Curiosity is the wellspring of knowledge.

“Curiosity is the wick in the candle of learning,” wrote American writer William Arthur Ward. Curiosity is key to knowledge acquisition, as it recruits the reward system, sparking enough emotion to grease the gears of memory. “Curiosity is the lust of the mind,” said earthy English philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

Curiosity is an innate exploratory drive, known to be common in other animals. Curiosity is an essential tool for understanding the world. “Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect,” penned English writer Samuel Johnson.

The limits of curiosity are sometimes constrained by cultural and moral considerations. But humans do not necessarily hew to cultural norms, nor let morality stand in the way of their own curiosity. The science of anatomy would have never got far without dissecting corpses, which contravened mores in many cultures.

There are 3 types of curiosity: diverting, technical, and empathic. Each is driven by a distinct desire.

An urge for the new and novel is diverting curiosity, which is the curiosity that propels us in trivial pursuit of stimulation. Diverting curiosity is the font from which mass media draw in entertaining their audiences.

Propelling science and technology, technical curiosity is the desire to understand how things work. French developmental psychologist Jean Piaget proposed that technical curiosity is provoked when perceiving an incongruity between what is expected and what happens. According to Piaget, curiosity correlates with surprise. Curiosity reaches an apex when a violation of expectation causes considerable surprise, but not so much that the implications of discovery are scary.

In 1994, George Loewenstein combined the theories of curiosity as innate and motivated by surprise to suggest that curiosity arises in response to an information gap. We become curious about something when there is a gulf between what we know and what we want to know. “Curiosity is the gatekeeper of the knowledge we choose to absorb,” stated American psychologist Celeste Kidd.

Information gaps are not just recognized rationally. Hence, curiosity has been called “the knowledge emotion.”

It’s not just incongruity that grabs our attention. It’s the desire to learn what we do not understand. Information fuels curiosity by creating an awareness of ignorance, which builds the desire to know more. “Uncertainty – when you think you know something and discover you don’t – leads to the most curiosity and learning,” observed Celeste Kidd.

Adults tend not to be curious about things of which they know nothing. A glimmer of familiarity is needed to spark curiosity. “Even a tiny, initial clue which, by allowing us to imagine what we do not know, stimulates a desire for knowledge,” noted French novelist Marcel Proust.

Overconfidence, which is widespread in adults, dampens curiosity. Hence, children are more curious than adults for more than just information gaps.

Empathic curiosity is about the nature of mentation. Aiming to understand psychology comes from empathic curiosity, motivated by a desire for control (both to rid oneself of internal dissonance and to bend others to one’s will), and out of compassion.

Empathic and technical curiosity are closely related. Whereas technical curiosity is “hard” science, empathic is “soft.” Yet, of the two, empathic is more important, as it is the basis for essential social skills. Technical curiosity leads one to know about stuff. In contrast, empathic curiosity impels understanding the stuffing of which we are made. Together, empathic and technical curiosities bring meaning to life. “The only reason people do not know much is because they do not care much. They are incurious. Incuriosity is the oddest and most foolish failing there is,” opined English writer Stephen Fry.

The strength of curiosity may be kindled or tamped down during upbringing. It is an essential characteristic of good parenting to engender curiosity, despite the toll on patience that such a course may take.

“To be curious about that which is not one’s concern while still in ignorance of oneself is ridiculous,” adjudged ancient Athenian philosopher Plato. In ancient Athens, curiositas was esteemed for parching the thirst for knowledge. Plato aside, satisfying curiosity for its own sake was considered a worthwhile endeavor.

Roman philosophers inherited this purist conception of curiosity. Cicero saw curiosity as “an innate love of learning and of knowledge.”

“Curiosity is contagious. So is incuriosity,” stated English writer Ian Leslie.

From the Dark Ages for centuries to come, the Catholic Church was apprehensive about inquisitiveness. Augustine of Hippo referred to “this disease of curiosity.” Augustine considered curiosity pointless, perverted, and prideful.

900 years later, Italian theologian Thomas Aquinas, under the sway of Aristotle, was more lenient. While agreeing with Augustine that “a superficial dwelling on the object” was sinful, curiosity aimed at “knowledge of the truth of Creation” was laudable. “However much it abounds, knowledge of the truth is not bad, but good,” instructed Thomas Aquinas.

The spark for the Age of Enlightenment came from Gutenberg’s 15th century printing press, which was essentially a curiosity machine: corroding old certainties by facilitating the spread and exchange of ideas.