"Hmmm, very interesting . . ."

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

By Wray Herbert

Some years ago I had a colleague who was a trove of American political trivia. He once asked me where I was from, and when I named my hometown in New Jersey, he proceeded to rattle off my home county’s population, ethnic makeup, economic base, recent election history, and the names and party affiliations of the region’s current power brokers. He knew way more than I knew about my own stamping ground.

That was the point. He was showing off. But even so it was dizzying how much detail he had stored in his head, about pretty much any county in the country. How did he do it? I mean, you couldn’t pay someone to memorize that volume of trivia. Well, the short answer is that what I’m calling trivia was anything but trivial to him. To the contrary, every red, blue and purple detail of the American political landscape was important, dynamic, and endlessly interesting to him.

But what does that mean exactly, that it was interesting to him? Is interest a universal emotion like fear or pride or bemusement? How does one person come to be fascinated by politics while others are equally entranced by baseball statistics or the early poems of Lord Byron? And if it’s possible to find such esoterica absorbing, why not trigonometry and irregular verbs? Can interest be nurtured and channeled in the classroom?

Scientists have shown surprisingly little interest in interest, given its obvious and fundamental connection to learning and education. That’s starting to change. In the past few years a handful of psychologists have started exploring interest in the laboratory, and they are starting to piece together a theory about this curious emotion.

One of the most striking features of interest is that it’s all over the map: One person’s passion for butterflies is another’s huge yawn, according to psychologist Paul Silvia, who has been exploring interest in his lab at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Interest also comes and goes; a book you found mesmerizing just a few years ago might leave you bored to tears if you tried to reread it today. Silvia has been trying to dissect this unpredictable mental state.

Much of his work involves exposing people to things in the real world that may or may not be interesting: contemporary poetry, abstract and classical artwork, and so forth. In one experiment, for example, he had people read an abstract poem, but some were given a small hint about the poem’s meaning while the others were left on their own. When asked later to rate the poem, those who had been given the hint found the work much more interesting. In a similar experiment, students who had studied a little about art history found a modern art gallery much more engaging than did students with no exposure to art.

Silvia thinks he knows what’s going on in these simple experiments. All of the people in these studies are appraising their experience, trying to make sense of it; that’s basic human nature, we make such appraisals all the time. But as he describes in the February issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, they are sizing up the same experience very differently depending on the knowledge they bring to the event. All of them probably find the poem or artwork to be fresh, complex, mysterious—so they are at least curious enough to look more. That’s the first requirement for interest. But only some find the experience also to be comprehensible. That is, they have just enough knowledge that they believe they can “cope” intellectually with this complex and unexpected event; it’s not totally beyond their ken. The combination of complexity and comprehensibility adds up to genuine interest, and genuine interest cannot exist without both.

At its best, genuine interest becomes fascination becomes absorption becomes enrapture. Psychologists call such intensity "being in the flow,” a state of mind so focused that not even time can intrude on the experience. This sounds awfully like bliss to me, but Silvia is careful to distinguish even intense interest from happiness. Interest motivates people to explore, to seek out novelty, where happiness serves to firm up existing attachments—whether to a favorite restaurant or a favorite person.

Interest and happiness also have different sources, as Silvia showed in another experiment. He had people look at a variety of paintings, including serene landscapes by Claude Monet and the rather disturbing images of Francis Bacon. The subjects rated both their interest in the paintings and their enjoyment, and then Silvia surveyed the range of their emotional reactions to the different works. The paintings that made people happy were simple, positive and calm. But they were consistently more intrigued by the works that they perceived as complicated, strange and upsetting. Interest, in short, requires emotional and mental challenge.

So how do we stay challenged once we have begun to master a topic? Why not just move on to something else and learn a little bit about a lot of things? Well, it appears that interest in self-propelling. Think of it this way: My former colleague has the entire American political landscape burned into his neurons, so he can now perceive subtleties and nuances and contrasts that are completely lost on the rest of us. So intellectual challenge motivates people to become experts, and expertise in turn allows them to stay interested in every new bit of knowledge, even if it’s just a meaningless election in some political backwater somewhere.

For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit “We’re Only Human . . .” at www.psychologicalscience.org/onlyhuman.

posted by Wray Herbert @ 2:32 PM


At 11:25 PM , Blogger Greg said...

This was...well, very interesting indeed! Ask me sometime about how a mild attraction to birds has turned into an obsession....

At 3:35 AM , Blogger ed said...

Put any novel stimulus in with a monkey and he will fiddle with it for as long as he is able to have some kind of effect on it. If it fails to "cooperate" he will move on.
Our perceptual mapping of the world is fundamental to our survival and it is reinforced at each new connection. whether it's a word, a puzzle piece, or new relationship, when we find a good fit we experience meaningfulness. To some degree or other we say "Aha!"

Reinforcement of attention and arousal have been at the core of various psychophysiology models for a longtime.
The old Gestalt notion of one mans foreground being part of another mans background because it corresponds with his own particular configuration of wants, needs, and reinforced memories is still actively and fruitfully being explored.

At 5:44 AM , Blogger Hernan said...

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At 5:56 AM , Blogger Hernan said...


Your bit on the monkey had me thinking about a major difference between humans and other lifeforms. It's when something might fail to "cooperate" with us, we then rely on determination. So interest must be linked with some measure of ambition, perseverance, or an inability to move on. How do you interpret the necessary internal forces a person needs to accomplish something when faced with influences abound?


A friend asked me today if he should study math at the graduate level. Not including anything about certain programs, research topics, or other pre-med preparation methods, I asked him how interested he was in the subject. :) Thanks for another great entry. Please write more- as we frequently enjoy reading your posts. Thanks again.

At 3:13 PM , Blogger aalsbroo said...

I read somewhere that one feature of a good theiry is that it must be interesting. The authro thendescribed interest as being something that disconfirms previous assumpions, but not to the point of obsurdity. Perhaps human being function the same way. Interest piques when stimuli are novel and somewhat different than the information that we already have. But where to go from there....

At 2:06 AM , Blogger ed said...

Hernan, My take is that our emotional state tells the story. Whenever we pursue an objective (object of desire) like catching a green light or avoiding a confrontation, the emotional response we feel, either goads us on or says run away. Anger, fear, depression, enthusiasm, grief: these are all gut level assessments of our odds of attaining our desire, whether in the moment or as a chronic attitude.
But when determination dissolves into determinism (hopelessness) we are presented with the cultural value of engendering hope. People who persist in their faith in their future either are winning over 50% of their chosen daily battles, or they have an intrinsic goal that transcends the present circumstance. At the extremes of war or martyrdom, visions of country or heaven can trump terror.
And yet, the linkage between interest and confidence is also rooted in genetic individual differences. Intelligence, appetite and risk tolerance probably have more to say about the choices we make, the odds of success and how much the average person can take than their belief system.
Hope this isn’t too far off from what you were musing about, but I enjoyed thinking about it.