Why we learn

December 13, 2019

Exploring the need, importance and drive in human beings to stay curious

We are born. 

At the age of two or three, most of us with the means, enrol in school. Later, we attend college.

The average human life works this way. 

But why is it that we follow this pattern? Why do we seek out an education? And why is education even essential? Most of us spend entire lifetimes without ever pausing to contemplate why we learn. What is the need, why is it important? Is it only a social construct or is it fulfilling a deeper need? 

The innate need to discover and understand the world around oneself is a primitive one as old as time. We, as a race, were born curious. Whether you believe in the Adam-and-Eve version of humanity or have a scientific approach, our ancestors were curious. They reacted to the stimuli of the world around them. They pricked and prodded, bit into famed apples, fought wild animals, explored the lay of the land, procreated, found fire, grew crops, built the wheel and… you know the rest of the story. 

But, we didn’t stop there. Even though we tricked nature to let us survive as a species, we still stayed curious. We explored and discovered new lands and established governments. We dug deep into the earth and uncovered useful, shiny, exciting new minerals. Curious, we threw elements together and watched them forge into something new. We built machines and managed to find a way to light up the world even when it was dark without burning wood. We fashioned new ways to bridge gaps and travel from one place to another in a multitude of ways. We harnessed the wind, water and space to propel our lives and our need to know how our lives began. We replicated the world around us and stilled it through rhyme, paint and words and created art. Sometimes, we even gossiped about our neighbours or headline-makers around the world. 

So what prompted this need to stay curious? And once we mastered our surroundings, what made us continue learning? 

Let’s explore the science behind the human need to stay hungry and curious.

Evolutionary curiosity: Survival of the fittest

As we grew as a society, our need to learn increased. Under harsh conditions, only the fittest survived. And fitness meant not a state of the body, but also of the mind. We needed to trick the elements into being favourable. We needed new ways to protect ourselves from dangers and darkness. The fundamental need to stay alive and evolve laid the foundation stone to learning. 

Perceptual and epistemic curiosity

Scientists have found two types of curiosity driving our instincts. The first is perceptual curiosity. Astrophysicist Mario Livio writes in his book, Why? What Makes Us Curious that perceptual curiosity is “what we feel when we see something that surprises or puzzles us or doesn’t match up with something we thought we knew. It is felt like a sort of uneasiness, an unpleasant situation, a bit like an itch you need to scratch.” 

The other, known as epistemic curiosity, comes from our innate love for knowledge and discovery. Livio explains, “Our brain and our mind assigns value to this knowledge, so this is usually experienced as a pleasurable thing, with an anticipation of reward in the form of what we learn. Small children want to understand cause and effect very early on. They somehow grasp that every effect is related to some cause and they want to understand those relations because that helps them to cope with their environment and to make fewer errors in their everyday lives.”

This epistemic curiosity is what helped us survive through time and what we hold strong to till the day we die. Perceptual curiosity diminishes as we grow old and take fewer risks or challenges.

Livio explains. “The love of knowledge stays with us throughout every time, all ages. Even when you are very old, people still are what somebody called ‘infovores’ — they want to devour information.”

Neoteny and how it kept us intelligent

Curiosity originates in our genetic code through a trait called neoteny. Neoteny in humans helps retain juvenile characteristics. Right from less hair on our boy to having a large brain-to-body ratio, being the juvenile species has made us physically weaker. But, it increased our child-like curiosity and capacity to learn. Scientists also attribute neoteny to our capacity to love – our deep need to attach ourselves to others for protection and succour. 

An evolutionary “short-cut”, neoteny helped humans have the lifelong capacity to learn, absorb and think. We are more adaptable to change, prone to get distracted, explore and take risks. Our learning algorithms are deep-rooted to process new information, learn a multitude of things and try new approaches to problem-solving. 

Coping mechanism

Our curiosity also acts as a coping mechanism to deal with our fear of the unknown. We persist and discover data about things we don’t know enough about or that we are afraid of. Our learning, in many ways, minimises our chance of failure when dealing with the unknown. This fear could be specific or generic and either way, our curiosity and the knowledge we gain from it, helps us stay less afraid. 

Reward circuits

Neuroscientist Ethan Bromberg-Martin and Okihide Hikosaka’s study of monkey behaviour proved that the brain’s reward processing system gets activated when seeking new information with a prospect of primary rewards. This goes to show that for a large part, we learn to glean rewards. This could be anything from an immediate primary reward of food, clothing, shelter or companionship to something more intangible and emotional like social standing, prestige, confidence, etc. 

Social learning 

This brings us back to why we learn in schools and colleges. In his paper, The Ecology of Social Learning in Animals and its Link with Intelligence in The Spanish Journal of Psychology, Carel van Schaik elaborates on how animals do learn from social behaviour to build nests or care for the young when they become parents themselves. Animals reared in captivity do not display these traits. 

Human intelligence also evolved by adopting the collective knowledge of the ancestors on everything from agriculture to mining. Our intelligence is social and passed down by our ancestors. Everything from language to culture plays a huge part in what we do in our everyday life. We build schools and colleges as organized ways in which a society can learn together about life on earth as humans. This is also why we need to continue to learn and evolve throughout our life so we can pass on useful information to later generations. 


The urge to learn is innate, evolutionary and social and human beings can never be separated from their curiosity. And so what we need today are not just good learning facilities like schools and colleges to facilitate the initial curiosity, but also ways and means for people to stay lifelong learners.

We hope you enjoyed diving deep into why we learn. If you wish to be a lifelong learner, sign up for the NewCampus membership.