With appointments in the Departments of Bioengineering and Electrical and Systems Engineering, as well as the Department of Physics and Astronomy in Penn Arts & Science, and the Departments of Neuroscience and Psychiatry in Penn Perelman’s School of Medicine, Dani S. Bassett is no stranger to following the thread of an idea, no matter where it might lead.
Those wide-ranging fields and disciplines orbit around an appropriate central question: how does the tangle of neurons in our brains wire itself up to learn new things? Bassett, J. Peter Skirkanich Professor and director of the Complex Systems Lab, studies the relationship between the shape of those networks of neurons and the brain’s abilities, especially the way the shape of the network grows and changes with the addition of new knowledge.
To get at the fundamentals of the question of curiosity, Bassett needed to draw on even more disciplines. Fortunately, they didn’t have to look far; Bassett’s identical twin is Perry Zurn, a professor of philosophy at American University, and the two have investigated the many different ways a person can exhibit curiosity.
Bassett and Zurn have now published a new book on the subject. In Curious Minds: The Power of Connection, the twins draw on their previous research, as well as an expansive network of ideas from philosophy, history, education and art.
“It wasn’t clear at the beginning of our careers that we would even ever have a chance to write a book together because our areas were so wildly different,” Bassett says – but then, as postgraduates, Zurn was studying the philosophy of curiosity while Bassett was working on the neuroscience of learning. “And so that’s when we started talking. That talking led to seven years of doing research together,” Bassett says. “This book is a culmination of that.”
How exactly do philosophy and neuroscience complement each other? It all starts with the book’s first, and most deceptively simple question: what is curiosity? “Several investigators in science have underscored that perhaps the field isn’t even ready to define curiosity and how it’s different from other cognitive processes,” says Bassett. The ambiguity in the neuroscience literature motivated Bassett to turn to philosophy, “where there are really rich historical definitions and styles and subtypes that we can then put back into neuroscience and ask: ‘Can we see these in the brain?’”
Now, in her latest exhibition, Kamen has created a series of pieces that highlight how the creative processes in art and science are interconnected. In “Reveal: The Art of Reimagining Scientific Discovery,” Kamen chronicles her own artistic process while providing a space for self-reflection that enables viewers to see the relationship between science, art, and their own creativity.
“Reveal: The Art of Reimagining Scientific Discovery,” presented by the Alper Initiative for Washington Art and curated by Sarah Tanguy, is on display at the American University Museum in Washington, D.C., until Dec. 12.
The exhbition catalog, which includes an essay on “Radicle Curiosity” by Perry Zurn and Dani S. Bassett, can be viewed online.
Curiosity has been found to play a role in our learning and emotional well-being, but due to the open-ended nature of how curiosity is actually practiced, measuring it is challenging. Psychological studies have attempted to gauge participants’ curiosity through their engagement in specific activities, such as asking questions, playing trivia games, and gossiping. However, such methods focus on quantifying a person’s curiosity rather than understanding the different ways it can be expressed.
Efforts to better understand what curiosity actually looks like for different people have underappreciated roots in the field of philosophy. Varying styles have been described with loose archetypes, like “hunter” and “busybody” — evocative, but hard to objectively measure when it comes to studying how people collect new information.
A new study led by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, the Annenberg School for Communication, and the Department of Philosophy and Religion at American University, uses Wikipedia browsing as a method for describing curiosity styles. Using a branch of mathematics known as graph theory, their analysis of curiosity opens doors for using it as a tool to improve learning and life satisfaction.
The interdisciplinary study, published in Nature Human Behavior, was undertaken by Danielle Bassett, J. Peter Skirkanich Professor in Penn Engineering’s Departments of Bioengineering and Electrical and Systems Engineering, David Lydon-Staley, then a post-doctoral fellow in her lab, now an assistant professor in the Annenberg School of Communication, two members of Bassett’s Complex Systems Lab, graduate student Dale Zhou and postdoctoral fellow Ann Sizemore Blevins, and Perry Zurn, assistant professor from American University’s Department of Philosophy.
“The reason this paper exists is because of the participation of many people from different fields,” says Lydon-Staley. “Perry has been researching curiosity in novel ways that show the spectrum of curious practice and Dani has been using networks to describe form and function in many different systems. My background in human behavior allowed me to design and conduct a study linking the styles of curiosity to a measurable activity: Wikipedia searches.”
Zurn’s research on how different people express curiosity provided a framework for the study.
Featured on a recent episode of “Choosing to be Curious” on WERA 96.7 Radio Arlington, Bassett discussed her work in studying curiosity and the potential neural mechanisms behind it. In her work, Bassett strives to re-conceptualize curiosity itself, defining it as not just seeking new bits information, but striving to understand the path through which those bits are connected.
Bassett is a pioneering researcher in the field of network science and how its tools can be applied to understand the brain. Now, Bassett and her research team are using the tools of network science and complex systems theory to uncover what common styles of curiosity people share and how individual styles differ. In addition, the team is exploring if there are canonical types of curiosity among humans or if each person’s curiosity architecture is unique.
This isn’t the first time Bassett has combined the tools of disparate fields to pursue her research. For as long as she can remember, Bassett has been insatiably curious and, while she was homeschooled as a child, she often wandered from one subject to the next and let her own interest guide her path. For Bassett, studying curiosity with the tools of physical, biology, and engineering is a natural step in her research journey.
In her interview with host Lynn Borton, Bassett says:
“What took me to curiosity is the observation that there’s a problem in defining the ways in which we search for knowledge. And that perhaps the understanding of curiosity could be benefitted by a scientific and mathematical approach. And that maybe the tools and conceptions that we have in mathematics and physics and other areas of science are useful for understanding curiosity. Which most people would consider to be more in the world of the humanities than the sciences….“Part of what I’m hoping to do is to illustrate that there are connections between disciplines that seem completely separate. Sometimes some of the best ideas in science are inspired not by a scientific result but by something else.”
Do not stop to think about the reasons for what you are doing, about why you are questioning. The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reasons for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day. Never lose a holy curiosity.
This haunting passage prompts a series of difficult questions. Should we ever worry about where our curiosity goes? Is it true that curiosity is an end in itself? Or, are its justifications so obvious to us as to go unquestioned? Have we lost our sense of mystery? What makes curiosity holy? Einstein himself did not study curiosity, nor could he revolutionize the field of curiosity studies, which is just coming into its own today. But he does capture the compulsion of curiosity and its tantalizing promise.
The Center for Curiosity was established in New York in 2014 by Kushal Sacheti, a diamond merchant who was formerly an engineer. Its mission is to advance both the academic study of curiosity and the public practice of curiosity. A year after its founding, the first of its satellite centers was established at the University of Pennsylvania, in the School for Social Policy and Practice, under the leadership of Dean John Jackson, Jr. It is here that Mr. Sacheti’s dream of uniting engineering and curiosity came alive.
Given her work on the network neuroscience of human learning, Dr. Danielle Bassett, Associate Professor of Bioengineering, was one of the first faculty spotlighted in Penn’s Center for Curiosity seminar series. Her talk, “Flexible Brain Network Dynamics During Learning,” so perfectly represented the Center’s mission that she was quickly appointed to its advisory board. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Bassett invited the Center’s two postdoctoral fellows, Dr. Arjun Shankar and Dr. Perry Zurn, to lead curiosity workshops at the 2016 Penn Network Visualization program. This program provides young artists the opportunity to understand and creatively reimagine network science. Dr. Zurn’s seminar on structural models of curiosity, coupled with Dr. Shankar’s workshop on the affective elements of curiosity, inspired program fellows to explore curiosity not only in network science, but also in their own artistic praxis.
Behind Dr. Bassett’s Network Visualization program is a passion for thinking between the arts and sciences and a conviction that they are richer enterprises together. An even broader commitment to interdisciplinarity energizes Penn’s Center for Curiosity. Last December, Drs. Zurn and Shankar organized the Curiosity Across the Disciplines symposium. This day-long event explored the concept of curiosity across major academic disciplines (history, medicine, ecology, neuroscience, psychology, education, anthropology, comparative literature, ethnic studies, political philosophy, and film). As presenters (including Dr. Bassett) reflected on their fields’ contributions to curiosity studies, as well as the role of curiosity in their own scholarship, a deeper, shared conversation emerged about how curiosity can help us to collectively navigate the scientific, educational, and political challenges of our times.
The collaboration between Penn’s Center for Curiosity and the Department of Bioengineering has really only begun. This fall, Drs. Zurn and Bassett are co-organizing a symposium on The Network Neuroscience of Curiosity. Speakers will include Dr. Danielle Bassett, Dr. David Danks (Carnegie Mellon University), Dr. Jacqueline Gottlieb (Columbia University), and Dr. Celeste Kidd (University of Rochester). And, as a long-term project, they have started a conversation about reinvigorating the Bioengineering curriculum with an emphasis on student curiosity and creativity. Sharing Penn’s commitment to community outreach, moreover, the Center for Curiosity and Department of Bioengineering are also in conversation with Westtown School about building an art- and science-centered curiosity initiative there.
If indeed one cannot help but be curious about life and its mysterious design, that journey is perhaps best undertaken together—Einstein’s fabled solipsism notwithstanding. This exciting new partnership at Penn is yet another step in that direction.
1 Albert Einstein, Statement to William Miller, as quoted in LIFE magazine (2 May 1955); reprinted in Joseph S. Willis, Finding Faith in the Face of Doubt: A Guide for Contemporary Seekers (Quest Books, 2001), 58; and William Hermanns, Einstein and the Poet: In Search of the Cosmic Man (1983; Brandon Books, 2013), 138.
One can easily see that many of the world’s greatest challenges — producing enough food for the world population, providing each person with a set of fundamental human rights, or creating a sustainable environmental footprint as our societies move forward — must tap into two uniquely human traits: creativity and curiosity. In the fields of science and engineering, one can look at history and easily find creative and curious pioneers who ranged from Leonardo de Vinci (pioneered the field of human physiology), Grace Hopper (invented computer compilers), and Sir James Dyson (brought elegance to common household tools – the vacuum cleaner, the fan, the hand dryer, and the hair dryer).
Although we can look around and identify creative people, a natural question would be: What events in these individuals’ lives led to this creativity? We may see people around us who are creative and curious, but we often simply shrug and say ,“Wow, pretty ingenious person there.” Maybe we even think of this with a bit of yearning: “Boy, I wish I could think of things like that.” We often make the observation and get back to our daily lives, accepting that creative people are born or “just happen.” In other words, we are either struck by lightning, or we are not. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Creative and curious people are not genetically wired differently than others. Curiosity and creativity are not rare skills conferred by serendipity. Instead, creative and curious people have benefited from mentors who pushed them to ask “Why?” at the right time in their lives: perhaps being in the right science class with the right teacher in middle school or reading a novel that made them imagine a world they could not see.
What does all of this have to do with engineering? Well, some research suggests that many U.S. engineering undergraduates are weaker than their international counterparts in divergent and convergent thinking, which are two critical ingredients for creativity. These two thinking modalities may be propelled by different sorts of curiosity. Assessment tests for creative thinking traits often measure the ability to synthesize ideas, observations, and other information to make something new. From many possibilities, only one emerges as the ideal solution. This process is generally referred to as convergent thinking. A second creativity trait is the raw ability to generate ideas, given a particular problem. For example, one could be asked to generate as many possible uses of a brick that one can think of, and the resulting ideas are scored — both in terms of the number of ideas generated and the distinctiveness of each idea separately. This assessment, known as the alternative use test, measures divergent thinking. Ideally, engineers would have high ability in both divergent and convergent thinking, which would mean that they could both think of many possible solutions and pick the best among them. However, one study performed almost a decade ago showed that half of the engineering undergraduates in the U.S. showed deficiencies in both convergent and divergent thinking — troubling, to say the least.
However, all is not lost. Many changes have occurred over the last decade for engineering education in the U.S. We embraced the laboratory as a platform for problem-based learning, which cultivates the ideation phase of creativity and the convergence to a solution. We have also ‘tipped’ and ‘flipped’ the classroom to introduce more methods of open-ended problems as teaching tools, again using this change to reinforce that there are many ways and, rarely, one best way to solve a particular problem.
Yet with all of these very positive changes, we still don’t have a good road map for how ideas form in the mind, how we trade off one idea versus another, and how we decide which is the best idea. Our tools for creativity are based on countless efforts to try different methods, measure whether they have an effect, and take the most successful empirical methods and transform them into practice. Until recently, we had no idea what was going on in the mind during the creative process.
Fortunately, we now have ways to both interrogate and model how the mind works when we think and create. Inspired by the principle that blood flow will increase to areas of the brain with high neural activity (side note: the brain is a remarkable energy hog for the body, representing less than 3% of body mass but consuming nearly 20% of its energy resources), researchers are measuring how flow to different areas of the brain change when people are asked to perform specific tasks. Early work showed these beautiful, color-coded images of how one task would increase blood flow to one area, while another task would increase blood flow to a different area.
Patterns of connectivity in the brain can be represented as
dynamic networks, which change in their configuration as
humans change mental states or cognitive processes while
performing a task.
However, scientists began to realize, that instead of looking at one pattern of brain activation at one time, we needed to study how the pattern changed over time. Analyzing these changes over time allowed us to estimate the brain areas that activated simultaneously with another during a mental task. If they activated together frequently, we assumed that they would have a functional connectivity between them. Simply put, areas that fire together are wired together, metaphorically speaking. Very quickly, we saw maps of the brain’s own functional network emerge when volunteers would work on math problems, navigate a maze, and even when they were asked to just daydream.
Where does this lead us? Well, we stand on the cusp of learning and predicting the coordinated steps that our mind takes when we imagine different ideas and pick one as ‘the best.’ Not only can we map this process in real time, but we can also develop new theories about how to ‘steer’ from one brain network state to another. We can also apply this new knowledge to individuals on a case-by-case basis, rather than relying on the one-size-fits-all approach that is the current and common practice in cultivating divergent and convergent thinking. In practice, this means that we would move away from prescribing the same creativity training exercise for everyone — with a large variation in the results — to a far more customized, efficient cognitive exercise. In fact, we could directly test the possibility that some of these exercises work for some people and not others because of an individual’s brain wiring map. Science fiction? Nope, just modern day bioengineering at work.