What’s the Point of a Jellyfish? Reflections on the Endless Cycle of Curiosity and Knowing
Chantel Prat on the Costs and Benefits of Exploring the Unknown
“What’s the point of a jellyfish?”
I’d like to think I’ve been asked some tough questions in my life, but this one takes the cake. Fortunately, it was directed to Jasmine, our resident marine-life expert, and not to me. The question was asked by my stepmom, Linda, one of the most playful and adventurous adults I know, during a visit to the Seattle Aquarium. Jasmine, who had worked at the aquarium for several years, was playing the role of our personal tour guide—and man, was she good at it.
Though she didn’t begin studying marine biology formally until high school, Jasmine has been fascinated by the aquatic world since she first opened her eyes underwater. And by the time she reached her teens, she was a Pez dispenser full of “fun facts” about the various sea critters we encountered.
At the moment Linda’s question dropped, I was deeply engrossed in mind wandering, rolling the piece of information I had just learned about jellyfish around and around in my head. As I mentioned briefly in the last chapter, I had just learned that some species of jellyfish are capable of transforming from their adult form—the umbrella with legs, more formally known as a medusa—into an immobile polyp form, which typically occurs much earlier in their life cycle.
This is like the invertebrate equivalent of saying that a chicken can turn back into an egg for a while if it gets injured or can’t find food! The mere possibility that such a thing could happen defies everything I thought I understood about how living things worked. So while my eyes watched the hypnotic movements of the jellies in their medusa forms, my mind tried to grapple with the possibility that one of them could live forever.
When “What’s the point of a jellyfish?” landed on my eardrums, I was so far down the immortality rabbit hole that I almost couldn’t understand the question. Linda’s words, uttered by a brain in a very different state of wondering, were so unexpected, they created a kind of thought whiplash that rendered me temporarily utterly confused. It was like seeing the guy in my neighborhood walking goats, multiplied by a thousand. Her question was so unexpected, she effectively stumped all three science-minded folks in the group by asking us a very practical question about jellyfish.While my eyes watched the hypnotic movements of the jellies in their medusa forms, my mind tried to grapple with the possibility that one of them could live forever.
I still have no idea how to answer Linda’s question, but I do know that the point of the story is to illustrate the different ways people think, feel, and behave when they encounter a new piece of information or an unexpected situation, and how this might relate to how useful we estimate this information to be in the real world. On the one hand, you have Jasmine, whose early fascination with marine animals has been a huge driving force in her life.
From her first volunteer position at the Seattle Aquarium in her early teens to her current job working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on the policies that govern fishing practices worldwide, Jasmine’s life has been significantly and consistently shaped by her curiosity about marine life. On the other hand, you have Linda, whose area of expertise might best be described as “fun!” As a result, Linda has lived a life full of adventure and has many entertaining stories to tell about it. I lie somewhere between them, along with Jimmy Buffett, wondering whether it would be any fun to be a jellyfish.
Remarkably, the relation between how you explore the unknown and the map you will build to navigate the world kind of resembles the life cycle of a jellyfish. The fact that I still remember that jellyfish can turn back the hands of time on their life cycle, though I have categorically forgotten every other “fun fact” presented to me on that trip, provides real-world evidence for what neuroscientists are now able to demonstrate in the lab.
Curiosity is a mental state that both precedes and facilitates learning. Put simply, curiosity is the subjective feeling one gets when their brain wants to take in a piece of information in front of them. As a result, the more curiosity you feel in any given situation, the more prepared your brain is to remember what happens next.
The way that a brain, hungry for information, can drive you to explore the unknown parts of your world is observable from a very early point in life. The research of my friend and former colleague Kelsey Lucca has demonstrated this repeatedly in her studies of spontaneous pointing gestures in infants and toddlers. Kelsey and her collaborators have shown that if you name a new object when an eighteen-month-old toddler points to it, they are more likely to remember the object’s name later.
To demonstrate this in the lab, they compared situations like this to two others—one in which the experimenters named something when the toddlers weren’t pointing to anything, ostensibly a sign that they weren’t very interested in the new object, and another in which they named something different from the object the toddlers were pointing to. In both conditions, babies were less likely to remember the names provided than they were when given the name to something they had expressed interest in.
These results suggest that pointing is a clever tool that the toddler brain has developed for asking a question about what something is before it has the words to do so. The notion that a person’s curiosity can be pointed toward a specific target, and that such curiosity fosters learning, has also been demonstrated in adults. One common way to study this is by using modified trivia games in the lab.
In these experiments, participants read a series of questions designed to elicit curiosity in people with diverse interests: What is Quentin Tarantino’s favorite movie? Which instrument was designed to mimic the sound of a human voice? How many NBA championships did Michael Jordan win with the Chicago Bulls? How many tattoos does Post Malone have? After reading each question, participants are asked to rate both how confident they are that they already know the answer to the question and how curious they are to learn the answer. Then, most of the time, the answers to the questions are provided. Like the pointing toddlers, adults are more likely to remember the answers to the questions they were most curious about when given a pop quiz at the end of the experiment.
Of course, this raises the question why one person would be interested in learning about Post Malone’s tattoos, while another would be more curious about Michael Jordan’s winning streak with the Bulls. And this is where the cycle of questioning and answering starts to look like the immortal life of a jellyfish.
According to the Prediction, Appraisal, Curiosity, and Exploration (PACE) framework recently developed by Matthias Gruber and his former mentor Charan Ranganath, your curiosity in any given situation depends on what you already know about the world. Put simply, your curiosity gets piqued when something either surprises you based on what you thought you knew or because you experience a knowledge gap—a type of mental conflict that occurs when you need more information before deciding what to do in a given situation.Caught in this cycle of wondering and knowing, one can iterate their way through life, feeling more curious, and possibly even more clueless, with each new day.
Take, for example, the “If you’re having a bad day just look at this shaved llama” meme that recently hit the circuit. While I am pretty sure that most people who saw it were most captivated by the hysterical, pissed-off expression on the animal’s face, or the fact that its head looked like a dandelion, what surprised me about the meme was that I was pretty sure that the shaved llama was an alpaca. My curiosity about this inconsistency drove me to the Internet, where I confirmed what I had learned at the country fair a few years ago about the difference between the two.
This sent me down yet another rabbit hole of wondering, where I learned about the relative ease of domesticating llamas and alpacas. It turns out that llamas are more friendly and doglike, while alpacas are more independent and catlike. But they’re both really funny to look at—llamas with their long, derpy ears and noses, and alpacas with their snubby, button-like faces. As my database of knowledge increases, the space in which either llama or alpaca memes can capture my interest grows larger by the minute.
Caught in this cycle of wondering and knowing, one can iterate their way through life, feeling more curious, and possibly even more clueless, with each new day. I believe this was the idea that Plato tried to capture when he described the irony of his teacher, Socrates, and his attitude about knowing. Though Socrates is frequently considered to be one of the wisest people who ever lived, he famously claimed to “neither know nor think that I know.” But what about those of you who are more practical—like Linda—and might not be captivated by the idea of knowing for the sake of knowing? Are you missing out on the opportunity to feel as “wise” as Socrates was?
To answer this question for yourself, you’ll need a better understanding of how different brains consider the costs and benefits associated with exploring the unknown. Because I’m willing to bet that most of the brains reading this story have already decided that the benefits of learning more about themselves outstrip the costs associated with such an endeavor. And that might make you feel a certain way about someone like Linda who doesn’t seek out knowledge for the sake of knowing things.
But we haven’t talked about what the potential costs of your curiosity may be. Remember what happened to the curious cat?
When neuroscientist Johnny Lau and collaborators asked people if they were willing to risk electric shocks to learn the answers to trivia questions, or how magic tricks worked, many said “yes.” And when they did, the communication between the parts of their brain that guide decisions based on expected rewards, and those that anticipate a painful experience, reduced dramatically.
In other words, the more curious a brain was, the more it turned down the “volume” on the signals that carried information about the risks of that decision. To return to the “point” of this story—there are good evolutionary reasons why brains like Linda’s and Jasmine’s exist. And different doesn’t necessarily mean better or worse! You can learn more about curiosity, as well as some of the other critical ways that your brain shapes the way you think, feel, and behave, in The Neuroscience of You.
Sort of—what about Michael and Mandella? Setting aside the fact that I am a huge fan of most European accents, some of the lyrics of Jimmy Buffett’s song “Mental Floss” really call to me.
By comparison, there was no effect of naming objects when twelve-month-olds pointed to them.
I don’t know if anyone knows the answers to the last question besides Post Malone, because I totally made it up to pique your curiosity—but the others are taken from actual research paradigms. The answers to the first three questions, based on these experiments (so don’t blame me if Quentin Tarantino changed his favorite movie) are: Battle Royale, violin, and six.
We’ll get into the more nuanced details of the design of these experiments, and the reasons for them, later in the chapter.
It’s not your imagination. This is the third time you’ve heard about Charan Ranganath, and it’s not the last. I should probably set aside some of the proceeds from my book for him, since his research is so central to it! I was fortunate enough to learn from him when he was first hired as an assistant professor at UC Davis during my graduate training, and he’s as brilliant and funny as you might hope someone who studies curiosity might be.
This is why experimenters try to account for previous knowledge by asking people how confident they are that they already know the answer to a question. As you’ll read later in this chapter, surprise can drive learning as much as, or more than, pure interest.
For instance, if you encountered the name of a person you didn’t already know in one of the example trivia questions, you might have felt motivated to do a quick Internet search to figure out who it was before deciding whether you were curious about them. (Please don’t tell me if it was Michael Jordan.)
Spoiler alert—he got killed.
Excerpt adapted from The Neuroscience of You by Chantel Prat, PhD. Copyright © 2022. Available now via Dutton.