What causes extreme curiosity

What is there to look at?

Do you want to know how Angela Merkel is called by her husband when he wants to annoy her a little? Yes?
Shall we tell you? Then scroll to the bottom of the page. *

No need to be ashamed. We would have checked too. When there is a secret, one wants to know the truth. It's the most natural thing in the world.

Since people have been interested in what their fellow human beings are doing, curiosity has had a questionable reputation. Curiosity is basically the most important of our human characteristics. For millennia it has ensured that we gain new knowledge, that we find out where the best food is, how to make a fire and how to put a beam roof on a brick wall in such a way that the structure keeps a family dry. Curiosity is the engine of all innovations, it has brought us fire, penicillin and the journey to the moon.

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But today the engine is over-revving. Aside from sex and money, nothing matters as much as the hunt for news. Facebook posts, Twitter messages, news tickers, advertising banners, cinema trailers, TV spots, packaging design - absolutely everything should arouse our curiosity. Keep us going. To get us to look, to look again, to look continuously. Curiosity has given way to its original goal of gaining useful knowledge. It has become an end in itself. We want news because it is news. Because we have the feeling that life is suspended for a moment if we do not receive any impulses.

But with our addiction to tiny bits of news, we're basically just numbing curiosity. It is of course nice to find out by post on Facebook that Heinz has arrived at his holiday destination and Claudia has bought a fancy sofa. But we quickly forget the information that we find this way, it lasts for a swipe of the smartphone. It is news that does not represent knowledge in the true sense of the word. If you expose yourself to all the usual influences - Facebook, Twitter, posters, online news, advertising - you can easily get a few hundred mini-news a day. This means that the head is constantly on alert, we are constantly busy noticing the smallest bits of information that do not take us much further.

Parents used to forbid their children from chewing gum, pointing out that crouching fooled the body into believing that one was eating, but in truth one remained hungry without even realizing it. It is the same with the quick gratifications of our curiosity: We pretend we have received important information - in reality we just chew without eating.

It's difficult with that curiosity. It starts with the fact that it has always been a driving force behind human development and yet it has such a miserable reputation. Anyone who is considered to be curious will quickly get through with others, they will be seen as someone who knows no boundaries, who sniffs around in things that are none of their business. Even the word is unsympathetic: greed. Sounds like drooling and addiction and panting.


Markus Gabriel, 34, is professor of philosophy at the University of Bonn. His specialty is epistemology, a field of research that would not exist without curiosity.

Mr. Gabriel, why does curiosity have such a bad reputation?
Because for centuries it was considered a form of sin, both religiously and secularly. You couldn't be curious, you should focus on that
limit what is available to you. Of course, this has to do with the fact that philosophy was very much shaped by the Catholic Church for a long time.

And what did the church have against curiosity?
The suspicion was that the person who strives for knowledge overshoots the limits of human existence, i.e. beyond our finitude. He makes himself bigger than God wanted him to be. But you can already find that with the ancient Greeks. Take Oedipus: he wants to know too much. Then he learns the terrifying truth about his mother and himself. And in the end he stabs his eyes out because he realizes that his desire to know was too much.

When did this view change?
Amazingly late. One might think that this would have stopped with the modern age. But still René Descartes says in the Meditations: Sin is possible because we can want more than we can know. In this sense, curiosity is always presumptuous.

Why do people want to know so much anyway?
Because the world is open to us, we don't know its limits. And we definitely want to fill this gap, with information or things. Whether it's a new car or a message from friends - we want the openness to end. Because then we are finally something specific.

And this longing also drives us to continuously follow online news and Facebook posts?
Exactly. The daily collection of information serves to create security.

From a philosophical point of view, there is no reason to condemn our constant hunt for snippets of news and Twitter nibbles in a culturally pessimistic manner.
No not at all. By monitoring everything and everyone, we create the impression that everything is stable. The more statements I make about the world out there, the more stable my relationship to the world seems to me. For this, a message about world political events is subjectively just as important as the Facebook information that Hans has bought a new bike.

* It's none of your business.

"We all suffer from a permanent excess of curiosity."

For the natural sciences, however, curiosity is still quite a mystery. One thing is clear: some people are more curious than others. Is it because of the parents' house? The genes? The education? Proof is difficult: You would have to let two genetically identical people grow up in completely different contexts in order to then consider why one of them looks at every unknown plant while taking a walk in the forest, while the other simply trots blindly.

Such experiments are easier with animals. Neurologists at the University of Dresden let mice with almost identical genetic makeup grow up in a large cage that was teeming with toys and employment opportunities. Some animals scurried around curiously from the start and wanted to pursue every stimulus immediately - others became more and more passive and showed little interest in their surroundings. The more active animals showed that significantly more nerve cells had formed in their hippocampus, a region of the brain that is responsible for processing new information. Curious animals have a differently networked brain - whether as a result of their behavior or as its cause, was not evident from the experiment. But it was proven: curiosity can be measured.

And not just with mice. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute have investigated the curiosity of great tits. To do this, they put a pink plastic panther next to the birds' food bowl - and noticed that some animals wanted to examine the strange thing extensively, while some conspecifics were hardly interested in it. The researchers found that a gene called DRD4 was developed differently in the curious animals than in the more passive birds. This gene is partly responsible for the uptake of dopamine in the bird's brain, a reward substance that is also released during sex. And the more dopamine the bird's brain can absorb, the more eager to explore the animal.

Research is currently being carried out at several institutes into how this mechanism affects other living beings. From an evolutionary point of view, curiosity can have disadvantages: For example, researchers in New Zealand found that a parrot species called kea, which is considered to be particularly curious, suffers from symptoms of poisoning with remarkable frequency. The animals tend to check everything new for its edibility - which is essential for survival in their inhospitable habitat. Unfortunately, their curiosity does not stop at the lead-containing nails on the roofs of old mountain huts: the keas pull the sweet-tasting nails out of the wood with their beaks and die of lead poisoning.

Anyone who reads the mixed up reports in the newspaper has the feeling that people can hardly do it better. When we put ourselves in danger, curiosity is often to blame: there are reports of accidents in the newspapers because people ...
... had watched the logging in the forest and were hit by a spruce tree.
... fell into the wastewater when entering a sewage treatment plant forbidden.
... caused a rear-end collision while observing a car accident in the opposite lane.
... were almost run over by the train because they had observed an ICE from the tracks.


Mr. Gabriel, does curiosity have its downsides?
Yes, we all suffer from a permanent excess of curiosity. You don't have to like Heidegger, but he was right when he diagnosed that modernity as a whole is a radicalized form of curiosity. We are all waiting every minute for the decisive new thing to happen. It doesn't matter whether it's good or bad. We constantly look at our cell phones, we are continuously online, and online media release new messages every few minutes.

We just want to be informed.
It's no longer about information. Basically we are waiting for Jesus to come back. We are driven by hope for the ultimate message. We would rather be the immediate alien attack or the sudden total climate change than that we endure how everything goes on banal and everyday. We want to escape from the banality of everyday life. You can even find the idea in Aristotle. He said that people would rather look at something terrible than see nothing at all. There you have the ancient and the present all at once: the Greek tragedy and our news tonight.

Aristotle was not only interested in sensationalism, but in the pursuit of knowledge.
Of course, humans need knowledge in order to be able to feed themselves, to hunt, to be able to build a house. But I think the perspective no longer fits. Curiosity holds us back. It causes depression, it makes us feel like we're missing out on something all the time.

Why is it so hard to curb curiosity?
Because we're scared.

Of what?
Before the unknown. The animal only knows fear of the specific threat. But humans also know the fear, the vague feeling that there could be something threatening that they do not yet know. In contrast to animals, humans try to define themselves and their relationship to the world. So our curiosity is always aimed at combating the fear of the unspecified threat.

So we stick our noses in everywhere. Can it have bad consequences for us if we read 237 new Facebook posts a day?
The danger lies in the permanent excessive demands. Something like burn-out can not only be traced back to overwork, but also to the uninterrupted flood of information and our uncanalized curiosity, the constant fear of missing out on something.

Are we junkies?
The diagnosis is absolutely correct. The most successful drugs of today are supposedly the most harmless. The drug information doesn't seem bad to us - it still makes you addicted. But to get away from the drug image: I tend to compare the whole thing to God. The internet knows almost everything, it is always with us. We can't help it, we're too curious, we're constantly checking what's going on out there. The next act of emancipation would actually be an atheism regarding the constant availability of news.

So a kind of info-atheism.
Nice word. Let's call it that from now on.


If it just could be that easy. According to a study by the University of Southern California, people today absorb about five times as much new information through email, social networks, newspapers, and television than they did thirty years ago. This is not only a gigantic overstimulation, it also makes work more difficult for many people. For the advertisers, for example: in the 1950s it was enough to show smiling people praising the quality of a product, and curiosity was aroused. When a new telephone provider wanted to enter the German market in 2004, the country was plastered for weeks with pictures of a woman named Alice - without anyone knowing who the woman is and why she is smiling down from every billboard. Perfectly stimulated curiosity.

Even the Federal Ministry of Education and Research has recognized the importance of curiosity.

Would such a campaign still work today? Barely. Alexander Bartel, head of the Munich agency Wunderhaus, says: “There are so many stimulating points today that it is becoming more and more difficult to keep the threshold up. That is why companies like Red Bull are now using completely different forms of advertising. When Felix Baumgartner jumps out of space, the curious question of the audience is not: How good is the shower? But: can the guy do it? "

The same phenomenon applies to movie trailers. Hardly anything is so geared towards generating curiosity: two minutes in which we should be so incited that we can't help but fathom the whole secret in the cinema as soon as possible. But because the curiosity of the audience is getting harder and harder to arouse, the trailers have to become more and more complex. Today, more money is spent on the short versions with their own production studio and extra music than they used to be on entire films.


More and more stimuli, more and more effort, so always more stimuli. A vicious circle. The more our curiosity is to be aroused, the more tired we become. Could that lead to a blunting? It already starts with the youngest. The US psychologist Susan Engel has counted the number of times the first-grade students call in to ask questions. Your result: an average of around twenty questions per lesson. In the fifth grade there were usually only two questions - if at all. And that, although the material should actually raise more questions. According to the researcher, the students have become so numbed by years of negotiating pre-prepared curricula that they have given up asking questions.

Even the Federal Ministry of Education and Research recognized the importance of curiosity. In his recently published guidelines, it says: “There is a little discoverer in every child. Curiosity is one of our strongest driving forces. ”And this driving force decreases the older the children get. But there is hope. For example in Altperlach on the outskirts of Munich. A private elementary school called Jules Verne Campus opened there in the fall of 2013, where »curiosity« is part of the curriculum, a mixture of science, free projects and funny nonsense. Kerrie Elston-Güttler, an elegant woman with a PhD from Cambridge, teaches the subject. The curiosity rooms look like a mixture of internet start-up and adventure playground: colorful crumple stools, pictures of dinosaurs on the wall, boxes with handicraft materials are stacked on shelves. At the entrance is a self-made, three-meter-high cardboard Tyrannosaurus, "our final project last year," says Elston-Güttler.

Today is about submarines. Fifteen children from the second and third grades watch their teacher build a submarine from a plastic bottle, old coins and a hose and sink it into a tub. The task: Build something - it has to swim and slowly sink. The children ask questions, after a few minutes the first begin to experiment with bottles and coins. After twenty minutes, lots of laughter, splashing water and fiddling around, each child has built a working submarine. "This is how children get to know the principle of buoyancy in a playful way," says the teacher after the lesson.

Of course, you could say classic experience-based teaching. But the school has had the word “curiosity” registered as a trademark with the German patent office. It is more than just a word: the teachers collect questions from the children and save them on a server, which every teacher should then access to create experiments and school lessons. What is taught here depends on what the students want to know. In other words, the basis of the curriculum is curiosity.

Oh, we still owe you Angela Merkel's nickname. So please: If Joachim Sauer wants to annoy you, he sometimes calls her "Frau Chancellor".

Photos: Peter de Krom