Sparking Curiosity

One of the principle objectives of the Europe Global Grand Central project is: To transform perceptions of border crossings from suspicion into curiosity.

What do we mean by border crossings?

We define these in two ways.

First, a border crossing can be an activity that an artist or cultural center performs to reveal, investigate, or transform a situation within a community or place.  The situation is described in terms of a border.  For example, Charbel Samuel Aoun’s activity investigates the border between the psychological and the cultural by delivering experiences of women living in the same town, but from different cultural backgrounds through an apparatus of talking road signs.

Second, a border crossing can be a story of a border shared by participants in the activities or visitors to the website.  These stories center around an experience of a border, defined as anything that can be framed with a from and a to.  There are no conditions on the perception of a border.  It may be the limits of space, time, or mind.  Maybe you experienced a border by crossing it with your body.  Maybe you experienced a border by seeing it, but not crossing it.  Anything is valid as long as it can be defined the same way: as having a from state and a to state.

What do we mean by curiosity?

It is a curious word, curiosity.  A word from the 14th Century meaning “a desire to know or learn.” It carried a negative connotation until the 17th Century.  Daniel Berlyne, a 20th Century Canadian psychologist made curiosity the subject of investigation.

Berlyne identified two categories of curiosity: perceptual curiosity and epistemic curiosity.  Perceptual curiosity he described as a “drive reducible by sensory-inspection.”  In other words, a quick Google search may satisfy a desire to know why a stop sign is octagonal.

On the other hand, he described epistemic curiosity as a “drive reducible by knowledge-rehearsal.”  A simple Google search will not satisfy this kind of curiosity.  Instead, it requires a modicum of patience and a deliberate and perhaps repetitive application of an investigative method.  The communication theorist Gavin Ambrose described this kind of curiosity as a deeper search for answers that takes time and understanding.

While more recent work considers the role of personality traits in the experience of curiosity, we are interested in the potential of evoking and leveraging common emotional-motivational states to broker an experience of perceptual curiosity that leads to deeper epistemic curiosity for our users.

Mind the gap.

Can curiosity be measured? (or how to spark curiosity?)

Neuroscientists have studied the sequence of brain activity in parts of the brain that signal arousal, discomfort, and reward to measure perceptual curiosity.

Seeking to understand the relation of perceptual curiosity on brain activity, researchers presented their research participants with a series of image couplets while scanning their brains. The subject and condition of the image couplets would vary.  The first could be a blurry image of a subject followed by a clear image of the same subject or of a completely different subject. Figure 1 illustrates the sets of image couplets that were presented to participants. 

Participants demonstrated increased brain activity where a blurry image preceded a clear image of the same subject (B-C corresponding in Figure 1).  The increased neural activity indicated that “brain activation [is] associated with the relief of perceptual uncertainty.” 1 In other words, the condition for curiosity is dependent on the potential for it to be resolved. Piqued interest without resolution isn’t curiosity.

Also, the condition for the interest in the first place will be vague and uncertain familiarity with the subject. This confirms Berlyne’s theory that “patterns will be most curiosity-arousing at an intermediate stage of familiarity.” 2 Curiosity is achieved when the image is vaguely familiar and in time resolves into full clarity.

Figure 1. Most significant brain activity corresponded with image sequence where blurry image preceded image of the same subject (Blurry-Clear corresponding).

Our aim is to mobilize the cycle of perceptual curiosity to support long term epistemic curiosity. For our purposes, the framework for establishing some familiarity is through categorization of experiences and activities by borders, their qualities, and attributes.

Figure 2

A user exploring experiences of borders can come into greater clarity of these experiences by navigating along the lines of their categorization. An experience of the Syria > Turkey border is recorded as important making it relatable across geographic and linguistic contexts to an experience of the “remaining in grief” > “open up to life and joy again” border (illustrated in Figure 2).

[success — failure in activities]

Operationalizing measures

We are interested in the potential for establishing behavioral measure for curiosity. On the evaluation front, we’ve defined a few goals for Google Analytics to track and operationalize our objective to measure curiosity. The goals we are currently tracking are:

Activity filterer – someone that has applied a filter on the activity pages.
Story filterer – someone that has applied a filter on the bordr story pages.
Lingerer – someone that has spent 20 minutes or more on the website.
Explorer – someone that has visited 10 or more pages anywhere on the site
Guest story teller – someone without an account that has posted a story
User story teller – someone with an account on the site that has posted a story

Activity filterer

7% conversion rate between Feb 1 and March 31st. Top filter categories by country: France & Lebanon. Top filter categories by method: archiving & exhibitions. Top filter categories by hub: Kulturzentrum Schlachthof & Ryo Ikeshiro.

Story filterer

0% conversion rate between Feb 1 and March 31st.


13% conversion rate between Feb 1 and March 31st. Most ending up on the stories listing page and the home page when they have spent 20 minutes or more on the website.


1 Jepma, Marieke et al. “Neural Mechanisms Underlying the Induction and Relief of Perceptual Curiosity.” Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience 6 (2012): 5. PMC. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.
2 Berlyne, D. E., A theory of human curiosity, British Journal of Psychology, 45:3 (1954:Aug.)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.