Summary of Why?

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Renowned astrophysicist and science ambassador Mario Livio considers how nature’s spectacles inspire awe. In wondering what causes that sensation, he provides the fascinating background of two exemplars of insatiable curiosity – Leonardo da Vinci and Richard Feynman. Livio also details leading “theories of curiosity” emerging from today’s research in psychology and brain imaging. Evolutionary theories about curiosity and a discussion of its immense power to overcome oppression round off Livio’s earnest, engaging explorations. Keen “infovores” – those with an appetite for knowledge – will relish his insights.

In this summary, you will learn

  • How neuroscientists and psychologists view the nature of curiosity,
  • How curiosity drives great intellects to make discoveries, and
  • How curiosity arose and thrived as an enlightening trait in humankind.
 

About the Author

Mario Livio is an astrophysicist, popular speaker and the author of six popular science books, including The Golden Ratio, Brilliant Blunders, and Is God a Mathematician? He promotes scientific literacy through his books, social media, interviews, and through public speaking. He has also collaborated in creating classical music compositions inspired by Hubble images.

 

Summary

Asking Why?

Investigating curiosity means delving into psychology, neuroscience and a diversity of other disciplines. As neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux and his team demonstrated, being surprised calls the brain into action. The sympathetic nervous system boosts the heart rate, causing sweating and other symptoms. In the brain, a “fast track” from thalamus to amygdala mediates the emotional reaction to a situation, whereas a “slow track” via the cerebral cortex mediates conscious evaluation. Psychologist Daniel Berlyne found that curiosity runs along two axes. One goes from “perceptual” – in response to novel, surprising stimuli – to “epistemic,” in search of knowledge. The other goes from “specific” – seeking a particular answer – to “diversive,” avoiding boredom. Epistemic curiosity drives quests in science, philosophy and other areas.

Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci exemplified relentless curiosity across many fields. In modern times, Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman showed a similarly diverse, voracious curiosity. Curiosity appears essential for early cognitive development, but it may fade with age. Historian Giorgio Vasari extolled...


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