From ancient philosophers to modern scientists, humankind has pondered a special and fundamental aspect of human and animal behavior: curiosity.


On the outside, what curiosity is seems clear enough. It’s the drive to know something or, more accurately, a compulsion that might be described as an “itch that needs to be scratched.


Surprisingly, most scientists today have found little to agree upon when attempting to clearly define why human beings are curious. It’s also tantalizing to observe that animals certainly display the behavior of curiosity. Just ask any cat owner. As the famous saying goes:


“Curiosity killed the cat – but satisfaction brought it back.”


This quaint phrase actually points out the central dual nature of curiosity. Certainly, it can be dangerous, even deadly. For example, imagine a Neolithic person who sees the mouth of a cave and hears strange noises coming from the inside. His curiosity might make it irresistible to resist going inside to find out what’s in there – only to be eaten by a bear.


On the other hand, the curiosity to explore a cave may lead to the discovery of a new form of shelter that could be a huge benefit to a prehistoric tribe. It would provide secure shelter that would help them all survive better in an environment full of predators.


So here we see the potential for curiosity to work both ways. It can kill you or dramatically improve your life and chance of survival.


The question is often asked: Why did the United States spend billions upon billions of dollars to land a man on the moon? Some might say it was to obtain long-term benefits, such as gaining the ability to mine valuable metals or to serve as a second home for colonists. But others would argue that the primary motivation was pure curiosity.


Human beings have been looking up in wonder at the moon for hundreds of thousands of years. What it is and what might be found there is the very definition of what raw curiosity is all about. The moon shot was an “itch that just had to be scratched.”


Scientists today that curiosity clearly has delivered evolutionary advantages. At the same time, they argue that curiosity is a double-edged sword that can bring about great dangers for individuals and all humanity.


Defining curiosity and understanding why it is a fundamental aspect of life is likely a debate that will continue for decades to come.