More than a thousand years ago, in 986 C.E., a Norse sea captain named Bjarni Herjulfsson set off from Iceland to Greenland to be with his father. But a storm blew his ship off course, and when the storm cleared he had come within sight of the completely unknown North American continent, a vision that had never before been seen by Europeans. Spotting lush trees and greenery on the shore, his crew begged him to land so they could explore this new territory. But Herjulfsson refused, insisting instead that they immediately set sail again for Greenland, which they did.
Once their ship returned to Greenland and Herjulfsson was reunited with his father, word of the mysterious land he had sighted generated a buzz of interest. And just a few years later Leif Erikson, son of Greenland's ruler Erik the Red, bought Herjulfsson's boat, used it to sail out toward the new American continent with a crew of 35, and made landfall in Newfoundland, where he established the Viking settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows. Today, of course, Erikson is celebrated for having discovered America, while Herjulfsson's lack of curiosity condemned him to virtual obscurity.
We are all born with a certain level of curiosity, but clearly the curiosity drive is stronger in some individuals than in others.
Ian Leslie suggests that satisfying our curiosity provides pleasure partly because it exercises our mind and keeps us busy. In his book Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, Leslie suggests that it's a distraction from idleness, and we are often happier when we are pursuing our curiosity in the same way that we are when we're busy, when we have something to do.
We all know the simple satisfaction to be had, for instance, from idly surfing the net, going from one site to the next, drilling down into some issue or controversy or puzzle that has momentarily aroused our interest, with no real goal in mind other than discovering interesting facts or simply entertaining ourselves with stories.
We might call this idle curiosity, but Leslie's term for it is "diversive" curiosity, which he contrasts with "epistemic" curiosity, "a wide-ranging desire for intellectual and cultural exploration." Epistemic curiosity is the kind of sustained, purposeful curiosity that drives scientific inquiry, discovery and innovation.
Diversive curiosity is distracting and can be pleasant, at least for short periods, but it is also shallow; it rarely produces any genuine insights or deep understanding. According to Leslie, "Diversive curiosity is essential to an exploring mind; it opens our eyes to the new and undiscovered, encouraging us to seek out new experiences and meet new people. But unless it's allowed to deepen and mature, it can become a futile waste of energy and time, dragging us from one object of attention to another without reaping insight from any. Unfettered curiosity is wonderful; unchanneled curiosity is not."
In scientific terms, a person's innate level of curiosity is measured in terms of the "need for cognition," or NFC. Psychologists use questionnaires and experiments to measure NFC, and different people have different levels. Low-NFC people prefer things to remain simple, predictable, and straightforward, while high-NFC people enjoy dealing with intellectual challenges, puzzles, and "effortful cognitive activity." It's likely that Herjulfsson's NFC was low, while Erikson's was higher.
And one of Leslie's conclusions is important to keep in mind:
The problem, of course, is that businesses and other large organizations seem to do their best to suppress their employees' curiosity, because curiosity always threatens the hierarchical order of things.