Ideas from science to boost your art: The psychology of curiosity

This is the first post in a series of blogs I’m tentatively calling ‘Ideas from science to help your art’. I’ve been increasingly interested in the science of creativity and storytelling for a while as my own adventures in creativity have developed over time. When I completed a PhD in the psychology of storytelling back in 2009 I was very interested in related work, but I haven’t really had the opportunity to return to that area in my professional life since then as my research career took a number of turns away from it.

Since I completed my film a couple of weeks ago I’ve found I have a bit more head space now, and am planning to write a series of longer blog posts about ideas in science that are related to the creative process and to storytelling. I imagine these posts will be a bit intermittent to begin with, as each post will require more research than I currently indulge in, and it’ll take a bit of time to work out how to fit everything in. But I am looking forward to the challenge or re-engaging with this area.

I came across the first idea I wanted to pick up while listening to ‘The Science of Storytelling’ by Will Storr on Audible (affiliate links – if you use these links to make a purchase I’ll get a tiny commission). I’m a bit of the way through chapter one at the moment and am finding it interesting. He has covered quite a bit of ground that I’m partially familiar with from my own psychology studies, and I think his way of communicating the science is clear and engaging. He has spent some time explaining how none of us truly know what reality is, rather we all live in a virtual simulation constructed in the brain from the information we gain through our five senses. Story is effective in tapping into the process through which we do this to create imaginative simulations.

I was particularly interested in a section he has written about curiosity, in which he draws on the work of George Loewenstien. I’ve not been able to access the papers that Storr references (they don’t appear to be available as open access sources and are expensive to purchase) so what I say here is based on how Storr presents this work, rather than my direct reading of the original science.

In this section Storr explains that curiosity works through the brain’s reward system, so the same bits that respond to cake and wine, creating a desire for answers to questions. He then goes on to describe how good stories incorporate curiosity into their structures. A story poses questions, and then allows answers to unfold slowly over time. He quoted Loewenstien’s paper ‘The Psychology of Curiosity’ to list four ways in which it is possible to induce curiosity:

  1. The posing of questions or the presentation of puzzles
  2. Exposing someone to a sequence of events that have an anticipated, but unknown resolution
  3. Violating a person’s expectations of something, causing them to search for an explanation
  4. Knowing that someone else of possesses information that you don’t have

He then goes on to describe how this is also the basic structure of any good crime drama. The harnessing of natural human curiosity is essential to making this genre of stories, and many others, work.

I found this section of the book very helpful. I don’t think I am always that good at posing questions in my own fiction writing, which may be why I have struggled to progress with my new draft of Feeding Jasmine Valentine, my WIP. As a mechanism for hooking readers in, this use of curiosity is effective.

But I also think that understanding how curiosity works is helpful for the creative process, for writing or making art. An unanswered question can drive a writer or an artist as much as it can a reader. Many of my own scenes or mini projects start with “why is that like that?” Or “why did X do Y?” questions, and from there the process of writing is also a process of discovery.

Thank you for reading. I also write, make art and films. You can read my short fantasy stories here on Simily. If you are interested in the process of creativity and want to get a copy of my free short book of creative prompts, and to hear more about my writing projects please join my mailing list here. You can see my films at my YouTube channel here. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon page here


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4 thoughts on “Ideas from science to boost your art: The psychology of curiosity

  1. Wonderful idea for a series! I’ve read a little about psychology as a way to help myself write more realistic characters, but trying to understand the psychology of readers? I never thought about that before. That’s brilliant!

    Point #3 is something I’ve been playing with more and more in my writing: trying to set up the reader’s expectations then surprising them somehow. I feel like it’s a pretty effective strategy.


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