Now Reading: Curiosity: Beyond the Killing of Cats

fig.01 Scene from The Dark Matter Experiment. Image by Darragh O'Brien

“The space of the eye is already there, at once before us, always waiting for our bodily actions, whereas the space of the body is perpetually in-the-making through those very same actions: you go here, then there.”
—Bronet & Schumacher 1

Does curiosity play a role beyond wayfinding?

Why do some of us act while others hold back? Are some naturally more curious, motivated by an internal need for satisfaction, or is it simply that others experience greater levels of social inhibition? Above all, what might this mean for the design of our built environments? Can an event, space or object be truly irresistible? Over the coming weeks we will examine the nature of our curiosity—the emotion that propels us through time and space, and is apparently lethal to cats.

According to education researcher David Beswick, curiosity is a process of creating, maintaining and resolving conceptual conflicts. He believes that such conflicts arise when there is a difference between an environmental stimulus and an individual’s past experiences of the world. He also suggests that the highly curious person will be attracted to the uniqueness of that experience—they will not wish to translate or ignore it, but will seek additional information to build a suitable new integration of the incoming information with what was known before.2

In psychology, distinctions are made between State Curiosity,where we are motivated by changes in external stimuli and Trait Curiosity—an internal drive that we all possess, apparently to varying degrees—which motivates us to explore the world around us. People who are considered to possess high levels of trait curiosity do not just respond to novelty when it is presented to them, they seek it out.

fig.02 Galician Centre of Contemporary Art by Alvaro Siza. Photograph by Duccio Malagamba

In either case, for architects and designers, curiosity is the emotion of engagement that binds people to an environment. For example, Alvaro Siza's layered, permeable boundaries draw us in-and-through a sequence of spaces, before finally connecting us back to where we came from. (fig.02) Framed views present challenges and contribute to a sense of wonder, provoking our curiosity to explore what might lie beyond. Siza uses our curiosity to create the narrative of his architecture.

Professor Todd Kashdan of George Mason University, explains trait curiosity as a two-stage process of exploration and absorption, related to the identification and pursuit of novel or challenging experiences. Exploration refers to a general tendency to pursue novel information and experiences, while absorption refers to a propensity to completely focus one’s attention on an event or experience. Both processes are critical to the way in which people behave in stimulating or unfamiliar environments. 3

In diagrammatic terms (fig.03) the curiosity response can be expressed as the environmental stimuli (ENs) sufficient enough to attract the attention and absorption of a person moving through a given environment (ENg).4

fig.03. Environmental annotations for a moment of curiosity. Based on Philip Thiel's "People, Paths and Purpose" 1994

In their research, social psychologists Matthew Gallagher and Shane Lopez, have found that individuals who are higher in trait curiosity are more likely to become fully engaged and absorbed in new experiences, and ultimately more likely to derive benefit from that engagement. 5

The degree to which we are absorbed in any event is also directly related to the degree of interest it holds for us? Gallagher and Lopez argue that interest is very different from other positive emotions such as enjoyment or happiness. Interest is experienced as a result of novelty whereas enjoyment is experienced as a result of familiarity. Ratings of interest have been found to be unrelated to ratings of enjoyment, for example, when responding to art.

fig.04 The Dark Matter Experiment. Photograph by Darragh O'Brien

Interest has also been found to predict exploratory action in terms of time viewing visual art, retail behaviour and time spent listening to music. Research on the emotion of interest helps to explain how a tendency to explore and become absorbed in novel and challenging situations might promote recognisable movement and engagement patterns. Such patterns can become legible as a set of specific, causal responses to environmental stimuli. 6

From a design perspective, the fact that novelty stimulates curiosity is by no means surprising (to say the least), but the argument that high levels of trait curiosity are required in order for people to seek out novelty--well that raises many questions. What percentage of a given population are considered to be high in trait curiosity? Does an individual's level of trait and state curiosity not vary, depending on the nature of a given stimulus?

In future articles, we will explore these questions in greater detail, beginning with a design-based experiment from Melbourne, Australia called Dark Matter(fig. 01 & 04)…

  1. Bronet,F. & Schumacher, J. (1999 ) Design in Movement: The Prospects of Interdisciplinary Design. Journal of Architectural Education (JAE) V:53 - 2, pp 97-109 

  2. Beswick, D. (2000). A lecture presentation at the Centre for Applied Educational Research, University of Melbourne. (Link:http://www.beswick.info/psychres/curiosityintro.htm

  3. Kashdan, T. B., Rose, P., & Fincham, F. D. (2004). Curiosity and exploration: Facilitating positive subjective experiences and personal growth opportunities. Journal of Personality Assessment, 82, 291–305. 

  4. fig.03 is based on the environmental annotation systems of the late, great Philip Thiel. EBD strongly recommends Thiel, P. (1996) People, Paths, and Purpose : Notations for a Participatory Envirotecture. Washington: University of Washington Press. 

  5. Gallagher, M W. and Lopez, S J.(2007) Curiosity and well-being The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2: 4, pp.236 — 248 (Link:http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17439760701552345

  6. Silvia, 2006; Tomkins, 1962 in Gallagher, M W. and Lopez, S J.(2007) Curiosity and well-being The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2: 4, pp.236 — 248 (Link:http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17439760701552345