Albert Einstein once said: "I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious."

But what does it really mean to be curious? And what's going on in our brains when something piques our attention? According to CBC science columnist Torah Kachur, scientists are still trying to figure that out.

How does science define curiosity?

Curious Kid

Brain chemistry changes when we get curious, meaning it literally feels good to be curious and to learn. (Flickr / Katrien Berckmoes)

"Curiosity is what motivates us to learn what is true in the world. It comes when we feel a gap between what we know and what we want to know," said Kachur. "You can think of it like a mental itch, and the only way to scratch the itch is to seek out new knowledge." 

Curiosity is a fundamental impulse shared by humans. And it's an important skill — one that helps us make better predictions about what will happen in our lives. 

Take, for example, foragers tasting a new berry they've found in their territory. Their curiosity might just lead to a previously unknown source of nutrition. 

What happens in our brains when we're curious? 

"We know for sure that brain chemistry changes when we get curious," said Kachur. "The piqued interest requires activation of centres of the brain called the ventral tegmental area and nucleus accumbens — both areas involved in regulating the sensation of reward."

So it literally feels good to be curious and to learn.

"Another region of the brain that is stimulated when we are curious is the caudate — a region of the brain that essentially sits as an intersection between new knowledge and positive emotions."  

In effect, we're hardwired to enjoy learning and curiosity because it helps us plan for the future.

Do animals get curious?

'Most intelligent organisms have curiosity, so it's something that's not human specific.' - Celeste Kidd, University of Rochester

Curiosity killed the cat, or so the saying goes. But can that cat truly feel a sense of curiosity? 

Celeste Kidd, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, says yes.

"Most intelligent organisms have curiosity, so it's something that's not human specific," said Kidd. "We talk about how even C. elegans — which are little worms — exhibit information-seeking behaviours."

What makes some people more curious than others?

"That's still a true mystery," said Kachur. "There's some indication that it has to do with age, possibly with genetics and even with early exposure." 

C. Elegans

C. elegans, or simple worms, have been shown to exhibit information-seeking behaviours. But are they curious? (UNC Chapel Hill)

There are some cultures that believe that exposure of infants to particular items may result in an affinity for that topic. The theory goes like this: if a child spends time with doctor-related things, they're more likely to be curious about medicine in the future. 

"In some ways it sounds crazy," said Kachur. "Because babies are hardly making associations like that to their future profession. They don't even have a memory. But … in some ways it makes sense. It may make children more attracted to items that they feel they have some sort of association with, even though they really know nothing about it."