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Is This The Home Of Curiosity In The Brain?
Wait - with *that* name? Are you kidding me?
Welcome to Everything Is Amazing, a newsletter that seeks to prove that the entire world is fascinating and delightful & filled with joy and wonder, with the exception of the UK’s entry for this year’s Eurovision Song Contest:
Okay. Today, we respectfully pose the disrespectful question “Why aren’t neuroscientists more curious and what exactly have they been playing at all these years?” (No offence.)
(via, of course, xkcd)
1) What Do You Mean “You Didn’t Think To Look There”?
This week, researchers from the Netherlands Institute of Neuroscience announced they might have found the headquarters of curiosity in the brain - in maybe the first place anyone should have looked.
As reported by Science Daily (hat-tip to Anna), the area in question is a strip of gray matter in the subthalamus, just under the area that works as a kind of neurological Grand Central, furiously shuttling messages back and forth from both sides of our brains.
It’s an unusually well-connected region. Parts of it thread their way to the cerebral cortex (the region where we seem to do most of our conscious thinking) and down into the spinal column. Yet until now, nobody’s had much of a clue what it’s for. Upon discovering it in 1877, Swiss neuroanatomist Auguste Forel called it “a region of which nothing certain can be said” - and named it zona incerta.
I don’t know about you, but if I was an up-and-coming neuroscientist looking to break new ground with my PhD and make a name for myself, picking something that’s called “The Uncertain Zone” in Latin would be…well, a no-brainer? You’d think?
Yet 130 years and countless desperate-sounding postgraduate dissertations later, a 2007 paper in the journal Neuron noted that “zona incerta is among the least studied regions of the brain; its name does not even appear in the index of many textbooks.”
Until now, that is. Displaying a spirit of inquiry that many of their peers have arguably lacked, the NIN researchers looked at the zona incerta of mice brains, and found that when it was induced into working harder, “interaction with conspecifics and novel objects compared to familiar objects and food increased.” Conversely, “when we inactivated the cells in this region, depth and duration of investigation decreased.”
If human brains work in roughly the same ways as mice brains (which is normally the case), then when this part of your brain lights up, you get hungrier for novelty in your life. You get more curious.
The word “hungrier” could be particularly appropriate here. Who hasn’t felt curiosity as a compulsion that’s difficult to resist, like the burning desire to turn the next page in a gripping novel (“I simply must know what happens next”)? It’s exciting that the relatively paltry existing research on the zona incerta cautiously links it to the mechanisms of “binge-like eating” and sexual arousal. Perhaps the popular description of curiosity as a “lust for knowledge” is rather more literal than anyone previously thought?
It’s smart to be wary of these findings. All the usual caveats apply with breaking scientific research: it’s very early days, reliable science is what’s left over after scientists have enthusiastically shredded each other’s work for decades, the functions of the brain rarely turn out to be compartmentalised in a pleasantly neat way (all that “you’re left-brained or right-brained” stuff is mostly nonsense, for example), and so on…
But could this eventually lead to curiosity being somewhat controllable?
Speculating wildly here, could the jittery, restless urge to always be chasing something new be dialled down to manageable levels - with interesting implications for social media addiction? And could artificially stimulated curiosity someday be part of a therapist’s treatment of the miserable, joy-deadened anhedonia that comes with depression?
It’s exciting to imagine.
2) Why It’s Definitely My Turn
When I started this newsletter, I had a pretty clear idea about what I’d do to get the word out about it. There were all these challenges, see. All designed to put into practice my First Law Of Curiosity - “You just have to try lots of different stuff for no damn reason.”
So as well as asking readers to undertake my challenges, I’d do them myself in a puiblic-facing way. Going all over the place, meeting all sorts of folk, and doing all sorts of random-looking undeniably daft things, hoping that I could inspire readers to follow in my footsteps - or perhaps laugh at me while wincing (the more common response to my travel writing over the last ten years).
That was the plan I made. But just a few months after making it, I learned what “pandemic lockdown” meant. (And “Zoom”. Who knew was Zoom was before March 2020? Not me.)
When I launched Everything Is Amazing at the end of January, the corner of Scotland that’s been my lockdown home was still in Tier 3 restrictions: no travelling, no mingling, no bouts of roaming idiocy in the name of whatever-this-newsletter-is. But as of a few weeks ago, things have eased - so last week, I went and did this:
It’s a combination of the Explore Your Nearest Mile and the Sleep In Your Garden challenges from season 1: a night in my new tent on the beach that’s at the bottom of my road, with the isle of Arran on the horizon.
The tent, the Alpkit Elan, is an evolved (or if you prefer, less terrifyingly exposed) version of the bivvy-bag I’ve been using to sleep in some fairly ill-advised places around Britain. The curved hoops at the head of it are made from snap-together aluminium poles, and when the pegs are tightened and it’s all zipped up around you, it’s a wonderful mixture of the sense of “being undeniably Outside” that I struggle to feel in a full-size tent, but with the huge benefit of zip-up mesh windows that protect you from midges.
(The midges in Scotland are no laughing matter, as Alex Nail shows below.)
As things open up further, I’ll be taking more of my own medicine and throwing myself into as many challenges as I can. (Seems fair, if I’m asking you to do them too - and equally fair that I go first to show you what it’s like, just in case you want to avoid them altogether.)
This will be dependent on a mixture of regional restrictions and my vaccination status - my first jab is next week - but hopefully I can get moving very soon. Stay tuned.
3) Hey, What Do You Know?
During my reading about curiosity, I again encountered the power of that old Latin saying docendo discimus, “by teaching, we learn” - now better known as the Protege Effect.
This is important for curiosity because, as a teacher, it both stokes your enthusiasm for a topic and clarifies it into something you can communicate to others - and as a student, it’s a great way to get a bite-sized introduction to something that you previously knew nothing about. (Contrary to what you might think, zero knowledge is usually the death of curiosity - if we know something about a thing, it’s usually enough to reel us in closer).
This season I’ll be spending a lot of time banging on about my own interests: early in the week it’ll be unreliable maps, and midweek it’ll be the science of curiosity, attention and awareness (and everything related to them, like learning how to remember stuff, or the sensory mechanics of drinking coffee). There will be more interviews. And an experiment or two. And of course, I’ll be posting more challenges for you to have a go at.
However, I’d also like to hand things over to you.
Yes, you. You sat there reading this on your phone or tablet or laptop, with the sun shining or the rain belting down outside. I really do mean you.
I could pretend there are tens of thousands of you reading this. There’s a pressure when doing things online to big up your efforts, and sound like you’re speaking to audiences measured in Wembley Stadiums rather than town halls. That’s excellent practical advice in some contexts - and in others, it’s tedious narcissism.
To avoid any danger of the latter, here’s where we are after just under four months: there are just under 500 of you signed up to this newsletter. And not only am I grateful to every single one of you, I’m also aware that you all know something amazing. Something that would blow my mind, and everyone else’s, if we only knew.
You know what this is. It’s your special nerdy thing. The whole topic, or random (but mindblowing) specialty or fact, that makes you so enthusiastic that you could talk it for hours without taking a breath. Something you’re endlessly curious about - and you just know that everyone else would be too, if they could just see it through your eyes. Just for a moment.
Okay. So, how about we actually do that?
I’m giving you the opportunity to use my newsletter to teach, explain, enthuse wildly, geek out shamelessly about something. I’m giving you the mic - or more accurately, a brilliantly passionate couple of paragraph in an upcoming newsletter, sometime soon.
The aim here isn’t for you to provide me some vast, expertly detached overview of your chosen subject that tries to be the last word on the matter. Don’t do that. Don’t sum it all up. That’s what Wikipedia is for. No - the aim is to make everyone curious enough to want to know more. Give them the tiniest corner of it, but make it irresistibly tasty.
You could talk about what you do for a living, or a creative hobby, if you like. Feel free to self-promote, link included. But please, don’t do “an advert.” Adverts are usually very dull things. Adverts rarely make anyone curious. If it seems advert-like, you’re not making the reader feel it. Instead, make them feel it. Tell them a story, or paint a tiny picture with words, or make them laugh or drop their jaws to the ground in amazement…
Teach them not just what it means, but also how it feels.
You could submit something in the following ways:
send me 2-3 paragraphs about your thing by email, to firstname.lastname@example.org
leave a comment on the Web version of this post
do something I haven’t yet thought of. Semaphore? Interpretive dance? A Banksy-style mural? A drawn map? Surprise and confuse me. (It’s not hard, tbh.)
Once I’ve picked a few, I’ll run a special newsletter (or two) around them - and you’ll have your shot at making hundreds of other people feel the same way about that thing you love so hard.
Sound good? Grand. I can’t wait.