alison_gopnik's picture
Psychologist, UC, Berkeley; Author, The Gardener and the Carpenter
Why do we ask questions?


We all take for granted the fact that human beings ask questions and seek explanations, and that the questions they ask go far beyond their immediate practical concerns. But this insatiable human curiosity is actually quite puzzling. No other animal devotes as much time, energy and brain area to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Why? Is this drive for explanation restricted to the sophisticated professional questioners on this site? Or is it a deeper part of human nature?

Developmental research suggests that this drive for explanation is, in fact, in place very early in human life. We've all experienced the endless "whys?" of three-year-olds and the downright dangerous two-year-old determination to seek out strange new worlds and boldly go where no toddler has gone before. More careful analyses and experiments show that children's questions and explorations are strategically designed, in quite clever ways, to get the right kind of answers. In the case of human beings, evolution seems to have discovered that it's cost-effective to support basic research, instead of just funding directed applications. Human children are equipped with extremely powerful learning mechanisms, and a strong intrinsic drive to seek explanations. Moreover, they come with a support staff, — parents and other caregivers — who provide both lunch and references to the results of previous generations of human researchers.

But this preliminary answer prompts yet more questions. Why is it that in adult life, the same quest for explanatory truth so often seems to be satisfied by the falsehoods of superstition and religion? (Maybe we should think of these institutions as the cognitive equivalent of fast food. Fast food gives us the satisfying tastes of fat and sugar that were once evolutionary markers of good food sources, without the nourishment. Religion gives us the illusion of regularity and order, evolutionary markers of truth, without the substance.)

Why does this intrinsic truth-seeking drive seem to vanish so dramatically when children get to school? And, most important, how is it possible for children to get the right answers to so many questions so quickly? What are the mechanisms that allow human children to be the best learners in the known universe? Answering this question would not only tell us something crucial about human nature, it might give us new technologies that would allow even dumb adults to get better answers to our own questions.