medial zone) for his decision to explore and investigate a new object or congener that is introduced into his cage. Their discovery was corroborated by the powerful optogenetics technique, because thanks to it they were able to show that when these neurons are activated experimentally, mice increase their exploratory behavior of new objects or congeners, while when exploratory behaviors are inhibited, they are reduced, as if the mice became less interested in novelty or, as it were, less curious. The researchers, who have recently published their work in the magazine Science, argue that the neurons discovered are different from those involved in other motivated behaviors, such as looking for food.
It seems then, although the work has been carried out in mice, that in the phylogenetically evolutionary line of mammals it is not excludable that humans have neural circuits in our brain that predispose us to curiosity. Of course, this does not exclude that a certain type of culture and education can model that predisposition, enhancing or reducing it. A predisposition that, on the other hand, could be justified by the need of ancestral animal species to distinguish the old from the new, or the usual companions of foreigners or intruders, to avoid dangers and competitions and increase, thanks to this type of recognition, their survival. As a positive side effect, curiosity could also have evolved as a way to avoid the unpleasant feeling of boredom.
Ignacio Morgado Bernal He is Emeritus Professor of Psychobiology at the Institute of Neurosciences and at the Faculty of Psychology of the Autonomous University of Barcelona. Author of ‘Gray matter: the fascinating story of knowledge of the brain’ (Ariel, 2021).
Gray matter it is a space that tries to explain, in an accessible way, how the brain creates the mind and controls behavior. The senses, motivations and feelings, sleep, learning and memory, language and consciousness, as well as their main disorders, will be analyzed in the conviction that knowing how they work is equivalent to knowing ourselves better and increasing our well-being and relationships with other people.